I don't remember what age I was when I first learned about the travellers from the future. It seems to me that I must always have known about them – one only has to look out of the window for a few minutes to see a woman in trousers pass by, her hair loose, her legs showing, and, like as not, some sort of futuristic weapon by her side. I do know that my best friend when I was five – in 1915– was born in the year 3025, and I didn't think it more than passingly strange. Certainly they had been a fact of life since long before I was born.
My friend's name was Mary, and I remember her family had ideas that seemed strange to me, although I was later to learn that they were normal in the 31st century. It was from them that I got the idea that women should be able to vote, should have the same rights and freedoms as men, an idea that never left me throughout the trials of my adult life. It seemed to me vastly unfair that I was denied the rights that were so freely given to my brother – and, when I learned in 1941 that we would have had the vote years ago if not for the changes made by the time travellers, it seemed the greatest unfairness of all.
In 1945 I was arrested for protesting that unfairness, and it was in prison that I met Jane. She was my cellmate, and she certainly didn't look like the sort of person you'd expect to meet in prison. She was thin, with shadows under her eyes and a gaunt look to her face, but she had a sort of primness about her that transcended her prison uniform and her windblown hair.
She was sitting on her bed when I entered, staring off into space and wearing her perpetual half-smile, like the whole world was a dark joke that only she got.
I, depressed and irritated, slumped down on the bed opposite. “What'd you do?” I asked, without preamble.
She lifted her eyes to meet mine. “Public indecency,” she said, enunciating each word.
The other side of her lips twisted for a second into a full smile.“Oh, you needn't look at me like that. It was an accident,” she explained.
“An . . . accident?” I said.
“Yep.” She sighed. “I was only trying to change into some more appropriate clothes. People look at you funny if you dress like you're from the future.”
“Ahh,” I said. That explained a lot – I expected people from the future to be strange. Perhaps they didn't have the nudity taboo in whatever distant future she came from.
“Yes, people always say that when I tell them I'm from the future.” She stuck out her hand. “I'm Jane, and I'm from the year 3030.”
I shook her hand. “Nice to meet you. I'm Ann Bleth.” Feeling this required some further explanation, I added, somewhat defiantly, “I was arrested for trying to vote.”
This seemed to upset her, and she slumped back against the wall. “Huh,” she grunted.
“You'd be allowed to vote, in the 31st century!” I protested.
“Yes. But this is 1945, and you aren't,” she snapped, with a strong hint of bitterness in her voice.
That pretty much ended the conversation.
The next time I met her, it was 1946, and the Cold War with the American nations was in full force. I was standing in front of a crowd in the middle of London in my best clothes, giving a speech.
“ – emerged from these medieval restrictions, and yet we, the daughters of the men and women who brought democracy to our country, have not even the most basic right to self-government! Let us only be free from the ancient chains that hold us back, and we will prove ourselves their equals in every way.”
There was applause, and I smiled triumphantly.
A hand caught my arm as I left the crowd behind, and I turned around suddenly, nervous.
Jane stood behind me – wearing a modern tunic and corset this time, I noted. Apparently she had not been arrested in the process, as it were, this time.
“Why do you do it?” she asked me.
“Do what?” I asked in return, although I had some idea of the answer.
“All of this.” She waved a hand at the crowd of women, at the stage, at me.
“Because we should have all the rights that men have,” I said. “It isn't fair for us to be deprived of the right to influence decisions that will affect us.”
That bitter half-grin returned. “I don't disagree. But it won't make any difference, you know. You can't change the past.”
“This isn't the past,” I said, not understanding.
“This is 1946. It'll be 1975 before women have the right to vote in Britain.”
“And once, women gained the right to vote long ago,” I said. “It was changed once. Why not again?”
She laughed. “Because the laws of physics don't work that way.”
“That's no sort of answer,” I said. I shook her hand off and unlocked my car. I had the keys in the ignition and one hand on the wheel before she spoke up.
“It will be changed, one day. But you and I will never experience it. See, there are five dimensions.” She leaned against my car and counted off on her fingers. “X, y, and z – the three dimensions of space – time, and a fifth dimension, v. V is the dimension in which changes to the timeline occur. Say I travel back in time and prevent the PM's parents from ever meeting. Once I've done that, the changes to every part of the timeline after that day will be instantaneous – in fact, things will always have been that way. But it will take several 'seconds' for the change to take effect in dimension v. And our entire timeline, the one we're experiencing right now, the entire forty-four thousand years of time that is humanity's lifespan, exists in its present state for only one instant in v. Once that instant passes, we will be different people with different lives, and only the faintest, fragmented memories of the people we are now. People will never stop making changes to the timeline, and since all those changes occur simultaneously in time, there must be a fifth dimension. If you somehow managed to change history, those changes would only take effect for some other version of you.” She laughed, again, even though she'd been staring at me intently and quite seriously all throughout this speech. “It's what keeps us from tearing the universe apart with our constant meddling.”
I stared at her for a long moment. “Then why do anything?”
She nodded. “Indeed. Why?”
“Do you think this is going to make me give up my work?”
“Maybe. No. No, you won't give up your work, because history says you don't.”
“Then why tell me all this, if you already know the outcome?”
She stared at me silently for a moment. “Because I want you to tell me why.”
“Why . . .?”
“Why you keep on going even though it doesn't mean anything.”
I shook my head. “I don't know why I do it. I just know that I have to, or else why does anything matter?” I turned the key in the ignition. “Thank you, though. You've given me a lot to think about. Maybe one day I'll have your answer.”
I didn't meet her again until 1948. I was standing in the rain at my brother's grave, long after the rest of the funeral guests had dissipated.
“You're still going to keep going,” said Jane.
I turned around to find her sitting on one of the gravestones, watching me quietly.
“Sometimes it seems impossible,” I said, tiredly. “My brother died last week. A heart attack – there was no long illness, no warning. If they'd recognized that he had a weak heart, they could have saved him, maybe.” I closed my eyes. “Why am I talking to you, anyway?”
“Because I'm here, I suppose,” she said.
We sat there in silence for a long time.
“Do you know why we're here?” she asked, finally.
“Is this a philosophical question?”
She laughed. “No. I mean, do you know why we travellers from 3030 A.D. are here in the twentieth century? Surely you must have noticed that's when most of us are from.”
I shrugged. “I assumed that was when time travel was invented.”
“Partly right. But, then, why do you never see travellers from, say, 3040, or 3050, or 4000?”
“You seem to have all the answers,” I said, with something of her own constant bitterness in my voice. “You tell me.”
“It's because the world ends in 3030,” she said, calmly and without fanfare. I stared at her.
“The world ends. The Earth, the sun, the whole solar system, all sucked into one gigantic black hole.” She rubbed a hand over her forehead. “How long does that make? Forty thousand, forty-four thousand years of human existence? And once we've reached the end of them, there's nothing left for us to do but to relive the glories of past ages. We fled the thirty-first century – scattered across forty-four thousand years, changing human history willy-nilly.”
I sat in shocked silence.
“Do you have your answer yet?” she said, suddenly.
“Why do you do this? Why do you keep on with what you're doing, when your entire life is predetermined anyway?”
I shut my eyes in exhaustion and pain. “Why do you want these answers so desperately? Why from me?”
“Because you never give up. You'll be fighting for what you believe until the day that you die, and I want to understand why.”
“What is this, then? Why are you doing this? There are millions of people who came from 3030, and they're not all following twentieth century civil rights activists around for answers. Why can't you just accept life like the rest of them and leave me alone?” My voice had become almost petulant from the stress.
She watched me with dark eyes. “Do you really want to know?”
I shrugged. “Why not?”
“Because this is my fault. All of it. I invented time travel. I shattered the timeline into pieces, so that you have a cell phone in your pocket right now in 1948, and so did your mother, and her mother, and her mother before that. I am the reason why you couldn't vote in the last election. I am the reason that the atom bomb has existed since time out of mind.” She laughed. “'I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.' Except that doesn't mean anything to you. It probably wouldn't make sense to anyone else but me, either – no-one else has more than the vaguest shadows of memory of the world before time travel. No-one else even knows where the technology came from, that it didn't just appear out of nowhere. It came from outside our little forty-thousand-year-long time loop. From me.”
It was my turn to stare at her, blankly.
“So tell me, Ms. Ann Belth. What's the point of anything in this brave new world I've created? Why do you keep on?”
“Right now? Right now I don't want to keep on.” My voice was shaking. “Right now I don't want to hear about the end of the world. Right now I don't want to hear about your identity crisis, or whatever this is. Right now, I don't want my my brother to be dead. Right now – ” And I broke down crying, all the tears I'd been holding in throughout the funeral, for fear they'd think me weak, think my weakness proved me wrong.
Jane reached out to put a hand on my shoulder. She looked a little bit embarrassed, and very much ashamed. “I'm sorry. I didn't think.”
“R-right now, Jane, I want – I want to be left alone.”
“I'm sorry,” she said again, helplessly, and when I looked up again, she was gone.
It's 1950, the start of a new decade, and I'm drinking a solitary toast to the new year, watching the brightly coloured fireworks and streamers on my television. My brother has been dead for two years. The Cold War has ended, and the looming threat of nuclear war with America has lessened.
I still cannot vote.
This time, she knocks on my door, and when I answer it, I find her still soaked from the rain at my brother's funeral.
“How are you?” she asks. She seems concerned. I consider the question.
“At peace, I think. Resolved. I still haven't given up – I'm giving a speech at the Centre for Women's Rights down the road in about five minutes.”
She smiles crookedly. “I know.”
“How are you?” I ask. I've only met her three times, but I think of her as a sort of friend, this mysterious woman with no last name.
“Same as ever,” she says, with a particularly bitter twist to her smile. “Which is to say depressed, cynical, and pessimistic.”
I laugh and lean against the door. “I have the answer to your question now.”
“You do?” She looks at me expectantly.
“In 1972 my cause will win. If I didn't do what I do now, if I wasn't the person who would do this, if this wasn't the world where I never gave up, then maybe it wouldn't be until 1974, or perhaps never. I can't change what I do, but what I do makes a difference. Does that help?”
She considers this. “Maybe. Thank you anyway.” She's still waiting and watching.
I nod, at a bit of a loss. My answer doesn't sound worth the years it took me to arrive at it. “Well, if that's all, I have a speech to give.”
She watches me as I pull on my cloak and do my hair, and then, as I step out the door, she says, “You're going to die.”
“January 1st, 1950, 5:00. This is the day you die. You're going to walk out that door and be hit by a drunk driver. It'll be quick. You'll hardly suffer. But you're going to die nonetheless, and it's going to be my fault. In the other timeline, you survived.”
I shut my eyes, and take a deep breath, and in that moment, I realize what she wants from me. “I forgive you,” I say, quietly, and I hear her let out a breath of relief.
“Thank you,” she says, again, and this time she sounds like she means it.
I nod, not looking at her. “You're welcome,” I say, and then I step out the door, into the bright morning sunlight of the new year.