NEEDLE IN A TIMESTACK
Robert Silverberg is an American writer widely known for his science fiction and fantasy stories. He is a many-time winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, was named to the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1999, and in 2004 was designated a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America. His books and stories have been translated into forty languages. Among his best-known titles are Nightwings, Dying Inside, The Book of Skulls, and the three volumes of the Majipoor Cycle: Lord Valentine’s Castle, Majipoor Chronicles, and Valentine Pontifex. His collected short stories, covering nearly sixty years of work, have been published in nine volumes by Subterranean Press. His attraction to the time travel theme is most notable in his novel-length work in books such as Hawksbill Station, House of Bones, and Up the Line. This story was originally published in Playboy in June of 1983.
Between one moment and the next the taste of cotton came into his mouth, and Mikkelsen knew that Tommy Hambleton had been tinkering with his past again. The cotton-in-the-mouth sensation was the standard tip-off for Mikkelsen. For other people it might be a ringing in the ears, a tremor of the little finger, a tightness in the shoulders. Whatever the symptom, it always meant the same thing: your time-track has been meddled with, your life has been retroactively transformed. It happened all the time. One of the little annoyances of modern life, everyone always said. Generally, the changes didn’t amount to much.
But Tommy Hambleton was out to destroy Mikkelsen’s marriage, or, more accurately, he was determined to unhappen it altogether, and that went beyond Mikkelsen’s limits of tolerance. In something close to panic he phoned home to find out if he still had Janine.
Her lovely features blossomed on the screen – glossy dark hair, elegant cheekbones, cool sardonic eyes. She looked tense and strained, and Mikkelsen knew she had felt the backlash of this latest attempt too.
“Nick?” she said. “Is it a phasing?”
“I think so. Tommy’s taken another whack at us, and Christ only knows how much chaos he’s caused this time.”
“Let’s run through everything.”
“All right,” Mikkelsen said. “What’s your name?”
“Nick. Nicholas Perry Mikkelsen. You see? Nothing important has changed.”
“Are you married?”
“Yes, of course, darling. To you.”
“Keep going. What’s our address?”
“11 Lantana Crescent.”
“Do we have children?”
“Dana and Elise. Dana’s five, Elise is three. Our cat’s name is Minibelle, and—”
“Okay,” Mikkelsen said, relieved. “That much checks out. But I tasted the cotton, Janine. Where has he done it to us this time? What’s been changed?”
“It can’t be anything major, love. We’ll find it if we keep checking. Just stay calm.”
“Calm. Yes.” He closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. The little annoyances of modern life, he thought. In the old days, when time was just a linear flow from then to now, did anyone get bored with all that stability? For better or for worse it was different now. You go to bed a Dartmouth man and wake up Columbia, never the wiser. You board a plane that blows up over Cyprus, but then your insurance agent goes back and gets you to miss the flight. In the new fluid way of life there was always a second chance, a third, a fourth, now that the past was open to anyone with the price of a ticket. But what good is any of that, Mikkelsen wondered, if Tommy Hambleton can use it to disappear me and marry Janine again himself?
They punched for readouts and checked all their vital data against what they remembered. When your past is altered through time-phasing, all records of your life are automatically altered too, of course, but there’s a period of two or three hours when memories of your previous existence still linger in your brain, like the phantom twitches of an amputated limb. They checked the date of Mikkelsen’s birth, parents’ names, his nine genetic coordinates, his educational record. Everything seemed right. But when they got to their wedding date the readout said 8 Feb 2017, and Mikkelsen heard warning chimes in his mind. “I remember a summer wedding,” he said. “Outdoors in Dan Levy’s garden, the hills all dry and brown, the 24th of August.”
“So do I, Nick. The hills wouldn’t have been brown in February. But I can see it – that hot dusty day—”
“Then five months of our marriage are gone, Janine. He couldn’t unmarry us altogether, but he managed to hold us up from summer to winter.” Rage made his head spin, and he had to ask his desk for a quick buzz of tranks. Etiquette called for one to be cool about a phasing. But he couldn’t be cool when the phasing was a deliberate and malevolent blow at the center of his life. He wanted to shout, to break things, to kick Tommy Hambleton’s ass. He wanted his marriage left alone. He said, “You know what I’m going to do one of these days? I’m going to go back about fifty years and eradicate Tommy completely. Just arrange things so his parents never get to meet, and—”
“No, Nick. You mustn’t.”
“I know. But I’d love to.” He knew he couldn’t, and not just because it would be murder. It was essential that Tommy Hambleton be born and grow up and meet Janine and marry her, so that when the marriage came apart she would meet and marry Mikkelsen. If he changed Hambleton’s past, he would change hers too, and if he changed hers, he would change his own, and anything might happen. Anything. But all the same he was furious. “Five months of our past, Janine—”
“We don’t need them, love. Keeping the present and the future safe is the main priority. By tomorrow we’ll always think we were married in February of 2017, and it won’t matter. Promise me you won’t try to phase him.”
“I hate the idea that he can simply—”
“So do I. But I want you to promise you’ll leave things as they are.”
“All right,” he said. “I promise.”
* * *
Little phasings happened all the time. Someone in Illinois makes a trip to eleventh-century Arizona and sets up tiny ripple currents in time that have a tangential and peripheral effect on a lot of lives, and someone in California finds himself driving a silver BMW instead of a gray Toyota. No one minded trifling changes like that. But this was the third time in the last twelve months, so far as Mikkelsen was able to tell, that Tommy Hambleton had committed a deliberate phasing intended to break the chain of events that had brought about Mikkelsen’s marriage to Janine.
The first phasing happened on a splendid spring day – coming home from work, sudden taste of cotton in mouth, sense of mysterious disorientation. Mikkelsen walked down the steps looking for his old ginger tomcat, Gus, who always ran out to greet him as though he thought he was a dog. No Gus. Instead a calico female, very pregnant, sitting placidly in the front hall.
“Where’s Gus?” Mikkelsen asked Janine.
“Gus? Gus who?”
“You mean Max?”
“Gus,” he said. “Sort of orange, crooked tail—”
“That’s right. But Max is his name. I’m sure it’s Max. He must be around somewhere. Look, here’s Minibelle.” Janine knelt and stroked the fat calico. “Minibelle, where’s Max?”
“Gus,” Mikkelsen said. “Not Max. And who’s this Minibelle?”
“She’s our cat, Nick,” Janine said, sounding surprised. They stared at each other.
“Something’s happened, Nick.”
“I think we’ve been time-phased,” he said.
Sensation as of dropping through trapdoor – shock, confusion, terror. Followed by hasty and scary inventory of basic life-data to see what had changed. Everything appeared in order except for the switch of cats. He didn’t remember having a female calico. Neither did Janine, although she had accepted the presence of the cat without surprise. As for Gus – Max – he was getting foggier about his name, and Janine couldn’t even remember what he looked like. But she did recall that he had been a wedding gift from some close friend, and Mikkelsen remembered that the friend was Gus Stark, for whom they had named him, and Janine was then able to dredge up the dimming fact that Gus was a close friend of Mikkelsen’s and also of Hambleton and Janine in the days when they were married, and that Gus had introduced Janine to Mikkelsen ten years ago when they were all on holiday in Hawaii.
Mikkelsen accessed the household callmaster and found no Gus Stark listed. So the phasing had erased him from their roster of friends. The general phone directory turned up a Gus Stark in Costa Mesa. Mikkelsen called him and got a freckle-faced man with fading red hair, who looked more or less familiar. But he didn’t know Mikkelsen at all, and only after some puzzling around in his memory did he decide that they had been distantly acquainted way back when, but had had some kind of trifling quarrel and had lost touch with each other years ago.
“That’s not how I think I remember it,” Mikkelsen said. “I remember us as friends for years, really close. You and Donna and Janine and I were out to dinner only last week, is what I remember, over in Newport Beach.”
“My wife’s name is Karen. Jesus, this has been one hell of a phasing, hasn’t it?” He didn’t sound upset.
“I’ll say. Blew away your marriage, our friendship, and who knows what-all else.”
“Well, these things happen. Listen, if I can help you any way, fella, just call. But right now Karen and I were on our way out, and—”
“Yeah. Sure. Sorry to have bothered you,” Mikkelsen told him.
He blanked the screen.
Donna. Karen. Gus. Max. He looked at Janine.
“Tommy did it,” she said.
She had it all figured out. Tommy, she said, had never forgiven Mikkelsen for marrying her. He wanted her back. He still sent her birthday cards, coy little gifts, postcards from exotic ports.
“You never mentioned them,” Mikkelsen said.
She shrugged. “I thought you’d only get annoyed. You’ve always disliked Tommy.”
“No,” Mikkelsen said, “I think he’s interesting in his oddball way, flamboyant, unusual. What I dislike is his unwillingness to accept the notion that you stopped being his wife a dozen years ago.”
“You’d dislike him more if you knew how hard he’s been trying to get me back.”
“When we broke up,” she said, “he phased me four times. This was before I met you. He kept jaunting back to our final quarrel, trying to patch it up so that the separation wouldn’t have happened. I began feeling the phasings and I knew what must be going on, and I told him to quit it or I’d report him and get his jaunt-license revoked. That scared him, I guess, because he’s been pretty well behaved ever since, except for all the little hints and innuendoes and invitations to leave you and marry him again.”
“Christ,” Mikkelsen said. “How long were you and he married? Six months?”
“Seven. But he’s an obsessive personality. He never lets go.”
“And now he’s started phasing again?”
“That’s my guess. He’s probably decided that you’re the obstacle, that I really do still love you, that I want to spend the rest of my life with you. So he needs to make us unmeet. He’s taken his first shot by somehow engineering a breach between you and your friend Gus a dozen years back, a breach so severe that you never really became friends and Gus never fixed you up with me. Only it didn’t work out the way Tommy hoped. We went to that party at Dave Cushman’s place and I got pushed into the pool on top of you and you introduced yourself and one thing led to another and here we still are.”
“Not all of us are,” Mikkelsen said. “My friend Gus is married to somebody else now.”
“That didn’t seem to trouble him much.”
“Maybe not. But he isn’t my friend any more, either, and that troubles me. My whole past is at Tommy Hambleton’s mercy, Janine! And Gus the cat is gone too. Gus was a damned good cat. I miss him.”
“Five minutes ago you weren’t sure whether his name was Gus or Max. Two hours from now you won’t know you ever had any such cat, and it won’t matter at all.”
“But suppose the same thing had happened to you and me as happened to Gus and Donna?”
“It didn’t, though.”
“It might the next time,” Mikkelsen said.
* * *
But it didn’t. The next time, which was about six months later, they came out of it still married to each other. What they lost was their collection of twentieth-century artifacts – the black-and-white television set and the funny old dial telephone and the transistor radio and the little computer with the typewriter keyboard. All those treasures vanished between one instant and the next, leaving Mikkelsen with the telltale cottony taste in his mouth, Janine with a short-lived tic below her left eye, and both of them with the nagging awareness that a phasing had occurred.
At once they did what they could to see where the alteration had been made. For the moment they both remembered the artifacts they once had owned, and how eagerly they had collected them in ’21 and ’22, when the craze for such things was just beginning. But there were no sales receipts in their files and already their memories of what they had bought were becoming blurry and contradictory. There was a grouping of glittery sonic sculptures in the corner, now, where the artifacts had been. What change had been effected in the pattern of their past to put those things in the place of the others?
They never really were sure – there was no certain way of knowing – but Mikkelsen had a theory. The big expense he remembered for 2021 was the time jaunt that he and Janine had taken to Aztec Mexico, just before she got pregnant with Dana. Things had been a little wobbly between the Mikkelsens back then, and the time jaunt was supposed to be a second honeymoon. But their guide on the jaunt had been a hot little item named Elena Schmidt, who had made a very determined play for Mikkelsen and who had had him considering, for at least half an hour of lively fantasy, leaving Janine for her.
“Suppose,” he said, “that on our original time-track we never went back to the Aztecs at all, but put the money into the artifact collection. But then Tommy went back and maneuvered things to get us interested in time jaunting, and at the same time persuaded that Schmidt cookie to show an interest in me. We couldn’t afford both the antiques and the trip; we opted for the trip, Elena did her little number on me, it didn’t cause the split that Tommy was hoping for, and now we have some gaudy memories of Moctezuma’s empire and no collection of early electronic devices. What do you think?”
“Makes sense,” Janine said.
“Will you report him, or should I?”
“But we have no proof, Nick!”
He frowned. Proving a charge of time-crime, he knew, was almost impossible, and risky besides. The very act of investigating the alleged crime could cause an even worse phase-shift and scramble their pasts beyond repair. To enter the past is like poking a baseball bat into a spiderweb: it can’t be done subtly or delicately.
“Do we just sit and wait for Tommy to figure out a way to get rid of me that really works?” Mikkelsen asked.
“We can’t just confront him with suspicions, Nick.”
“You did it once.”
“Long ago. The risks are greater now. We have more past to lose. What if he’s not responsible? What if he gets scared of being blamed for something that’s just coincidence, and really sets out to phase us? He’s so damned volatile, so unstable – if he feels threatened, he’s likely to do anything. He could wreck our lives entirely.”
“If he feels threatened? What about—”
“Please, Nick. I’ve got a hunch Tommy won’t try it again. He’s had two shots and they’ve both failed. He’ll quit it now. I’m sure he will.”
Grudgingly Mikkelsen yielded, and after a time he stopped worrying about a third phasing. Over the next few weeks, other effects of the second phasing kept turning up, the way losses gradually make themselves known after a burglary. The same thing had happened after the first one. A serious attempt at altering the past could never have just one consequence; there was always a host of trivial – or not so trivial – secondary shifts, a ramifying web of transformations reaching out into any number of other lives. New chains of associations were formed in the Mikkelsens’ lives as a result of the erasure of their plan to collect electronic artifacts and the substitution of a trip to pre-Columbian Mexico. People they had met on that trip now were good friends, with whom they exchanged gifts, spent other holidays, shared the burdens and joys of parenthood. A certain hollowness at first marked all those newly ingrafted old friendships, making them seem curiously insubstantial and marked by odd inconsistencies. But after a time everything felt real again, everything appeared to fit.
Then the third phasing happened, the one that pushed the beginning of their marriage from August to the following February, and did six or seven other troublesome little things, as they shortly discovered, to the contours of their existence.
“I’m going to talk to him,” Mikkelsen said.
“Nick, don’t do anything foolish.”
“I don’t intend to. But he’s got to be made to see that this can’t go on.”
“Remember that he can be dangerous if he’s forced into a corner,” Janine said. “Don’t threaten him. Don’t push him.”
“I’ll tickle him,” Mikkelsen said.
* * *
He met Hambleton for drinks at the Top of the Marina, Hambleton’s favorite pub, swiveling at the end of a jointed stalk a thousand feet long rising from the harbor at Balboa Lagoon. Hambleton was there when Mikkelsen came in – a small sleek man, six inches shorter than Mikkelsen, with a slick confident manner. He was the richest man Mikkelsen knew, gliding through life on one of the big microprocessor fortunes of two generations back, and that in itself made him faintly menacing, as though he might try simply to buy back, one of these days, the wife he had loved and lost a dozen years ago when all of them had been so very young.
Hambleton’s overriding passion, Mikkelsen knew, was time-travel. He was an inveterate jaunter – a compulsive jaunter, in fact, with that faintly hyperthyroid goggle-eyed look that frequent travelers get. He was always either just back from a jaunt or getting his affairs in order for his next one. It was as though the only use he had for the humdrum real-time event horizon was to serve as his springboard into the past. That was odd. What was odder still was where he jaunted. Mikkelsen could understand people who went zooming off to watch the battle of Waterloo, or shot a bundle on a first-hand view of the sack of Rome. If he had anything like Hambleton’s money, that was what he would do. But according to Janine, Hambleton was forever going back seven weeks in time, or maybe to last Christmas, or occasionally to his eleventh birthday party. Time-travel as tourism held no interest for him. Let others roam the ferny glades of the Mesozoic: he spent fortunes doubling back along his own time-track, and never went anywhen other. The purpose of Tommy Hambleton’s time-travel, it seemed, was to edit his past to make his life more perfect. He went back to eliminate every little contretemps and faux pas, to recover fumbles, to take advantage of the new opportunities that hindsight provides – to retouch, to correct, to emend. To Mikkelsen that was crazy, but also somehow charming. Hambleton was nothing if not charming. And Mikkelsen admired anyone who could invent his own new species of obsessive behavior, instead of going in for the standard hand-washing routines, or stamp-collecting or sitting with your back to the wall in restaurants.
The moment Mikkelsen arrived, Hambleton punched the autobar for cocktails and said, “Splendid to see you, Mikkelsen. How’s the elegant Janine?”
“What a lucky man you are. The one great mistake of my life was letting that woman slip through my grasp.”
“For which I remain forever grateful, Tommy. I’ve been working hard lately to hang on to her, too.”
Hambleton’s eyes widened. “Yes? Are you two having problems?”
“Not with each other. Time-track troubles. You know, we were caught in a couple of phasings last year. Pretty serious ones. Now there’s been another one. We lost five months of our marriage.”
“Ah, the little annoyances of—”
“– modern life,” Mikkelsen said. “Yes. A very familiar phrase. But these are what I’d call frightening annoyances. I don’t need to tell you, of all people, what a splendid woman Janine is, how terrifying it is to me to think of losing her in some random twitch of the time-track.”
“Of course. I quite understand.”
“I wish I understood these phasings. They’re driving us crazy. And that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
He studied Hambleton closely, searching for some trace of guilt or at least uneasiness. But Hambleton remained serene.
“How can I be of help?”
Mikkelsen said, “I thought that perhaps you, with all your vast experience in the theory and practice of time-jaunting, could give me some clue to what’s causing them, so that I can head the next one off.”
Hambleton shrugged elaborately. “My dear Nick, it could be anything! There’s no reliable way of tracing phasing effects back to their cause. All our lives are interconnected in ways we never suspect. You say this last phasing delayed your marriage by a few months? Well, then, suppose that as a result of the phasing you decided to take a last bachelor fling and went off for a weekend in Banff, say, and met some lovely person with whom you spent three absolutely casual and nonsignificant but delightful days, thereby preventing her from meeting someone else that weekend with whom in the original time-track she had fallen in love and married. You then went home and married Janine, a little later than originally scheduled, and lived happily ever after; but the Banff woman’s life was totally switched around, all as a consequence of the phasing that delayed your wedding. Do you see? There’s never any telling how a shift in one chain of events can cause interlocking upheavals in the lives of utter strangers.”
“So I realize. But why should we be hit with three phasings in a year, each one jeopardizing the whole structure of our marriage?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” said Hambleton. “I suppose it’s just bad luck, and bad luck always changes, don’t you think? Probably you’ve been at the edge of some nexus of negative phases that has just about run its course.” He smiled dazzlingly. “Let’s hope so, anyway. Would you care for another filtered rum?”
He was smooth, Mikkelsen thought. And impervious. There was no way to slip past his defenses, and even a direct attack – an outright accusation that he was the one causing the phasings – would most likely bring into play a whole new line of defense. Mikkelsen did not intend to risk that. A man who used time-jaunting so ruthlessly to tidy up his past was too slippery to confront. Pressed, Hambleton would simply deny everything and hasten backward to clear away any traces of his crime that might remain. In any case, making an accusation of time-crime stick was exceedingly difficult, because the crime by definition had to have taken place on a track that no longer existed. Mikkelsen chose to retreat. He accepted another drink from Hambleton; they talked in a desultory way for a while about phasing theory, the weather, the stock market, the excellences of the woman they both had married, and the good old days of 2014 or so when they all used to hang out down in dear old La Jolla, living golden lives of wondrous irresponsibility. Then he extricated himself from the conversation and headed for home in a dark and brooding mood. He had no doubt that Hambleton would strike again, perhaps quite soon. How could he be held at bay? Some sort of pre-emptive strike, Mikkelsen wondered? Some bold leap into the past that would neutralize the menace of Tommy Hambleton forever? Chancy, Mikkelsen thought. You could lose as much as you gained, sometimes, in that sort of maneuver. But perhaps it was the only hope.
He spent the next few days trying to work out a strategy. Something that would get rid of Hambleton without disrupting the frail chain of circumstance that bound his own life to that of Janine – was it possible? Mikkelsen sketched out ideas, rejected them, tried again. He began to think he saw a way.
Then came a new phasing on a warm and brilliantly sunny morning that struck him like a thunderbolt and left him dazed and numbed. When he finally shook away the grogginess, he found himself in a bachelor flat ninety stories above Mission Bay, a thick taste of cotton in his mouth, and bewildering memories already growing thin of a lovely wife and two kids and a cat and a sweet home in mellow old Corona del Mar.
Janine? Dana? Elise? Minibelle?
Gone. All gone. He knew that he had been living in this condo since ’22, after the breakup with Yvonne, and that Melanie was supposed to be dropping in about six. That much was reality. And yet another reality still lingered in his mind, fading vanishing.
So it had happened. Hambleton had really done it, this time.
* * *
There was no time for panic or even for pain. He spent the first half hour desperately scribbling down notes, every detail of his lost life that he still remembered, phone numbers, addresses, names, descriptions. He set down whatever he could recall of his life with Janine and of the series of phasings that had led up to this one. Just as he was running dry the telephone rang. Janine, he prayed.
But it was Gus Stark. “Listen,” he began, “Donna and I got to cancel for tonight, on account of she’s got a bad headache, but I hope you and Melanie aren’t too disappointed, and—” He paused. “Hey, guy, are you okay?”
“There’s been a bad phasing,” Mikkelsen said.
“I’ve got to find Janine.”
“Janine – Carter,” Mikkelsen said. “Slender, high cheekbones, dark hair – you know.”
“Janine,” said Stark. “Do I know a Janine? Hey, you and Melanie on the outs? I thought—”
“This had nothing to do with Melanie,” said Mikkelsen.
“Janine Carter.” Gus grinned. “You mean Tommy Hambleton’s girl? The little rich guy who was part of the La Jolla crowd ten-twelve years back when—”
“That’s the one. Where do you think I’d find her now?”
“Married Hambleton, I think. Moved to the Riviera, unless I’m mistaken. Look, about tonight, Nick—”
“Screw tonight,” Mikkelsen said. “Get off the phone. I’ll talk to you later.”
He broke the circuit and put the phone into search mode, all directories worldwide, Thomas and Janine Hambleton. While he waited, the shock and anguish of loss began at last to get to him, and he started to sweat, his hands shook, his heart raced in double time. I won’t find her, he thought. He’s got her hidden behind seven layers of privacy networks and it’s crazy to think the phone number is listed, for Christ’s sake, and—
The telephone. He hit the button. Janine calling, this time.
She looked stunned and disoriented, as though she were working hard to keep her eyes in focus. “Nick?” she said faintly. “Oh, God, Nick, it’s you, isn’t it?”
“Where are you?”
“A villa outside Nice. In Cap d’Antibes, actually. Oh, Nick – the kids – they’re gone, aren’t they? Dana. Elise. They never were born, isn’t that so?”
“I’m afraid it is. He really nailed us, this time.”
“I can still remember just as though they were real – as though we spent ten years together – oh, Nick—”
“Tell me how to find you. I’ll be on the next plane out of San Diego.”
She was silent a moment.
“No. No, Nick. What’s the use? We aren’t the same people we were when we were married. An hour or two more and we’ll forget we ever were together.”
“We’ve got no past left, Nick. And no future.”
“Let me come to you!”
“I’m Tommy’s wife. My past’s with him. Oh, Nick, I’m so sorry, so awfully sorry – I can still remember, a little, how it was with us, the fun, the running along the beach, the kids, the little fat calico cat – but it’s all gone, isn’t it? I’ve got my life here, you’ve got yours. I just wanted to tell you—”
“We can try to put it back together. You don’t love Tommy. You and I belong with each other. We—”
“He’s a lot different, Nick. He’s not the man you remember from the La Jolla days. Kinder, more considerate, more of a human being, you know? It’s been ten years, after all.”
Mikkelsen closed his eyes and gripped the edge of the couch to keep from falling. “It’s been two hours,” he said. “Tommy phased us. He just tore up our life, and we can’t ever have that part of it back, but still we can salvage something, Janine, we can rebuild, if you’ll just get the hell out of that villa and—”
“I’m sorry, Nick.” Her voice was tender, throaty, distant, almost unfamiliar. “Oh, God, Nick, it’s such a mess. I loved you so. I’m sorry, Nick. I’m so sorry.”
The screen went blank.
* * *
Mikkelsen had not time-jaunted in years, not since the Aztec trip, and he was amazed at what it cost now. But he was carrying the usual credit cards and evidently his credit lines were okay, because they approved his application in five minutes. He told them where he wanted to go and how he wanted to look, and for another few hundred the makeup man worked him over, taking that dusting of early gray out of his hair and smoothing the lines from his face and spraying him with the good old Southern California tan that you tend to lose when you’re in your late thirties and spending more time in your office than on the beach. He looked at least eight years younger, close enough to pass. As long as he took care to keep from running into his own younger self while he was back there, there should be no problems.
He stepped into the cubicle and sweet-scented fog enshrouded him, and when he stepped out again it was a mild December day in the year 2012, with a faint hint of rain in the northern sky. Only fourteen years back, and yet the world looked prehistoric to him, the clothing and the haircuts and the cars all wrong, the buildings heavy and clumsy, the advertisements floating overhead offering archaic and absurd products in blaring gaudy colors. Odd that the world of 2012 had not looked so crude to him the first time he had lived through it; but then the present never looks crude, he thought, except through the eyes of the future. He enjoyed the strangeness of it: it told him that he had really gone backward in time. It was like walking into an old movie. He felt very calm. All the pain was behind him now; he remembered nothing of the life that he had lost, only that it was important for him to take certain countermeasures against the man who had stolen something precious from him. He rented a car and drove quickly up to La Jolla. As he expected, everybody was at the beach club except for young Nick Mikkelsen, who was back in Palm Beach with his parents. Mikkelsen had put this jaunt together quickly but not without careful planning.
They were all amazed to see him – Gus, Dan, Leo, Christie, Sal, the whole crowd. How young they looked! Kids, just kids, barely into their twenties, all that hair, all that baby fat. He had never before realized how young you were when you were young. “Hey,” Gus said, “I thought you were in Florida!” Someone handed him a popper. Someone slipped a capsule to his ear and raucous overload music began to pound against his cheekbone. He made the rounds, grinning, hugging, explaining that Palm Beach had been a bore, that he had come back early to be with the gang. “Where’s Yvonne?” he asked.
“She’ll be here in a little while,” Christie said.
Tommy Hambleton walked in five minutes after Mikkelsen. For one jarring instant Mikkelsen thought that the man he saw was the Hambleton of his own time, thirty-five years old, but no: there were little signs, and a certain lack of tension in this man’s face, a certain callowness about the lips, that marked him as younger. The truth, Mikkelsen realized, is that Hambleton had never looked really young, that he was ageless, timeless, sleek and plump and unchanging. It would have been very satisfying to Mikkelsen to plunge a knife into that impeccably shaven throat, but murder was not his style, nor was it an ideal solution to his problem. Instead, he called Hambleton aside, bought him a drink and said quietly, “I just thought you’d like to know that Yvonne and I are breaking up.”
“Really, Nick? Oh, that’s so sad! I thought you two were the most solid couple here!”
“We were. We were. But it’s all over, man. I’ll be with someone else New Year’s Eve. Don’t know who, but it won’t be Yvonne.”
Hambleton looked solemn. “That’s so sad, Nick.”
“No. Not for me and not for you.” Mikkelsen smiled and nudged Hambleton amiably. “Look, Tommy, it’s no secret to me that you’ve had your eye on Yvonne for months. She knows it too. I just wanted to let you know that I’m stepping out of the picture, I’m very gracefully withdrawing, no hard feelings at all. And if she asks my advice, I’ll tell her that you’re absolutely the best man she could find. I mean it, Tommy.”
“That’s very decent of you, old fellow. That’s extraordinary!”
“I want her to be happy,” Mikkelsen said.
Yvonne showed up just as night was falling. Mikkelsen had not seen her for years, and he was startled at how uninteresting she seemed, how bland, how unformed, almost adolescent. Of course, she was very pretty, close-cropped blonde hair, merry greenish-blue eyes, pert little nose, but she seemed girlish and alien to him, and he wondered how he could ever have become so involved with her. But of course all that was before Janine. Mikkelsen’s unscheduled return from Palm Beach surprised her, but not very much, and when he took her down to the beach to tell her that he had come to realize that she was really in love with Hambleton and he was not going to make a fuss about it, she blinked and said sweetly, “In love with Tommy? Well, I suppose I could be – though I never actually saw it like that. But I could give it a try, couldn’t I? That is, if you truly are tired of me, Nick.” She didn’t seem offended. She didn’t seem heartbroken. She didn’t seem to care much at all.
He left the club soon afterward and got an express-fax message off to his younger self in Palm Beach: Yvonne has fallen for Tommy Hambleton. However upset you are, for God’s sake get over it fast, and if you happen to meet a young woman named Janine Carter, give her a close look. You won’t regret it, believe me. I’m in a position to know.
He signed it A Friend, but added a little squiggle in the corner that had always been his own special signature-glyph. He didn’t dare go further than that. He hoped young Nick would be smart enough to figure out the score.
Not a bad hour’s work, he decided. He drove back to the jaunt-shop in downtown San Diego and hopped back to his proper point in time.
* * *
There was the taste of cotton in his mouth when he emerged. So it feels that way even when you phase yourself, he thought. He wondered what changes he had brought about by his jaunt. As he remembered it, he had made the hop in order to phase himself back into a marriage with a woman named Janine, who apparently he had loved quite considerably until she had been snatched away from him in a phasing. Evidently the unphasing had not happened, because he knew he was still unmarried, with three or four regular companions – Cindy, Melanie, Elena and someone else – and none of them was named Janine. Paula, yes, that was the other one. Yet he was carrying a note, already starting to fade, that said: You won’t remember any of this, but you were married in 2016 or 17 to the former Janine Carter, Tommy Hambleton’s ex-wife, and however much you may like your present life, you were a lot better off when you were with her. Maybe so, Mikkelsen thought. God knows he was getting weary of the bachelor life, and now that Gus and Donna were making it legal, he was the only singleton left in the whole crowd. That was a little awkward. But he hadn’t ever met anyone he genuinely wanted to spend the rest of his life with, or even as much as a year with. So he had been married, had he, before the phasing? Janine? How strange, how unlike him.
He was home before dark. Showered, shaved, dressed, headed over to the Top of the Marina. Tommy Hambleton and Yvonne were in town, and he had agreed to meet them for drinks. Hadn’t seen them for years, not since Tommy had taken over his brother’s villa on the Riviera. Good old Tommy, Mikkelsen thought. Great to see him again. And Yvonne. He recalled her clearly, little snub-nosed blonde, good game of tennis, trim compact body. He’d been pretty hot for her himself, eleven or twelve years ago, back before Adrienne, before Charlene, before Georgiana, before Nedra, before Cindy, Melanie, Elena, Paula. Good to see them both again. He stepped into the skylift and went shooting blithely up the long swivel-stalk to the gilded little cupola high above the lagoon. Hambleton and Yvonne were already there.
Tommy hadn’t changed much – same old smooth slickly dressed little guy – but Mikkelsen was astonished at how time and money had altered Yvonne. She was poised, chic, sinuous, all that baby-fat burned away, and when she spoke there was the smallest hint of a French accent in her voice. Mikkelsen embraced them both and let himself be swept off to the bar.
“So glad I was able to find you,” Hambleton said. “It’s been years! Years, Nick!”
“Still going great with the women, are you?”
“More or less,” Mikkelsen said. “And you? Still running back in time to wipe your nose three days ago, Tommy?”
Hambleton chuckled. “Oh, I don’t do much of that any more. Yvonne and I went to the Fall of Troy last winter, but the short-hop stuff doesn’t interest me these days. I – oh. How amazing?”
“What is it?” Mikkelsen asked, seeing Hambleton’s gaze go past him into the darker corners of the room.
“An old friend,” Hambleton said. “I’m sure it’s she! Someone I once knew – briefly, glancingly—” He looked toward Yvonne and said, “I met her a few months after you and I began seeing each other, love. Of course, there was nothing to it, but there could have been – there could have been—” A distant wistful look swiftly crossed Hambleton’s features and was gone. His smile returned. He said, “You should meet her, Nick. If it’s really she, I know she’ll be just your type. How amazing! After all these years! Come with me, man!”
He seized Mikkelsen by the wrist and drew him, astounded, across the room.
“Janine?” Hambleton cried. “Janine Carter?”
She was a dark-haired woman, elegant, perhaps a year or two younger than Mikkelsen, with cool perceptive eyes. She looked up, surprised. “Tommy? Is that you?”
“Of course, of course. That’s my wife, Yvonne, over there. And this – this is one of my oldest and dearest friends, Nick Mikkelsen. Nick – Janine—”
She stared up at him. “This sounds absurd,” she said, “but don’t I know you from somewhere?”
Mikkelsen felt a warm flood of mysterious energy surging through him as their eyes met. “It’s a long story,” he said. “Let’s have a drink and I’ll tell you all about it.”