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Rewriting the Future

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Lying on the ground pretending to be dead was incredibly uncomfortable, but it was better than the alternative. And it was probably necessary to avoid any paradoxes--the strangely dressed teenager who'd come to his house decades ago had witnessed his death shortly before traveling back in time, so there had to be something to witness. At least that's what Emmett had theorized.

It had been much easier to be concerned about paradoxes and the structural integrity of the space-time continuum when there was only a taped together, rain soaked letter to prove that there had been--would be--a Marty McFly. Objectivity became impossible once Marty reappeared. Emmett knew he should attempt to behave as he had (or rather, would), but it was impossible to risk Marty's life simply because it had happened in an alternative timeline. Just as there had been no guarantee that Marty's actions in 1955 couldn't prevent his conception, there was no guarantee that he would never be able to outrun the terrorists. If the Libyans could be avoided, the universe could surely sort itself out.

He had really thought he'd managed to evade them. Perhaps some things were meant to happen--or perhaps he was lying on the ground because he'd been shot before Marty altered the timeline. Which didn't explain his ability to remember Marty's time in 1955.

Of course if I've always had this information, why wouldn't I have tried to keep him from 'rescuing' his father and nearly killing himself? He doubted he would be able to reach any satisfying conclusions, but at least it gave him something to do while he waited for the Libyans to leave and Marty to return.

It didn't surprise him that Marty's second question was, "You knew this whole time?"

"Yes," said Emmett. "But the version of me from your timeline wouldn't have since you had yet to travel back to the past."

"So, I, like, erased you?" Marty asked. "But you're still here."

"I would have changed as a result of your alterations to the timeline," said Emmett. "It's likely that those doing the actual traveling would be the only ones capable of recognizing any changes." He considered this for a moment. "Unless their actions resulted in their non-existence."

Marty shuddered. "Don't remind me."

"What was it like?"

"It hurt," said Marty. "And it was kind of like you have to puke, but at the same time you can't breathe. Doc?"

"Yes?"

"If everybody else has been in this timeline, but I'm from a different one or something, does that mean I'm not supposed to be here?"

"Of course not," Emmett said. It was an intriguing possibility--that there could be parallel universes created through time travel--but now was not the time to explore that theory. Marty wasn't interested in the theoretical possibilities of time travel; he was a kid who'd been stranded years before he was born and who'd nearly never been born at all. "When you wake up tomorrow morning, everything will probably be just the way you remember it. And if it's not...we'll get you up to speed."

"Thanks, Doc."

 

***

2015

There are impossibly powerful computers packaged as Playstation 4's and XBox 540's. These seem impossibly small (and amazingly wasteful, given what might be accomplished by miniature computers that can render interactive movies and even respond to player input almost immediately), but there are also versions that can be carried by hand. Emmett is utterly fascinated by the existence of a flawless touchscreen device that exists almost entirely to let children manipulate whatever a "Mario Kart" is. He wants to take it apart and see what the necessary computing power would actually look like, but there's also a chance he shouldn't have access to that knowledge (assuming he'd even know what to do with it). Instead he watches the loading screen and remembers Marty trying to explain the difference between Atari and Colecovision and why exactly he wanted to manipulate a pixellated blob. These images lack realism, but are clearly better than anything
he's seen on a computer screen before. Even the small, portable gaming computer has an operating system more complicated and yet simpler for the user than DOS. It's almost like playing a video tape with the ability to manipulate the movie.

There are miniature, brightly colored versions of Marty's Walkman packaged with bizarre headphones. Emmett looks at one and can't even figure out where the tape goes. Obviously the technology has become significantly miniaturized by this point, but the small indentation at the bottom of the device seems too small even for tiny 21st century media.

"Like, scotch tape?" the clerk asks, wrinkling her nose.

"A cassette tape," says Emmett.

"A what?"

"Never mind," says Emmett. He passes bins of square thin plastic containers labeled as CD's. Whatever they are, those in the bins cost five dollars. The ones on shelves are more expensive. They're all wrapped in plastic film, and the back of one suggests it's some sort of smaller record album. Clearly these can't fit into the colorful Walkmen of the future, but surely there must be some form of portability. If Marty is--or, in 2015, was--typical of his generation, the demand for portable music will--has--likely become an assumption.

He knows he can't mention any of these things when he gets back. It would just be cruel--Emmett can barely trust himself to keep from acquiring a "lap top" computer, a device with more processing power than he can comprehend that weighs little more than a book and costs less than three hundred dollars. Three hundred dollars for a computer he could easily pick up and hold over his head! And these machines are apparently starting to be considered obsolete, supported largely by those who prefer a keyboard input (Emmett assumes the alternative would be voice recognition software).

He very nearly dismisses the idea of finding and visiting Marty. There is the possibility that the shock of seeing Marty suddenly thirty years older might be substantial. Emmett can think of no harm to the universe from it--as opposed to encountering an older or younger version of himself--but there could be some consequences to knowing Marty's future and continuing to interact with him in the present (or, from this perspective, the past).

Still, it is highly unlikely that he would be able to see the Marty of 2015 without technological intervention. Emmett will admit to a certain curiosity about a forty seven year old Marty McFly, and the seventeen year old Marty did ask him to "look him up," and Emmett did say that he would. November 5, 2015 seems an appropriate date to appear unannounced.

It takes him some time to find Marty's address--it seems as though increased environmental awareness has limited the availability of phone books. When he sees the neighborhood, he thinks--or rather hopes--he made a mistake. Standing at the front door, Emmett experiences the overwhelming certainty that he should not have come and that it is imperative that he stays.

The Marty who comes to the door seems shockingly old, even for someone Emmett last saw when he was seventeen. Worse, his response to Emmett's presence at his door seems incredibly negative. "You're late," Marty says.

"Late?" Emmett takes the open door an invitation to enter even though Marty's already walking away from him. Even accounting for the thirty year age difference, Marty doesn't move like he used to. He slouches more and appears to be holding his left arm oddly.

"Shouldn't you know?"

The house is dark. It looks as though something--most likely a former glass or a vase--was recently thrown at one of the walls. "You missed all the fireworks, Doc," Marty says. "Both my goddamn stupid kids ruining their lives, my soon to be ex wife leaving." Marty glares at him. "Thanks for the heads up, by the way."

"I didn't know," Emmett says. "The last time I saw you was the night you came back from 1955."

"What a great night that was," Marty mutters. He disappears into another room and comes back with a half empty liquor bottle in his right hand. He sets it down on an end table and starts to untwist the cap, also with his right hand. He can't seem to grip the bottle in his left hand; instead he uses it to awkwardly hold the bottle against his body as he twists the cap. Emmett automatically moves forward to help him and is stopped by Marty's glare. "Next morning I woke up in somebody else's life. They probably would've shoved me in the nuthouse if Reagan hadn't closed 'em all." The cap bounces off the table and somewhere onto the floor. Marty ignores it, grasping the neck of the bottle in his right hand.

"How much have you had?" Emmett asks.

"Not enough," Marty says and drinks straight from the bottle. "Don't give me that look. My mom used to be a drunk, even if I'm the only one who can remember it."

"What happened?"

"Like you care?"

"This isn't you, Marty," Emmett says. It's one of the rare moments in which he is acutely and distressingly aware of the generational gap between them. If their roles were somehow reversed, he knows that Marty would easily be able to say what he cannot: that of course he cares. "If you put your mind to it--"

"I'm pushing fifty, Doc," Marty says. "My life's already fucked. So don't waste my time telling me about my potential." He drinks from the bottle again, then uses it to gesture angrily at Emmett. "And I know you don't want to mess up the timeline by altering history, so what's it matter?"

But this hasn't happened yet Emmett decides. And if it hasn't happened, then there is no risk in altering the timeline. If this is merely an alternative timeline caused by some accidental action, then he can and should correct the timeline.

Marty slumps into a chair. "Maybe it's good you're not going to do anything. Time travel only makes everybody else's life better," Marty says. His clenches his empty fist--or rather, he tries to and winces. "I get my mom hitting on me."

"An unfortunate combination of Florence Nightingale Syndrome and genetic sexual attraction."

Marty sneers at him. The phrase "English, Doc," is conspicuously absent.

"Tell me what happened, Marty. There must be--"

"Google it," Marty says.

"I don't see how I could apply a massive number to this situation in any practical way," Emmett says.

Marty rolls his eyes. "Google, Doc." His exasperation over Emmett's inability to parse some obscure slang is perhaps the most normal moment of their conversation. "The search engine? The internet?"

"How exactly am I supposed to gain internet access? And I hardly think this would fall under the National Science Foundation's guidelines for--"

"Is this some kind of joke? You think it's funny to show up after all this shit and pretend you don't have any idea what's going on?"

"Marty--"

"Just get out. I don't want to risk destroying the space-time continuum by telling you about the internet."

He's at the door when Marty calls, "Hey, Doc."

Based on the encounter thus far it seems highly improbable that things will take a turn for the better, but Emmett finds it impossible to continue walking out the door.

"I know you're not going to change history," Marty says. He sounds angry, but he looks resigned. It might even be fair to say that he's disappointed. "If you were, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

"If we didn't have this conversation, it wouldn't occur to me to change the future," says Emmett.

"Whatever."

The next day Emmett goes to the library. Presumably Jennifer McFly left her husband shortly after her daughter's arrest. Marlene McFly was arrested after attempting to free her brother, Martin McFly Jr, from jail after the boy's arrest for attempted robbery. Finding the explanation for Marty himself is slightly more difficult. Like Emmett, the answer predates a readily available form of the internet. On October 27, 1985, Marty was--will be--injured in a car accident.

After reading the particulars, Emmett's first response is to wonder how Marty could be so stupid. Then he remembers the second--or arguably the first--time he met Marty.

"Aren't you a little young to be breaking and entering?"

The kid shrugged. Apparently they were never too young these days. "Are you really a mad scientist?"

"Yes," said Emmett. "So why the hell would that make you want to come here?"

The kid rubbed his neck and grinned at him--making Emmett realize that this was going to be the kid who came to his house thirty years ago. "I'm here on a dare."

He wondered why he would've let the kid stay if he hadn't been Future Boy as Marty watched him put together his latest attempt at the flux circuits. "So, you don't want my kidneys?" Marty asked.

"No, I want you to hand me that screwdriver." He held out his hand and was surprised that the kid--Marty--just handed it to him. Maybe that was why. "You thought there was a possibility I'd harvest your organs, and you were still willing to come here on a dare?"

"I couldn't let 'em think I was chicken."

Marty's a good kid and a smart kid who doesn't particularly like school, but he is incapable of being either whenever someone suggests he's a coward. An unfortunate and completely unexplained personality quirk until Emmett realizes that this must be connected to the former timeline. The Marty who grew up with a pusillanimous father could easily have been overly eager to prove that he was nothing like the original George McFly.

The window of opportunity is small, but it is possible to prevent the accident with the Rolls Royce. Given the ultimate cause of the accident, preventing that specific incident may not completely prevent this future. Unless this tendency of Marty's can be altered, the possibility of injury or misfortune cannot entirely be prevented. There does not seem to be an obvious solution. Emmett has been unable to convince Marty that there are worse things than being called names, and he would be amazed if Marty's parents haven't tried to modify this nearly automatic response. Between the three of them and Marty's peers who are not actively encouraging moronic risk taking, every reasonable form of suggestion, enticement, and chastisement has been attempted.

He looks at the October 21, 2015 issue of USA Today. Seventeen year old Martin Jr. looks almost exactly like his father does (did). Emmett notices several obvious differences, but he doesn't think someone like Griff Tannen would. Based on typical Tannen behavior, Emmett thinks he can safely assume that Griff sees only someone who can be bullied into doing what he wants. Griff would be highly unlikely to notice any sudden changes in posture or demeanor--or care if he did.

Preventing the arrest--and the chain of events that follow--would be much easier and would at least provide additional time to solve the problem of Marty's future. And if he still can't think of a solution, Emmett can always remove Marty from the timeline until the time of the car accident has passed.

It doesn't quite work out the way he'd planned.

***
1886

Emmett began constructing a second time machine shortly after Clara informed him of her pregnancy. It was much easier to reject time travel as dangerous before he had to think of the pre-20th century maternal and infant mortality rates. As Clara's pregnancy progressed, he kept thinking about vaccines. How could he justify exposing his children to diseases that would be easily preventable or treatable by the time Marty is born? How could he expose his wife to a 19th century doctor who didn't even understand the concept of washing his hands between patients?

He was trying to figure out how he could construct the time circuits when it occurred to him that there were worse risks than mumps and smallpox. His father would arrive in America in 1908. Emmett's unborn child would be twenty-two--more than old enough to significantly disrupt the events necessary for any of them to be born.

He was attempting to merge a crude nuclear reactor with a steam engine when he remembered the McFlys. Marty's paternal great-great-grandparents were already in Hill Valley. Marty's great-grandfather wouldn't be significantly older than Emmett and Clara's first child. They'd grow up practically on top of each other, creating an even greater potential for disaster than the arrival of Emmett's father.

"Emmett, if something were going to happen, wouldn't Mr. Eastwood--"

"Marty."

"Wouldn't he come back?" Clara asked.

Emmett shook his head. "I asked him to destroy the DeLorean."

"Isn't that what you asked him to do last time?"

"Under slightly different circumstances," said Emmett. "And I still don't entirely understand how long it takes for changes in the timeline to manifest. It's possible he could have destroyed the DeLorean before learning that something would happen to us. But I'm sure you're right," he added. He didn't mention the hospitals or the vaccines--or the fact that neither one of them was supposed to be there. Whenever he thought about mentioning that as a reason for them to leave the old west, he could practically hear Marty saying, "Doc, you don't tell a girl she was supposed to fall off a cliff."

He tried to explain the risk of non-existence. "That's impossible," Clara said. "Logically, if--"

"I'm afraid logic doesn't prevent one from accidentally removing oneself from existence," said Emmett.

Clara sighed. "Clint Eastwood?"

***

2015

Apparently making a train hover is possible--if difficult to explain. Emmett decides not to bother with the explanation. When asked, he says, "I just figured, why the hell not," and this proves to be acceptable. There are additional advantages to the 21st century.

"There's something I need to do," he tells Clara.

"Clint Eastwood?" she asks. "Jules, don't gape."

"Gape all you want," Emmett says. "No one's going to notice--people are much more egocentric these days."

"It doesn't matter if people notice or not," Clara says. She gives him a frown that both says she doesn't like being contradicted and reminds him that he's just used a word that's younger than she is. "No one should stand around with his mouth hanging open."

"Your mother's right, Jules," Emmett says. "And it does involve Clint Eastwood. Except don't call him that--that's someone else here. At least I think it still is."

He finds an address--a different one. He's about to knock when he hears the sound of a guitar and follows it around the house. It's Marty, playing a song that's presumably from the thirty years that Emmett has only traveled through. This is probably sufficient evidence--his left hand curls around the neck of the guitar without any signs of awkwardness or pain, although Emmett admits to himself that he does not entirely know what correct form should look like. Making an auditory assessment is as potentially misguided as a technical assessment; Emmett lacks Marty's passion for rock and roll (even if some of his earlier statements about "noise" were slightly exaggerated). It's Marty's expression that suggests all is well or at least significantly better--concentration rather than frustration. Emmett is about to take this as his answer when Marty glances up and makes eye contact with him.

"Holy shit," Marty says. "Doc?"

"I did say I'd look you up," Emmett says. "Sorry it took me so long."

Marty hugs him--tightly, as if they've actually experienced the full one hundred thirty years of separation. "I thought I'd never see you again! Where the hell did you come from?"

"1893." It's been eight years since he's seen Marty...but since he didn't travel to 1985 first, it's been thirty years since Marty's seen him. At least that's easily fixed; no matter what else he and Clara decide to do, Emmett needs to go to 1985 despite the fact that there may not be any catastrophes to prevent.

"I was going to come back for you, but I...I kind of destroyed the DeLorean."

"That's what I asked you to do," Emmett says. "It''s what I asked you to do instead of--"

"Doc, I'm not going to apologize for saving your ass," Marty says. "And I don't want you to thank me--it's what I had to do."

A few decades ago, Marty might have begged him to understand why he ignored his instructions; the twenty-first century Marty simply tells him. "I know," Emmett says because he does and because Marty's not a teenager anymore.

"And neither one of you is supposed to be there anyway."

"Marty, you don't tell your wife she was meant to fall into a ravine."

Marty laughs. "You're giving me advice about girls? I've probably been married longer than you have."

"You forget that I was married before your grandfather was even born," Emmett says. "How are..." He's not entirely sure how to finish the question. Marty already knows about the accident and has presumably averted it.

"Everything's great, Doc," Marty says. "Almost everything." He rubs his neck and suddenly looks very much like the Marty Emmett remembers. "Now that you've changed your mind about the time travel thing, you'll be back, right? Just every once in awhile would be cool, so I know you guys are still...somewhere. I mean, I know you've got a family now, and--"

"Marty," Emmett says, "I'll make time."