Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Rebound Effect

by Roderick D. Turner


When I first met her, I was practicing my ball trick. Seventeen, skinny and smart, a combination that left me with a lot of time to myself. No matter how many clubs I joined or causes I came out for, the landscape was always the same -- barren and hostile. That afternoon in the park, when I saw her watching me from the shadows, I knew my luck had changed. I couldn't know in which direction.

"You got potential," she called.

I hadn't spotted her until I'd caught the ball, and by then it was too late. Still, it wasn't something I want people to know about, so it was better to pretend innocence.

"What do you mean?" I couldn't understand why my throat was so dry.

She strolled out from the edge of the trees, attitude in every step, nothing too alluring except I couldn't take my eyes off her. In her early twenties, shorter than my one eighty five but with a body that put my bony frame to shame, she had this expression of mild amusement that spoke of unabashed arrogance. Her loose grey skirt swung well above the knee, but the pale green blouse was tight enough that it left little to my already soaring imagination. Light brown hair tufted in clumps, as if someone had sprinkled hair tonic in patches over her head. Two longer strands trailed down to her shoulders at the back, thin and unbraided, like twin tails. Her green eyes sparkled with an energy I couldn't place, like maybe she had her own special power source. She smiled, reached out and took the ball from my limp hand.

"I sensed you from a long way off." She tossed the ball gently back and forth between hands, not taking her eyes off me. "You do anything else but that ball maneuver?"

I looked puzzled, or tried to. "I'm not a very good catch, but that baseball just seems to --"

"Save it," she said. This time she threw the ball across the park, and while it sailed her gaze never wavered. I swear I didn't see her move, but when she raised her hand again, there was the ball.

"I --" My vast vocabulary seemed to have abandoned me. "How --"

She dropped the ball back in my hand, closed my slack fingers around it. "Keep practicing. If you get good enough, meet me yesterday, same time, same place." She placed a soft hand against my cheek. "Then maybe we'll talk."

"Yesterday? How can I meet you yesterday?" I raised a hand to signal my confusion. But it was too late. She'd walked off into the forest, and all I'd been able to do was watch her go.

For days after that, I'd spent most of the afternoon in the park hoping she'd mixed up the words, hoping she would come back and change my life. It took me weeks to realize that she already had; months to understand what she'd really meant; and four years to learn how to make that meeting.

When I finally met her in the park again, I thought I had it all worked out. The ball trick gave me away. Throwing a ball a hundred yards is no big deal. Throwing it and catching it, without breaking a sweat, takes something else. But what she did that day, that was in another league. She simply hadn't moved at all, yet the ball made it into her hand.

"You changed time," I said. More to set me at ease than anything, I thought, she was dressed the same as the last time we'd met. If anything, she looked younger, or maybe I was just feeling those extra four years.

"I didn't get your name." She extended one of those perfect hands, clasped mine in a firm, compelling grip. "I'm Margaret. Margaret Burrell. You can call me Maggie."

I smiled. Images of our last meeting, engraved in my memory, flashed through my mind. "Roger Ivan Kelsie. You can call me Rik, if you like. I would tell you my friends call me that, but it would be a lie. It's what I call myself."

She nodded. "I know."

"Don't do it to me again, please. I've waited a long time, and made a lot of effort to get myself here. Please, don't just walk away again."

She raised her eyebrows, wrinkled her nose in a quizzical expression.

"I mean, tomorrow, when I meet you for the first time. You just leave me standing there. I'll never forget it."

"I'm glad to hear it," she said. "But even more pleased to see you here today. I knew you'd figure it out eventually. You're almost as powerful as I am, and you know what I can do." There was that arrogant tilt of the head, an insolent, almost flirtatious smile. "Now that you've got a start, I can help you."

In spite of my effort to stay calm, my heart lurched. "I've never stopped thinking about you," I said softly. "You turned my world upside down."

"Backwards, you mean," she said. "Or maybe inside out. Or maybe all three."

"Don't joke. I'm much more grown up than when we last met. I don't care about any special abilities. What I care about is you --" I hesitated, but then realized I'd already said so much I may as well say it all. "If it had been anyone else, in this place tomorrow, I don't think I would have made it here. But for you, I worked at it every spare moment. For you, I learned how to use my mind to manipulate space and time enough to get back to this day, to this place. To this time. I don't want to lose you again."

If the speech sounded a little rehearsed, it was not by chance. I'd been working on those words for three years. I stood there, my heart pounding in my chest, listening to the distant barking of a dog in the more heavily used part of the park. Three years for this moment. Three years of building a dream, a hope that she really might care about me.

She laughed, and the spell was shattered. "Roger, you don't even know me," she said. "Yet you think you're in love with me?"

A couple of kids emerged from the path at the edge of the forest, took a look in our direction, and pointed, grins on their faces. They disappeared back into the trees. When I looked back Maggie had her left hand on her hip, and her right index finger pointed accusingly.

"I'm here, and I'll teach you. You get too stuck on me, and maybe I'll stop showing up. And until you learn to manipulate the time continuum like I can, you're fixed to a more or less linear existence. So I suggest you get your head out of the clouds, and take your gift seriously." Her nose went up in the air again. "Take me seriously."

I'd hoped for something different, but a large part of me had expected this. I was as ready as I could be, and I knew now that the only way I could hope to win her over was to stay with her, to spend all the time with her she would allow, and eventually help her understand how much she meant to me. My smile was a bit forced, but I think I got the sheepish look into it. "I was just kidding. It's been a long time."

"You weren't kidding and you know it," she replied. "But as long as you realize I run the show, and don't let your emotions get the better of you, I'm willing to give this a try." She gave me a skeptical glare. "What do you say?"

"I'm in," I said.

She nodded, "Good." She took out what looked like a pocket organizer and handed it to me. "The lessons will all be in here once I've delivered them, so you don't need to take notes." She took up a military stance, as if she was a general briefing troops. "Lesson one: there is no here and now. Space and time are one and the same. Time is a continuum that spans infinity, and it is the only variable. When you manipulate time, you manipulate everything." Her look became grave. "Do you realize that just by coming back four years to this meeting, you've changed not only the past but the future?"

I'd already thought this through. "If I've changed my future, I wouldn't still be me. I'd feel different, I'd think differently. Maybe I'd have physical or mental scars that I didn't have before."

"In some timelines, you do." She said this without hesitation, with the certainty of experience. "In some timelines, your act led to your death. In others, your love for me was too strong and you couldn't accept my terms, so you became an outcast." There was a sadness in her tone that sent a chill through me. "Every manipulation alters the continuum."

"Maggie --"

She held up a hand. "For now, just accept it. You'll see soon enough. The main thing is to pay attention to what happens when you are out of your normal flow. And your normal flow right now is four years, five days, two hours, eighteen minutes and thirty eight point four seven seconds in the future. I suggest you go there now, and don't manipulate anything until I see you next."

"But I've just discovered my ability. I want to practice time hopping."

"That's why you're dangerous. Reckless transfers will lead to disastrous mess in the timelines. That draws predators." Her look was not compulsion, more a vulnerable, pleading expression that set an ache in my gut. "Just go home, and wait for me."

I nodded. She gave a tight smile, glanced quickly around, then disappeared.

When I set my mind to making the trip to my normal time, I got my first real indication that she had been right -- my transfer to the past had changed me. I could manipulate the continuum with almost no effort, compared to what it had taken to go back. About twenty minutes, the meeting had taken. The same amount of time had elapsed in my normal flow, but somehow everything seemed subtly different from when I had left. A picture not quite the same color shades. A book set on a table at a slightly new angle. Small things, hard to notice or identify. Until I saw the note on the kitchen table. It was in my own hand, dated July 27th, 2056. Two days from now.

I know you'll read this and destroy it before anyone else gets to it. Don't ask me how. By taking you on as a protégé, Maggie is risking her life. She's drawn the attention of some truly unsavory people, the predators she referred to. I think they've been watching your development just as she has, waiting for the right moment to move in on you. You can fix this in one of two ways. Either don't go back to the meeting with her in the first place, or find her and stick with her no matter what. I can't help, because I'm leading the enemy away. The distraction won't keep them busy long, though, because I'm not too hot at this yet and they've been manipulating forever.

I know you won't choose option one. I wouldn't have the heart for it, and after all, I'm you. So get to her fast, and don't let her out of your sight. I can't tell you where it leads, but I've seen some of the resulting timelines. Together, you both have a chance. Separated, you're both dead.

Rik

I read it one more time, checked the handwriting and the date again. It was from me, and I certainly had no memory of writing it, so it was clearly from a time yet to come. Whether two days, two years, or two decades, it didn't matter. A message from my future self couldn't be ignored. I took a match from the kitchen drawer and set the paper aflame. As it burned, I moved to the metal garbage can beside the desk in the living room, intending to drop the paper into the empty can. When I got there and looked inside -- it wasn't empty. The charred remains of several pieces of paper already lay at the bottom. I hesitated, then dropped the flaming paper in with its comrades.

The implications were frightening, but clear. Timelines, Maggie had said. They were many, perhaps infinite. Part of the continuum. Space and time defined by one variable. In the timelines near this one, several versions of me had returned at slightly earlier times from the meeting with Maggie, and read their own versions of the note. Did the notes say the same thing? Were they all written by the same future version of me? I would probably never know. One thing was certain -- I believed the seriousness of the content. And as I watched the flames dwindle, then suddenly flare up in the can again, as if they had caught anew with a fresh piece of paper, I began to realize that perhaps the old stories were all wrong. Multiple copies of a person could occupy the same time, the same place. Each of them was part of a different timeline, and their overlap touched the physical world in slightly different ways -- they could never meet, because they repelled one another naturally, and distorted the nearby timelines just enough that their specific physical bodies did not overlap. For the first time, I sensed my other selves moving invisibly around me in the room, and I knew why the hair was standing up on the back of my neck.

Maggie. How to get in touch with her, to find her and keep her safe. Whatever I did, it had to be fast. But I had no points of contact with her, just her word that she would meet me again and I should wait for her. The only other place I knew how to get hold of here was the park -- not the park I had just left, where we'd had our first lesson, that was too close. I had to see her earlier, further in the past, to give her time to come up with a plan that might change how things happened now. I had to see her on that first day we met. I knew the time, the place, the lay of the land. In an instant, I was standing on the edge of the forest, watching her walk out to greet -- nobody. It was a new timeline, already, one in which my younger self had not met her on this day, in which I could never have come to this point because she had not given me the spark to motivate my self-education. Yet here I was. There she was. She stood in the open clearing, scanning the trees as if looking for someone -- looking for me.

"Maggie!" I called. I ran out from under the trees, expecting to see a look of recognition on her face. Instead, she only looked puzzled and confused. And in spite of my approach, she continued to scan the edges of the park, the trees, as if she still anticipated some event. She stood poised, clearly nervous and agitated. As I got close, I realized she wore no tails on her hair.

"Maggie, I need to --"

"I don't have time," she said. There was fear in her voice, something I'd never heard in the Maggie I knew. "Leave now before you end up in the middle of something you don't..."

She stopped suddenly, paused in her scan and looked at me. "Who are you?" she asked.

"My name's Roger -- Rik," I said. "I -- you were looking for me, here in this park, on this day. You found me, only I was four years younger. And now I've learned --"

"You have something, I'll give you that. I can sense it. But if you don't make like Casper really fast, you're going to get your newly operational brain fried. I got assholes on my case, ready to turn my head into hash browns, and anyone here when they show gets caught in the crossfire. So take your sorry carcass out of here before it ends up dead."

"I'm not going anywhere," I said. I took out the organizer pad she'd given me earlier, and held it out. "This is yours, Maggie. You gave it to me, our first lesson together. Right here." I pressed the key that turned it on, handed it to her. "Look."

She took it, thumbed through a few screens then looked up at me, the color draining from her face. "You didn't listen to my orders, did you? You didn't stay put and wait for me."

"I wrote a note for myself. It told me I had to find you and stay with you, that it was our only chance. I believed it. And I don't care which version of Maggie you are, who's after you, or what the risk is. I'm sticking with you."

"Lesson number two then, Rik. When your time mapping overlaps, and your timelines intersect, you can cross over. Decision points change all future lines. What you just decided, has changed a lot of lines forever. And what we're about to deal with, will change both of us -- forever." She was looking over my shoulder, and when I turned there were these two guys, neither very imposing to look at, but even from this distance and with my inexperience radiating power I could taste. One dark and tall, the other shorter but more threatening, both with a look of grim satisfaction that betrayed their self-confidence.

"We're here for the kid," the taller one said. His accent was thick, but the words were clearly enunciated. "No quarrel with you, bitch. At least, not yet."

Maggie looked confused for an instant, then realization spread across her face. "I was the bait," she said.

The shorter man nodded. "Your apprentice had no way to get to you except here, now. We knew if you did not show, he would not stay. And as you know, Margaret," here the man's contempt was clearly evident in the syllabic emphasis, "to eradicate a power from the continuum, it must be done at the time they first become aware, or --"

"Or the continuum is ripped all around the event and everyone nearby, crossing timelines and ability levels, can die. Yes, I know all about it. But you forget one thing."

The men had moved to within feet of us now, and did not look like they were interested in further conversation. The taller man had a baseball bat, the shorter one a length of heavy chain. "And what is that?" said the short man.

"If I told you, I would give away my advantage," Maggie replied.

The man with the chain waded in, swinging it at Maggie's head, while the baseball bat sailed through an arc towards my shoulder. The sight of the swinging bat reminded me of the baseball, of Maggie's first demonstration of her power. At the time, it was completely beyond me, but I had practiced it so many times since that I could do it with my eyes closed. I put a hand on Maggie's arm and made a shift, putting both of us into my adjustment, and saw the look of amazement on the faces of our assailants as their weapons swung harmlessly through us as we stood there. I'd felt it, as I made the change. Maggie's mind merging with mine, the two powers combining to hold us for that moment apart from the normal timelines, in our own unique space. A space where the two men, where nobody else could follow.

"You can't touch us, now," I shouted.

The attackers tried a few more fruitless thrusts, even manipulated the timelines around us, but it was as if time had stopped for Maggie and me, and the world moved about us with no power to affect our physical bodies. Eventually, the two gave up in disgust. "We will find you, sometime, when you are not protected. And then, you will know it." A moment later they were gone.

"I've waited a long time for this," Maggie said.

"For what?" I was as stunned as the men. It didn't seem real. "It was just the simple trick you showed me when we first met."

"Rik, we just met less than ten minutes ago. I haven't shown you anything."

It was true. The Maggie that had challenged me, drawn me on, mocked and threatened, that had been another woman, in another world. But in the same way that another Roger had left me the note that had sent me back here, the other Maggie had been responsible for helping me develop the abilities that had saved us.

I smiled. "We know each other, Maggie," I said. "Just not the way most ordinary people would recognize."

She nodded and took my hand. "I guess I made the right call -- I was impressed. You learned my lessons well."

For a moment I thought she had deceived me, that this was really the Maggie who had given me my first lesson. But no, it couldn't be, not just because of the hair, but because this Maggie was more open, more caring. And in a very literal sense, we had made magic together.

"What do we do now?" I asked.

"We find a way to put those guys and others like them off the scent for good. We continue your lessons. We try not to draw any more undue attention. And --" she gave me her teasing smile, "for our own safety, we stick together."

Somehow, I liked that answer.

THE END


© 2009 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: Roderick D. Turner has been actively writing fiction since 1990. To date he has written one novel and close to 100 short stories. Five of his stories have been published in paper or electronic form, and another recently reached the quarterfinals in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the FutureContest. His story Rad Day appeared in September 2009 Aphelion.

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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