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August 2022
 
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Another Night At The Chronos Tavern

by David Barber



1

We get all sorts at the Chronos Tavern. We get workers from the Canaveral Timeport; we get people from the future, although the definition of human seems to have loosened uptime; but we don't get many Victorian gentlemen.

A lot of time travellers stopover here. Perhaps they don't want to arrive before they set out. Perhaps this is a backwater where no harm is done. Or perhaps the harm's already been done and stopovers are so they can grandfather themselves.

He admitted the silk hat and frock coat were a mistake. From that far in the future all our centuries look alike. An adjustment of his box of tricks and he spoke English. Even his lips spoke English. It's just technology.

"How do you think we shun paradoxes?" he wanted to know. His patent leather dress pumps were married on the counter. Perhaps they didn't wear shoes when he came from. "Do you ever consider how we evade hemlocking the timeline?"

The government used to bug the Chronos, hoping for news of the future. Just miles of tape hiss. He raised the popper to his eye.

I went and served the two fellows in biohazard containment suits. From what I could gather, they were arguing whose side won some war uptime. Supercooled Stella sucked through tubing with a non-return valve.

I tried a popper once. Mathematical drugs vectored via the retina override the brain's reality routines. A brief nirvana whiteout. At least, that's the effect it had on me.

He sniffed and began to surface.

"I don't know," I said, as if neither of us had been away. "I think time travel is impossible."

"Drollsome. You have to write the Laws of Physics carefully. Your current paradigm is more like quantum theology. How many entangled states can dance on a microchip. You never asked the obvious question."

"Is this something I'll regret? A free TOE tee-shirt, then the Time Cops arrive." He looked blank. Humour doesn't time travel well.

"Post-Modern Physics happens next. With gods and everything. Did you really believe it was all so straightforward?"

This is why I gave up reading SF. "Gods, you say."

"One of the few things you got right. Some singularities later."

Uptime, it seems these strongly godlike entities host a range of different physics. Some allow FLT or NRT. Even AYL.

He caught the look on my face. "Non-Recursive Time-travel."

"No, the other one."

"Anything You Like physics. I hate the future. Vend me one of those ethanol drinks." I poured him a single-malt, redolent of peat. He tossed it back, shuddered, and held out the glass again.

"Anomalous causal loops don't happen. Can't happen. That's why we hang around Timeports so much. Because half the time, no, most of the time, they don't work."

"Is that why you're here?"

"I'm here because history shows I was here. Anything not forbidden is compulsory. It's not free will technology. Well, actually, there's about 14% reduction in free will, but..."

"What happens if you just refuse?"

"That's why we come here; such simple times; such touching faith in reason. We envy you. This is our Eden."

Perhaps it was a joke about the praying and sacrifices and dancing widdershins. I never seem to hear about the same future twice.

Like I said, I think time travel's impossible.

2

Some causal anomaly had locked the Canaveral Timeport, leaving a handful of travellers stranded in the now. It has the feel of an airport waiting on cancelled flights; explanations in short supply.

Two time travellers were sitting at the bar. The first is an angel, marooned while bouncing back from downtime, still costumed in white thaub and sandals. There's something about the face of neuters, like an optical illusion that won't let your brain decide between male and female.

It held up its beer to the light. "Excreted by micro-organisms?" It had a queasy fascination with the drinks on offer. "But they are dead now? The ethanol kills them?" The voice also triggers ambivalence.

The second is from further uptime and confirms the notion that there is a hierarchy amongst time travellers, based on knowledge of the other's future. There must be rules about disclosure, but still, knowledge is power. The only safe ground is our common history.

Imagine how the Chronos must seem to these travellers. One of the shacks clustered round a jungle airstrip, where natives barter hooch across a plank on two oil drums.

"You know of the Bible?" the angel asked. "This Jesus of Nazareth?"

There was a tray of endorphin sprays for the table by the window. "Don't tell me, he was a time traveller too."

It waits for me to get back, brimming with indignation. "Who has told you this falsehood?"

"Just a joke. A misunderstanding."

"And the reanimation story, you think it likely?"

It's the future that's another country. After politely refusing the monkey brains or more moonshine, the traveller ends up quizzing the natives about their creation myths.

An academic debate, it explained. "With permission to move the stone. To see what really happened."

I appeal to the other traveller, the one with a smooth curve of enamel instead of teeth. He is tall, broad-shouldered, dignified. I find myself instinctively addressing him like royalty. "But surely, messing with the past is forbidden?"

He is tolerant. "You need to think differently about time. Perhaps my companion here was meant to speak to the women."

The angel's investigation of the sepulchre had been interrupted by peasant females. "I told them there had been no corpse. I said not to be frightened. But they fled."

"And that's got nothing to do with the Timeport shutting down?"

"My friend, the past is what happened. The ends ignore the means. History records a tomb found open, without a body. Causal anomalies are prevented, not punished afterwards. No, the problem..." He waved his hand vaguely and I felt a pang of gratitude that he had spoken to me at all. "It is some other infringement."

Later he beckoned me over. "They can be trying companions. They have attempted to geneer out emotion. To them, the world is full of facts but devoid of meaning."

Stories the natives learned round the camp-fire carry little weight in the long ages to come. Millions believed; isn't that enough? Must it be true as well?

The bar starts to empty. Word has it the Timeport is back on line.

He hands me a box. "I persuaded it to part with this illegal souvenir."

Euphorbia, a thorn plant found all over the Middle East since Biblical times. Interestingly, the stems are pliable and can be intertwined into a circle. Or a crown.

3

In 1969 the Canaveral Timeport was brand-new; and so was a bar nearby, named the Chronos Tavern by its owner, though without the fanfare. The future had come to meet us and everything was possible.

In those days I opened afternoons for Canaveral staff changing shifts, coffee going on, beers coming off. It didn't pay, but I wasn't doing it for the money. I remember the first time traveller coming through the door.

"You're the reason I opened this place."

"Me personally?"

"You're from the future. How great is that?"

"Not so great actually. The Timeport's still here. We get some token trips in exchange. I'm an archaeologist with the Federal History Project. You know we're warned about disclosing the future?"

"I was going to ask about the lottery."

She smiled wanly. "The past is safer. Have you heard of the Chauvet caves in France? Those 32,000 year old wall paintings? The plan is to plant spycams to watch them being done."

"That's interesting."

"This morning I went back to recover the cams. A century on."

"Wait a minute..."

"They'd found them. Little shrines round each one. Perhaps they see us going in. They only painted where we put them. They went all that way in just for us. Those paintings were done for us."

I didn't understand the rules of the game back then.

"The Timeport won't permit causal anomalies. It just won't. But this mess was allowed. Because this is what always happened."

What could I say? She was an archaeologist inventing her own subject. "It's not your fault."

"You're very young."

Uptime, things are bad. The notion has escaped that none of us are free, it only seems like it. Our lives are films that could be fast-forwarded to see how they end. Choices are inevitable. Or irrelevant. The idea wouldn't flush away. If things are predetermined, then what does guilt mean? Emptiness, unrest and dismay hung in the air like carrion crow. Cultures further uptime had grown back immune, though strange.

She shouldn't have talked to me about it she said, it was just habit.

Before she left she handed me an old photograph with a missing corner. The two of us. Me looking greyer. She unchanged. I had my arm round her. I looked up and she was studying me.

"The photo's an acausal artefact. Was never in a camera. You keep it safe all those years until we meet again. I come into this bar for the first time and you show it to me. As proof we've met before. And I don't understand, because the person you'd met is from my own future.

"This is the one chance I had to come back here, between assignments. To give you the picture. Of course you're older when I know you. Not as innocent. Not as cute."

"This doesn't make sense."

"Give it time."

4

This is the only occasion I recall a fight in the Chronos Tavern.

When one party wears thixotropic armour and the other is a thousand year old child, it doesn't amount to much. Still, bystanders scattered and I got involved, flapping my bar towel as if it were the universal symbol of peace.

He was back from Rome, still wearing his Greek trader robes over the skintights that made him invulnerable to anything the ancient world could offer. A time traveller once told me armour was so common because we ancients scare them.

The child had learned something in his immortality. I watched him coldly dash his drink into the other's face. The Greek clapped his hands to his eyes, triggering his own impact defence and freezing into a mirror faced statue. Afterwards, this ageless child told me how they had once worked together.

"We were researching the Roman invasion of Parthia."

"I don't know..."

"Mesopotamia, early second century. Two great powers of the day in conflict. While Emperor Trajan is looting Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital on the Tigris, unknown to him, a few days march away are soldiers of the Han dynasty, under General Ban Chao, whose army had followed the Silk Road west, chasing back the Xiongnu -- what you call Huns."

It's irritating, being lectured to by a child. You'd think they'd learn something in millennia.

"An advance guard stopped just short of Ctesiphon. Imagine, Chinese and Romans that close. A moment of might have been. So we rode out to see, a merchant and his slave. And met Gan Ying's party on the imperial road.

"The Han had sent an envoy to make contact with Rome. Something that was never meant to happen."

After a while I wondered if his translator, his box of tricks, had failed. "And...?"

"If you run models… it's Alexander the Great but with stability of succession. The planet's two superpowers carving things up between them. So much alike, but distant enough not to be a threat. Perhaps Rome has an ally against the barbarians. The Chinese think they have nothing to learn from Rome, but they do…"

"We argued. Causal violations are impossible. But then, Rome and China never met in Parthia. He thought it proved our interference was part of history."

"He stopped Gan Ying. Rather brutally. It was blamed on Parthian traders, middlemen with the most to lose if the two empires met. What could I do? After all, I'm just a child…"

An annoying child. "It sounds... I can't get upset about a world that never happened."

He stamps his foot in exasperation. "Like your moon landings you mean. Once fossil hydrocarbons were gone, it was too much for the cultures uptime. No more humans in space until…"

"What do you mean, moon landings?"

"Didn't the Soviets put a man in space?"

"Did they? Yes, early sixties. Before the Canaveral Timeport."

"It would all have been different without the Timeport."

His voice began breaking up. I've seen this before with translators on the blurred edge of causality violation.

Playing with immortality, the biology keeps these children from maturing; I've heard they're not liked much, or trusted.

I grew up with the Cold War missile race; quietly abandoned when the future arrived and let slip WW III never happens; though I don't recall space rockets fired at the moon.

Going out into the night, the child speaks again, but his box of tricks is still sulking. No misunderstanding the scorn on his face though. I'm missing something here, but I don't know what it is.

5

Working at the Chronos Tavern gives you a perspective on history.

The ones that look like goblins are from the Cryptarchy. You must have seen those history of the future pull-outs in the Sunday papers. The Cryptarchy's a long way uptime; just before the singularities and the alternative futures when it gets complicated. They wear some sort of whole body hologram, so it looks like you're talking to your own shadow.

These two had been slapping on patches all night: reds; greens; whites. I have to keep a colour chart behind the bar. They stood much shorter than us with bigger heads. The neural crests are for cooling. They patched just to dumb down. Enough reds and they began to make sense.

They bought me a blue, a cognitive enhancer. Supposedly they don't work on us. Brain biochemistry too primitive.

"Hierarchical, militaristic, parochial," said one.

"Nasty, brutish and tall," confirmed the other.

Perhaps it was the blue patch kicking in after all. It was us they were talking about.

It seems the Anglophone Empires only last another few centuries, then drag everything down with them. The Dumb Ages. Books gone the way of clay tablets and every bit of electronic data lost; followed by a millennium of ploughing up crumbling circuitry. But fascinating to historymen like these.

I wondered how they could disclose the future without paradox.

"Because there's cret all you can do about it," the one called Gly announced loudly. My other customers, a handful of female clones from someplace when it's legal, turn and stare as one.

The Cryptarchy only uses twenty names. These masks, the anonymity, all the confusion, is deliberate, trying to avoid modelling and manipulation by ever smarter AI's. Obviously, their whole society is warped by paranoia. I begin to explain this.

"You wanna know your future?" interrupts Gly.

Surely they couldn't know individual histories.

"You've met lots of travellers," says Phe. "Bet your timeline's linked."

They consult their box of tricks. "Yep. Here you are. Go on, ask it when you die…"

His speech became white noise. He bangs the box a few times.

"That won't help," I say. "There are causality issues."

Obviously, if you have infinite computing power (just include a time-like loop in your algorithms) then you can censor paradox-generating events like this before they happen…

They want another round of reds. No, whites. Which not only reduce your IQ, but widen the dissociation between expectation and reality. They slap the whites onto each other's foreheads and dissolve into laughter. Any more patches and I'd be talking to amoebae.

My thoughts gather pace. I can't speak fast enough to keep up. "My future as timeline. Deterministic then. Though it feels I have free will. Or is what I want to do what actually happens? Gödel must be spinning in his grave..."

"Hey friend, you're starting to smoke." Gly leaned across and peeled the blue patch off my wrist.

Phe is still fiddling with his gadget. "Want to know how your kid turns out instead?"

"I don't understand..." It was true, I didn't understand any more.

He opens and closes his mouth, victim of censorship again.

I don't have any children, I'm not even married. It gives you a perspective on history working at the Chronos Tavern.

6

There had been rumours about the Canaveral Timeport closing down.

Those from furthest in the future have the drop on us. Perhaps it warped the time line or damaged the native culture. Us, that is.

I know scientists who admit to losing heart; who question spending a lifetime scribbling on blackboards when the next time traveller you meet learned the formula at school.

It was a quiet night. The black woman from the Hegemony eased herself onto a barstool. It was because of her that I no longer stocked domestic. Unasked, I opened a Burgundy, a generous Cote de Nuits-Villages.

"To the First Hegemony." I raised my own glass. "Down with the Death Deniers."

"Am I missing something?"

She had fewer facial tattoos than I remember. "I'm guessing this is your first visit, but you've sat there before."

"So..." She screwed up her eyes. "You and I have already met in your past. But I don't remember it yet because it was a future self… which is how you know where I come from and what I drink."

"It's what I love about working here."

"Now all I have to do is visit your past and make sure this happens."

It was obvious that time travel was bending us out of shape. The new ideas had changed the world, but I couldn't see shutting down the Timeport now would help.

"It's not about you. Why would they care about that? It's more like... they want to start again."

She noisily washes the wine around her mouth, swallows. "Time travellers will never arrive; the Timeport won't have existed; none of this…" Perhaps she saw the look on my face. "Didn't you know?"

The ones who will invent time travel can permit causal anomalies. The changes would echo uptime through all those lives, though not beyond the singularities where the futures multiply.

We used to get all sorts of time travellers in the Chronos Tavern; some gracious and godlike; others, clever goblins with neural crests; mostly they looked like us, but things have turned out oddly uptime and the strangeness is not just on the outside.

"When? When does it happen?"

She gave a careless shrug. "It will always have happened, if you want to look at it like that."

Waiting for everything to change. Like standing on a trapdoor. But it wouldn't be you, I told her. It would no longer be me.

She decided to have another drink.

7

I opened The Right Stuff in '69 just before Nixon cancelled Apollo. Workers from Canaveral still drank there, but the space shuttle was a decade off, there were no more astronauts and in the end it became just a business.

We had been promised the future: a moonbase; von Braun's winged and shiny rockets docking with the Big Wheel; explorers ready to set out for the red planet and adventure. I watched the night launch of Viking, the Titan-Centaur booster painting the clouds. It made me so sad, I can't explain why.

I sold up a few months later. Told myself it was about time.

THE END


© 2011 David Barber

Bio: David Barber is a time traveller stranded in the middle years of the Anglophone Empire. By publishing this story, with its references to actual future events, he hopes to attract the attention of historians and be rescued from this benighted age.
Larry Niven, whom he will never meet, should also be rescued.

E-mail: David Barber

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