Oliver was raised on fairytales, mythology, and tall tales told at family gatherings.
He studied creative writing at University of Memphis where he completed honors thesis.
After graduation, he had the privilege of working as an editorial assistant at the university’s literary journal, The Pinch.
Two of his stories have received honorable mention from the Writer’s of the Future.
His fiction has been published in the literary journals: ’Built From Human Parts’ and ’Down in the Dirt,’ and ‘Literary Yard.’
IN THE AGORA
Georgia came to a dead halt when a short video clip appeared in the upper right corner of her vision and began playing. Her tour group walked ahead without her down what appeared to be the cobblestone road of a rural town, comprising tall, white-washed buildings, their crisscrossed timber frames exposed and roofs composed of orange, beaver-tail shaped tiles. The group was so eager to watch as key events in the history of inter-war Germany unfolded around them, they didn't notice their guide had fallen behind.
Karl, a security guard at Georgia's university, had sent the looped video to her via the Heads-Up-Display of her internal computer’s ocular implant. In the video a handsome young couple kissed. The young man—Georgia’s ex, James—held the limp wrist of the girl he was kissing so the camera could zoom in on the glittering ring she wore on her third finger. The girl looked not unlike Georgia, had the same straw-colored hair and fair skin. Though Georgia was much taller, something she had thought was important to James, who was self-conscious of his great height.
Also, Georgia had bigger boobs.
How long had it been? Not even a year, ten months since Georgia and James split. And now he was marrying someone else after all she had done for him. Throughout the five years she and Johnny had been together, through undergrad and master’s degrees, he’d made only a handful of awkward, passing mentions of marriage. And then only because Georgia had hinted at it.
The cliche held up: one girl puts in the effort, and the other reaps the benefit.
An ellipsis appeared under the video, followed by a text message from Karl: “I just came across this in The Agora. Are you okay? I had no idea. ”
Georgia shook her head. “Neither did I,” she murmured. Her computer implant transcribed her reply into text that appeared on her HUD below Karl’s two earlier messages.
And I’m not okay, she thought.
Meanwhile, one of the particularly gung-ho tourists pointed to something in the distance of the rural German town through which they were sauntering. He waved to the others, said, “This way!” in Swiss German and took off in the direction he’d pointed. He only ran a few paces before he smacked into the wall of the Virtual Reality room and fell flat on his ass, his eyes widening as he clutched his bleeding nose. The section of the hologram street he’d tried to run down flickered and glitched with static. The rest of the tourists quickly surrounded him, some swearing in German, others in French, and still others in Italian as they helped him to his feet.
The commotion was enough to pull Georgia from her stupor. Even now her chest heaved and her eyes watered. The tour group pulled Mr. Gung-Ho to his feet and then they all glared at her, muttering in a smorgasbord of languages.
Do you know how long we’ve waited for this? How much we’ve paid? How many ridiculous, freaking screening processes we went through?
Even with the captions on her HUD, color-coded to let her know who was speaking, Georgia struggled to keep straight who said what, trying to force her brain to keep up with the rapid-fire text clouding her eyes as much as her tears. Finally, she stomped her foot and shouted in English, “I’m sorry-- I thought I made myself clear in orientation. The room’s tread is programmed to follow only the guide’s movement. When I stop, you stop. ”
The tour group exchanged glances, awed that a student, doctoral or not, had the gall to speak to them this way. Sure enough, they let her have it and a fresh barrage of text filled her HUD. They threatened to pull their funding from her school’s program, should anything like this happen again. They were aware what the history department heads called them. They weren’t run-of-the-mill patrons—they were the big spenders: Whales.
It took her long enough to settle them so they could resume the tour. Even then, the video—though she’d deleted it with a double blink—continued to play in her mind’s eye. Hell, she was a zombie for the rest of the tour. She only vaguely pointed out a young Adolf Hitler as he cut through a dirty, steam-belching alley with a canvas under his arm; it was one of the few times the tour group asked her to pause the simulation. They gathered near the young Hitler to see which shit painting he held and to observe closely his downcast eyes. They asked her, not kindly, to rewind that part again and again, so they could watch the young fuhrer-to-be disappear into the foggy alley.
“Into the mists of history,” the schmuck with the busted nose, Mr. Gung-ho, said thickly. Georgia ground her teeth as the other tourists laughed.
An hour later, the tour ended, and she shook each patron’s hand as the group exited the VR room, though she couldn’t bring herself to meet their eyes. She followed them through the lab’s hallway, past her living quarters behind the door on the right, and the door which read “Lab Personnel Only” to the left. They gathered their hats, scarves and coats before they filed out into the chill Swiss autumn.
Gung-ho paused at the door to the left and without turning away from it, called to the other tourists, asking them to wait.
“What,” he said, looking sidelong at Georgia, “is in there?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “tourists—patrons— aren’t allowed in there. ”
“That’s fine,” he said, slowly, “but you didn’t answer my question. ”
He tilted his head back and looked down his now crooked nose at her, smiling without showing his teeth. “What I asked you was, ‘what’s in there?’ Can you tell me that?”
Georgia swallowed and shook her head. “That’s where I do the mapping. I’m sorry, sir—that’s all I can tell you. ”
“That’s too bad,” he said, his broad smile slackening into a grimace. “I suppose I should have expected as much. ”
He extended his hand and, when she took it, drew her in close. He gripped her hand too tightly and whispered, “I only meant to give you an opportunity to redeem yourself. ” His warm, stale breath made her eyes water. “I’m afraid you’ll lose your candidacy for certain now, sweetie. ” He clapped her on the shoulder, as if they were old friends, then clomped down the steps outside toward the half-moon of tourists awaiting him. He waved with the rest of them over his shoulder as they made their way toward their transport.
Georgia leaned against the open door with arms crossed high over chest. Shivering, she watched the vehicle the tour group boarded fly across the anachronistic gravel drive toward the barrier of mountains guarding the lab.
What’s behind door number two, she thought. Oh, just a mini-collider. A more advanced version of the Large Hadron Collider invented during the previous century. Though, the mini-collider had the added feature of being able to create and stretch open wormholes to past times. No big deal.
Thankfully it’d been the Swiss, famous for their foresight and, frankly, wherewithal, who’d pioneered time-travel. They guarded their secret steadfastly lest other foreign powers should discover it and try something unwise. It made sense for doctoral candidates studying history to be the ones to map famous past events as a part of their schooling: they were already familiar with the events they were documenting, so they had a good sense of where they ought to be and when to capture the best footage. They documented more reliably, and thus, got a better understanding of the events they’d studied for so long. Then the university could turn around and use the footage to generate revenue by taking current and potential patrons on guided tours of famous historical events. It was a win-win: the students received an unprecedented, world-class education, the university made obscene amounts of money to fund the program, and their patron’s finally got to witness Colette revenge herself on her husband through her sexual conquests of his own lovers.
Good God—was she going to lose her shot at a PhD because of a stupid message about her ex? The university was protective of its money, and if these folks were serious about reporting her…
She couldn’t think about that right now. She needed a drink.
After the tour group disappeared into the Alps, Georgia went back inside to the fridge to grab some alcohol, a water bottle she’d snuck in, refilled with vodka. Once she was back in her living quarters, Karl called her over the video Communication-link on her HUD. A transparent image of him from the shoulders up, a moving portrait, appeared in the middle of her vision when she accepted the call. Karl looked penitent, the way Hitler had about the painting earlier. Now that she thought about it-- and maybe it was because she had Nazi’s on the brain-- Karl was comically Aryan: blonde hair, shaved on the sides, long on top; clear blue eyes; the whole bit.
“I should’ve known better than to message you during a tour, Georgie,” The Aryan began. “Can you forgive me?”
“I’ll consider it,” she said, lying, and then— “Geez, Karl.
“I thought you knew already,” he said. “I wanted you to know I’m here for you. Wanna grab a drink at Doc’s and talk? Or we don’t have to talk about it. We can talk about whatever. ”
“Karl,” she said, “You know the policy. You’re supposed to be keeping an eye on me to make sure I don’t—I dunno— go back in time and screw Alexander the Great or something. Not take me out for a pint and try to screw me yourself. ”
They were both silent for a moment. Karl knew the policy--still, he tried this kind of thing every other month since he was first assigned to guard the lab.
“I’m sorry,” she said and shrugged. “I gotta go. ”
After she hung up the Comm-link, she returned to the VR room and started it again. She logged into The Agora—the popular new social media site— and skinned it like the same bar where Karl had offered to take her. The clinical grey tile covering the ceiling and walls faded, replaced by hand-hammered bronze panels and old steel fans, spinning lazily. Wood wainscoting crept halfway up the walls. Blue rivulets of smoke rose from ashtrays with no cigarettes.
Doc’s, the bar the VR room now mimicked, had been a mainstay for Georgia since she’d first moved to Switzerland. It was an American style honky-tonk that played country tunes from two centuries prior that made her ache for a time other than her own.
“Add library,” she said. “And rain. A thunderstorm. ” A small hologram bookcase appeared next to her and the smell of old paper and ink and leather filled the VR room. The gentle marching rhythm of rain on tin rattled from surround-sound speakers somewhere above her. Now and then a gash of lightning lit the hologram windows followed by a crack and then a low rumbling. The smell of books, the wood and brass bar and the sound of thunder gave the VR room a comforting, womb-like tranquility.
She approached the bookcase and ran her finger along the spine of The Time Machine. Funnily enough for a time traveller of sorts, she’d never read it.
Then she saw Karl’s hologram in the corner of her eye, milling around The Agora with beer in hand. It appeared he had gotten a similar idea and logged on to The Agora in the VR room on his side of campus. When she saw him she went immediately into private mode.
The site allowed various levels of anonymity. You could scramble your face, mute your voice, or be altogether invisible to other people using the site-- so long as they weren’t in the same VR room as you.
It was crappy of her to hide, but recently talking to Karl only made her more acutely aware of how alone she was. Even though she knew he couldn’t see her, she felt guilty and walked to the other side of the Agora to avoid having to watch him sulk. She wondered if he had skinned his VR room like Doc’s too.
She liked to sit by herself in a room full of people. She used to go to real bars filled with real people to read real books alone. Her friends who were online walked around her. The ones who were mutual friends on the site talked over one another while those who weren't passed blindly through each other like ghosts—in either case oblivious of one another.
Halfway through a slug of her drink, she saw him—James-- and nearly spit vodka all over herself. Of course she’d forgotten to unfriend him. He was standing by himself talking animatedly to no one.
No one she saw, anyway.
She hesitated for a moment, and then when she remembered she was in private mode, walked over to him. She stood right where the person he was talking with ought to be. Their mutual friends walked around him, eyeing him. James didn’t notice. He must have hidden everyone but the person he was talking to, forgetting to go into private mode himself. Though he had apparently remembered to mute his audio function so only the person he was talking to could hear him.
Georgia couldn’t help herself. She parked herself right in front of him and hid everyone else on The Agora, pretending it was her, and her alone, to whom he was speaking. She took another gulp of vodka. The plastic bottle crunched loudly as she squeezed the cold, burning liquid into her mouth, the sound underscoring how eerily forlorn The Agora was empty. All she heard now were the ambient noises of the virtual bar: fans, thunder, rain, and the hologram jukebox faintly playing Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone. ”
The irony struck her immediately. Georgia, who had been with James through his graduate years and his battle with alcoholism, was now getting secretly plastered in front of him. His alcohol addiction was a part of why he’d left her. At least that was Georgia’s theory. She’d been there when he was at his lowest and he couldn’t stand that she’d seen it. His pride wouldn’t let him forget. He’d broken up with her and then moved on to a girl who looked enough like her. Georgia 2. 0.
So, he still wanted to be with her, just without the baggage he’d brought into their relationship.
She recognized the look on his face: that crooked, knowing smile. It was the same look he’d given her when they were dating—when they were in love.
Their eyes met. And even though she knew she was invisible to him, she still got that feeling of making unexpected eye contact with someone— of being simultaneously the invader and the invaded, of sharing a brief glimpse into another’s inner world, and realizing the other person had dreams and dreads as rich as her own. She surmised it must be his new fiancee he was talking with.
She watched him mouth words of adoration, and she pretended it was her to whom he was whispering his love. She made out the words baby, dear, darling. Ever-alternating endearments once attached to her.
How could you be with someone so long, learn so much about them, and only a year after you break up, no longer know who they are?
Georgia remembered the first day their relationship really began. It was the last day of the undergrad class they took together, which the university only offered at a satellite campus far out of the way for Georgia. She knew if one of them didn’t act, it was unlikely they would see each other again. After an initial goodbye, she struggled within herself as she stood in the courtyard outside the history building, watching him disappear into the blue night created by the campus lamps. A moment of agonizing dread at the idea of following him was suddenly replaced by a deep palpable warmth and calm starting at her shoulders. It felt as though a supernatural being—ghost or god—was urging her forward and next thing she knew she was trotting after him, waving for him to wait. That moment, that benediction of sorts gave her an unshakeable certainty about the future of her and James’s relationship: they would change each other's lives.
Then back in the VR room in the present, Georgia realized that James had begun to unbutton his shirt slowly, deliberately.
This was wrong. She shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t see this. Wait—no one should see this.
She un-hid her friends. Her and James’s mutual friends were watching him. They gathered, laughing, and pointing at him, as they whispered to one another.
Georgia had to do something. No matter what had and hadn’t happened between them, she couldn’t just stand idly by while James made sweet cyber-love to his fiancee in public.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and went into public mode. She tried to ignore the people watching, giving cries of delight at her sudden appearance, then stepped over to his side. With her hands cupped over her mouth, she whispered a private message in his ear.
“Everyone can see you,” she said. Her voice sounded halting and quavery, and for a moment she wasn’t sure if it was because the site was struggling to support so many users at once, or because of her own emotions.
James paused, his hand on the button halfway down his shirt. He peered around frantically for the source of this message, no doubt recognizing her voice.
“Georgia?” he whispered, surprised, almost accusatory.
Horror spread across his face at the sight of everyone he must have just un-hidden, his and Georgia's mutual friends gawking at him as they held their hands to to their mouths.
James reddened and then, without a word, vanished.
Georgia stood, rooted next to where James had been only moments ago. She took a solid minute before she moved again to find a hologram of Karl’s face inches from her own. She cried out and stumbled backward, only just catching herself. Apparently, he’d been among the onlookers during James’s striptease.
“Georgie,” he began, then hesitated. “Are you all right?”
She drew herself up to her full height, so they stood eye-to-eye, pivoted on her heel and stalked away. “I’m fine,” she muttered.
Karl scrambled after her. “Hey, wait up! Are you sure you’re okay? You can talk to me. ”
“I said, I’m fine!” She logged off of the Agora and the cozy bar faded around her, returning the VR room to its usual drab grey state.
She was alone again.
Karl tried calling her over the Comm-link a few more times and each time she winked at the red ‘reject’ button floating across her HUD.
She paced the VR room. Everyone had seen it, had seen not only James taking off his clothes, but her watching him do so. To their knowledge, he was just an idiot who’d forgotten to check his social media settings properly before doing the cyber nasty. But Georgia? She was a sad creep—a pervert.
An idea occurred to her, though its source was more likely vodka than reason: She could use the mini-collider to go back and prevent all this from ever happening. She would probably get kicked out of the program after the disastrous tour earlier anyway, right? So why not? Even tipsy the idea sounded questionable.
Georgia strode towards the door marked “Lab personnel only” but stopped short. She walked with clumsy, shuffling steps back to the front door of the lab and tapped out the emergency lockdown code after a few tries. The keys had gone funny on her and floated around erratically, trying to flee her fingers. Karl was always on call, so as soon as she went into the wormhole lab after hours, he’d be notified of a breach and, if there was a problem, sent to handle it.
But she could change things and make it back to the moment right after she left, before Karl could do anything, right? It was difficult to tell. So far as she knew, no one had ever intentionally tampered with the past and changed the flow of time.
Also, to avoid potential time paradoxes, the university had strict policies about going back to any time during which the lab worker in residency had lived. You’d risk running into yourself, potentially messing up your own timeline and who knew what else.
Georgia entered the wormhole lab and within a few seconds she received another call from Karl. This time she answered.
“Where are you? I got a notification that someone was in the wormhole lab. ”
“That’d be me, dummy. Who else do you think knows how to get in here, Karl?"
“Well, Georgia, I guess I’d just hoped you were smarter than that. ”
The bite in his words surprised her. It must have surprised him too because he raised his eyebrows after he said it.
“I have to go back,” she said. “You saw what happened. ”
She waited, and for a moment he said nothing. Finally, he sighed as he closed his eyes and massaged his temples.
“It’s not worth it, Georgia,” he said. He sounded neither frantic nor worried now, just tired. “We’ve never sent a person back and animal testing is prohibited—anything might happen. And, besides, even if you made it through safely— you’d lose your candidacy, Georgia. ”
“Yeah, well, thanks to that little stunt you pulled earlier I may have lost that already,” Her lip curled in an uncharacteristic grimace. “So here goes nothing,” she said, her speech slurring now. She threw her arms up around her head in frustration and let them fall with a clap against her sides.
“You’re drunk, Georgia. Please don’t—”
Georgia hung up before he finished.
She surveyed the wormhole lab. It looked like a smaller version of the VR room, except for the archway at the back and the drone she used to map historical events on a pedestal in the room’s center.
The drone, which was roughly the same size and shape as a volleyball, came equipped with a cloaking device and a pair of three-hundred-sixty degree cameras, one on top and bottom. It could hover silently up to ten feet above the ground without making a sound so it could document events covertly. She was pretty sure it used magnets to stay aloft. She had used the drone many times to document events ranging from the Battle of Shiloh to Martin Luther King Jr. ’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And as anxious as she had been piloting a silent, cloaked volleyball-sized drone, she could only imagine how much more nerve-wracking it would be to navigate the past unnoticed with all six feet of her. . . and drunk to boot.
She donned a personal cloaking device, which they had ready on a rack in the corner for the guard in case a lab worker ever tried to do exactly what she was attempting. The cloaking device looked like a hazmat suit made of one of those shiny NASA blankets. Once she zipped up the suit, she pressed the button on her left wrist and became a shimmering, translucent outline of herself—virtually invisible.
She approached the archway and turned it on. Then she looked up the space-time coordinates for the middle of the VR room precisely an hour before the present and plugged them in. Veins of electricity skipped momentarily around the archway’s inner rim and a clear, blue, liquid-like substance stretched across its interior. The substance waved back and forth before her, beckoning to her like a silent, turbulent sea.
She took a deep breath and plunged through the archway.
She had expected time travel to feel like being jerked through an intestine-like tunnel of looped space time, like in the movies. But in reality it felt as if— well, it was more like simply stepping through a doorway. One moment she was on one side of the archway in the present, and the next, though she experienced a slight resistance as she passed through the liquid-like substance, she was on the other side, in the past.
She stood in the dead center of the VR room precisely one hour earlier. She turned back around to look at the wormhole from the other side only to find it had disappeared. At first she panicked, but then she cycled through the sensors on her HUD and an outline of the shimmering wormhole reappeared.
Okay, so she mustn't forget to use that sensor so she could find the wormhole again. She also had to make sure her drunk-ass past self didn’t accidentally pass through it.
Good Lord, she hadn’t even considered that.
The next moment Past-Georgia entered the VR room, already stumbling badly. Present-Georgia raised her eyebrows, then remembered that she had taken a nice long hit of the vodka before ever logging into The Agora.
It was strange to watch herself and know what she was thinking at that exact moment, know what happened next. It didn’t feel like observing other past events. She felt more like she was telepathic and clairvoyant at the same time.
As soon as Past-Georgia skinned the room like Doc’s and logged into the Agora, Georgia scoured the room for James. Thankfully, she remembered, not without embarrassment, that she had taken plenty of time to brood after she’d first logged in. She'd have a nice long window of time to find and talk to James before he began undressing, while her past self wallowed and drank.
Scouring the room, she spotted James and crept towards him as stealthily as she could in the awkward, bulky suit. She passed through the holograms of her friends without recognizing who they were or what they were doing. The buzz of conversation in The Agora became a low rumbling static to her. Her eyes never broke from James-as she approached him. He seemed farther away than he was, as if she was walking toward him from out of a cave, James waiting for her at its maw.
Suddenly she was standing in front of him again as his mouth formed silent words of love to Georgia 2. 0. Again? Georgia couldn’t decide if it felt like days or seconds since she’d stood here last. Maybe she’d never moved.
Maybe she’d been standing here daydreaming the whole thing about him taking off his clothes—not an unlikely scenario for a daydream— and then about going back in time to stop him. Perhaps she’d drunk more than she’d thought.
Georgia’s sudden, uncomfortable awareness of her heart palpitating within her assured her this was real. She fidgeted, checked to make sure Past-Georgia was occupied; she was only now creeping to the other side of the crowded VR room to avoid Karl.
Satisfied that she was safe for now, Georgia pressed the button on the wrist of her cloaking device and became visible again. When she tried to sync her HUD to the Agora so she could send James a private message, it wouldn't connect. And then it occurred to her she had to sign into the Agora. How would the site handle that? Two people trying to sign into the room under the same user name and at the same address?
Georgia double-checked to make sure Past-Georgia was still preoccupied. Past-Georgia was just staring blankly into space with tears in her eyes.
Yep, still wallowing.
Georgia logged into The Agora from her HUD and a message appeared asking whether she was sure she wanted to log out and in again. She winked at the floating green “yes” button and the VR room flickered.
Georgia checked on Past-Georgia, hoping she hadn’t noticed. Past-Georgia frowned and then mouthed “logged out?” She must have been sent an error message. She tossed back the water bottle and finished it in her frustration.
By luck or providence, Past-Georgia, in her drunken state, didn’t put two and two together that the VR room should have turned off if no one was logged in, and left, presumably to grab water bottle number two.
It was the first event Georgia had altered and suddenly a faint glimmer of the new memory this created welled up to the top of her mind, not fully formed.
Georgia returned her gaze to James again, relieved to find he hadn’t begun to unbutton his shirt yet. Without moving, she sent him a private message, simply saying:
James flinched and then frowned. He stared at --no, through-- Georgia at his fiancee and said, soundlessly, “Just a second. ”
James turned his back to her and looked in all directions. Georgia went into public mode. He shrugged and when he turned back to face his fiancee he jumped again. She imagined what he was seeing right now. He’d realized he was in public mode and had un-hidden his friends to find her. Then, when unable to spot Georgia, he turned back to his fiancee, and found instead Georgia and his fiancee’s holograms phasing in and out of one another.
Georgia almost laughed at the way he flushed. Perhaps he was looking at the girl of his dreams in away. They must look like an ancient Indian goddess, two heads four arms and legs, staring at their own body, as each girl strove fruitlessly to see the other.
James mouthed silently to someone within Georgia, “I need to take care of something, baby. ”
Georgia’s insides twisted within her.
“Hey,” James said, now audible, his eye's trained on Georgia's. The pitch of his voice went up in the middle of the word— that feigned excitement he reserved for people who made him uncomfortable.
Her heart sank further; she knew in that moment they were strangers.
“Hey,” she said and her voice choked in spite of herself. “I noticed you were on here and I hadn’t seen you in a while so I thought I’d say ‘Hello. ’” Georgia stared at her feet and continued, “I guess I figured you would have unfriended or blocked me by now. I’m glad you didn’t. ” Now she was blushing.
“Yeah, no, of course not,” he said, “So, how’ve you been? And, uh, what’s with the getup?”
Oh, right. She was Miss NASA in her space blanket-suit-thing.
“Shoot, I forgot all about this,” she said. “I’m just working. ” James raised his eyebrows as if this was a surprise-- as if impressed. “Yeah?” he said. “Still working on your doctorate?”
“It’s my last year,” she said and attempted a smile. From the look on his face, it must have been the most pitiful, heart-breaking smile she’d ever made.
“Congrats,” he said, nodding, thin lipped. The obvious effort he had to put into pretending to be interested nearly brought tears to her eyes.
Thanks,” she said, “And you? I—I heard you were engaged. ”
“Yep. ” he said, stiffly, “I am. A girl named Cassie I met through work. ”
“Well congratulations to both of you,” she said, surprised at herself for meaning it. “Be sure to tell her I said she’s a lucky girl to have you. ” Georgia squinted and shook her head. It had just come out.
James smiled sadly.
“Thanks,” he said, “I'll let her know what a catch I am. ” Then he grinned, broadly, for real. He tossed back his head and laughed.
Georgia laughed, too, hoping to draw attention away from the tears in her eyes and the way her breath caught in little dry sobs.
“Well, anyway,” she said, “It was nice seeing you and all. Guess I’ll see you around?”
“Yeah,” he said, in what she knew to be a lie. “Catch you later. ”
He gave her another of those horrible, thin-lipped looks and waved at her. She waved back as he disappeared into private mode.
Georgia broke down sobbing after he left, fully aware that everyone could still see her on the Agora, that she had only made a fool of herself again, even if she had protected James from something worse. Her friend’s holograms frowned at her, whispering to one another, some of them taking a step forward as if to comfort her only to back off at the last moment. Georgia hid them and went into private mode.
She had to leave, return to the present.
That’s when she heard the sliding doors to the VR room open. Past-Georgia looked awful, like she’d finished another water bottle full of vodka. She wiped her mouth, as she entered the room. She struggled to keep her head steady, cocking it as she surveyed the VR room’s now all but empty bar. Her eyes widened when they fell on Present-Georgia.
“Hey,” she said, and advanced, zig-zagging into the room. “What’s goin on here, huh?”
Present-Georgia, using the sensor on her HUD, watched as the wormhole swirled ominously between them. She bolted forward, as if running to meet and embrace her past-self in the middle of the VR room and engaged her cloaking device. Past-Georgia shied at the sight of another version of herself running towards her, only to disappear like a specter. She lost her balance and fell backward. Before Past-Georgia could stand again, Georgia had jumped through the wormhole.
Back in the present, Georgia fell to the floor in a heap. She heard Karl pounding on the locked door to the lab. “Georgia!” he shouted, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Georgia clambered to her hands and knees, in the same position she’d last seen Past-Georgia.
“Let me in,” Karl called from behind the lab’s locked door. She heard him slam his fist into the wall, and then after a pause, swear loudly. Probably at the thought of having to begin the arduous process of unlocking the lab’s many lockdown security measures.
She had to go back, not to what was now maybe two hours earlier, a memory which was already gradually fading, replaced by a memory scarcely better, but to the start of her and James’s relationship. She had to go back to that night of their last class together and make it so they never dated to begin with.
Before she could contemplate the effect of changing an event years old, she set the coordinates on the archway for the courtyard outside her first college’s history building, five minutes before the end of class when she and Jameswould walk out together.
Karl was still swearing and typing away furiously on the security door’s keypad just outside the wormhole lab. It would be another five minutes at least before he could get to the eye and fingerprint verification, and then another minute for each of those to process before he could enter the lab. She would take care of everything in that time. She had to.
While she waited for the wormhole to get up and running again in the archway of the mini-collider, she checked her cloaking device and made sure the coordinates were correct. Once the liquid-like surface of the wormhole reappeared with jolts of electricity leaping across it, she stepped through.
Georgia found herself outside the old history building of her university back in the United States. A warm, pleasant spring breeze blew softly and the crepe myrtle’s fresh blossoms rained from the trees branches, jumping whenever the wind picked up. She had set the coordinates on the mini-colliders for the middle of one of the courtyard’s raised flower beds so she wouldn’t have to worry about a student accidentally walking or hover-boarding through the wormhole. Also, it was at this flowerbed she knew her past-self would linger before running after James.
Georgia crouched in the bushes, grateful for the breeze: anyone who saw the bushes move when she climbed out of the flower bed would assume it was only the wind.
She heard Karl faintly through the wormhole behind her, still trying to enter the lab. It sounded as if only a thin wall, rather than miles and years separated them.
Her heart leapt in her chest at the sound of her own laughter coming from the history building’s doorway. But when she saw herself and James walk out side-by-side, their every step synchronized, her past-self flushing with that odd mixture of fear and giddiness at her thoughts of their future together—something in Georgia changed. She no longer felt the nausea she’d experienced back in the VR room when she saw James talking with his new fiancee.
Now Georgia saw only James and herself, their relationship's history stretched out before her like a timeline on a high school history project. Yes, there were battles, perhaps more frequent than either of them wished, but between them were long stretches of growth and prosperity: Their first kiss, their first comical, fumbling attempts at love-making, and before both of these-- and now Georgia realized most pivotal of all--the first time they embraced one another. It was startling to realize the most potent, the most distinct moment of her relationship with James should have been so innocuous and occurred so early.
If Georgia didn’t stop her, in a few moments her past-self would fight through her doubts about approaching James and run after him. She’d tell him how silly it felt saying so, but she was grateful to have had the time to get to know him during this class- and, she knew it was stupid, but would he mind if she gave him a hug? He’d grin and say that was all right.
She remembered feeling small in his arms, remembered that beautiful, alchemical smell of cologne and cigarettes that she would come to associate with him—even hate eventually.
For all the pain their relationship had caused, Georgia knew she wouldn’t be who she was today without it, knew she was better for knowing him. She wasn’t sure, but she thought, hoped, he was better for having known her.
She wouldn’t interfere then. She’d go back through the portal and accept whatever chastisement she had to face from Karl and the university.
Past-Georgia and James were standing in the middle of the courtyard together now, bidding one another their initial farewell, then Past-Georgia would hesitate and run after him.
After a moment, James departed. But Past-Georgia made no sign of movement. A little longer and she still didn’t call out or pursue him. Georgia panicked. But then it occurred to her: the sensation she’d experienced that day, palpable as the touch of a friend…
Before she took a step she heard a commotion behind her, coming from the wormhole. Karl finally got into the room and was on his way. She saw his wavering image growing clearer as it drew closer and then he emerged, cloaked, but still visible to her through her heat sensor.
He grabbed hold of her tightly at the elbows and pulled her close.
“We gotta go,” he whispered through clenched teeth, “Do you have any idea how much trouble you’ll be in if the University finds out about this?” Georgia struggled to pull away, but he held fast to her.
“Let… go!” she said grunting with the effort to free herself. The surrounding bushes rustled with their movement.
“Quit struggling,” he said, “Someone will notice!”
Georgia went limp.
“Good,” Karl said, “Now, let’s go. ” He turned to walk back through the wormhole and when she didn’t make a move to follow he wheeled to face her again.
“No,” she said, calmly, full of conviction.
“What?” he said.
She explained to him what was about to happen, what had happened. Explained that if he didn’t let her go to her past self and urge her after James, space-time might be dramatically altered and, in fact, she might never meet Karl in the new timeline created by her not intervening. Karl stiffened, shook his head, and finally said, “All right. Then, go. ”
She knew Karl liked her from the start, knew how hard it must be for him to have to witness the beginning of the greatest relationship in her life up to now, to have to watch her make sure her past self and James fell in love.
Georgia said, “Thank you, Karl,” and stepped out of the flowerbed.
Next thing she knew, she was approaching her past self from behind. She felt like some kind of spirit as she slowly, gently placed her hands on her past self’s shoulders and squeezed. Past-Georgia stood up straighter and then as a particularly strong gust of wind blew, Georgia leaned in and said, “Go. ” She didn’t hang around to watch what happened next. She knew all about it already, had lived it and the memory was enough for her. She returned to where Karl stood waiting for her in the raised flower bed and followed him through the wormhole.
A few days later, Georgia agreed to grab a drink with Karl. Both alterations of the past had taken effect, so she had dated James for their five years, and she’d helped save him from doing his public striptease—though she still had to live with their last awkward conversation together.
Karl was kind enough not to tell the head of department what had happened, to destroy all evidence; and because he couldn’t stand not being able to at least try to date Georgia, he quit his job as the lab’s guard. He’d find another job soon enough, he assured her.
As for the University’s patrons complaining about her— she now knew that what would be, would be.
They sat at a corner booth at Doc’s, the real one, and laughed and talked over drinks. At one point, Karl excused himself to go to the restroom and Georgia sipped her vodka tonic and observed the bar’s exuberant crowd. One girl a few tables over was talking so loudly that the other customers had gone quiet and turned to stare at her. Georgia laughed at first but then she saw that the girl was James’s fiancee.
James himself sat on the other side of the table, holding up a hand to the waiter trying to refill his fiancee’s wine glass. She became belligerent and pouted, but rather than show any signs of anger James paid their tab and left a wad of bills on the tab. He wrapped one arm around his future wife’s shoulder, guiding her and holding her steady as they walked out together. She ceased struggling and leaned her head on his chest. He had to bend over slightly to kiss the side of her head.
Karl returned shortly after James and his fiancee disappeared through the bar’s door into the evening. He looked at Georgia and grinned as he asked:
“Why are you smiling?”