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The Long Road Home · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Traveling Time
Today, he was young.

A sharp gust of wind swirled dust around his feet as he paused for a moment mid-stride to look around. There was little to see other than a blacktop road stretching into the distance with little flecks of green cacti clutching to the landscape like tacks, holding down the reddish-brown of dry dirt. He continued his interrupted stride, as there was nothing to gain by bemoaning his fate or studying his desolate surroundings any more.

Roads, both real and metaphorical, had two ends. There was a starting place where you did not want to be, and an ending place where you did, as well as the middle part, which he knew all too well. The dry crunch of dust and sand beneath his booted feet formed a familiar pattern, an interface with which to preserve his sanity. There was no reason to turn around and go back, or the original inhabitant of this body would have been going that way in the first place. Quite obviously, the young man had a destination, and unless he wanted to mess with causality, he should continue on as if nothing had changed.

Even the smallest insignificant thing could knock him out of the timestream and into another time and place, as he had already done a thousand times before and would likely do a thousand times more, or until he could finally find the end of his road. At least this time he was a human, and a man somewhat into his maturity if the itchy bristles on his chin were any indication. It was a slim comfort, because wildly alien forms did not cause as much mental stress as being in a body nearly identical to his original one, only with different plumbing.

There was even an additional bonus to this form, as he could weakly feel the ebb and flow of magic all around. It was magic which had placed him on the road, both that and his own stupidity. The wisest of the wise had told him not to tinker with the most elemental building block of reality, but he had wired it up and proceeded to tweak the heck out of it just to prove them wrong.

Some proof.

The universe hated paradox with a burning passion. Time was supposed to only go one direction. Turning it back on itself caused loops and tangles in the seven-dimensional thread. A wise wizard would simply have listened to the voices of experience, admitted the equations did not balance in that direction, or at least paid attention to the fact that every time a previous wizard attempted to travel back in time, they vanished and never appeared again.

The foolish always think themselves wiser than those who came before, even as they make the exact same mistakes which only prove them to be bigger fools.

They were thoughts which he had thought countless times, fading into a fog in which his entire being threatened to dissolve. There was a beginning to this road, and so, so much middle, but the end blurred into nothingness. Time had ceased to have meaning after… after something. It was important, but the thoughts slipped through his mind. Skills remained, much like riding a bicycle, but the impetus behind those skills had faded until he no longer knew his own name, or just when he had made his fated decision to break the laws of time. If he did not find his way off the road soon…

A building stood before him, chunky and mostly concrete with a colorful green plastic dinosaur advertising its products. Time was losing meaning to him, as it only counted the amount of stuff between things, and if the stuff was all the same, like steps, it was only one thing.

The sun seemed to be lower as it burned on the back of his neck, but he stopped at the familiar blue and red machine outside the filling station instead of going inside where he could hear the purr of an ancient air conditioner. While fumbling his wallet out for a bill, he spotted a driver’s license and a name. Toby. That was good. Toby. He held onto the name as his hands went through the ritual of inserting the bill, and then sticking it back in again when the machine spit it out…

“Hey, Mister.” A lean kid came strolling out of the air conditioning, wiping his hands on a red rag. “The bill widget on that thing is busted. Here.” He did a motion and Toby felt the familiar surge of magic as the side of the machine opened up. A few quick motions inside the machine and it was closed back up, with a cold soda in his hand as well as his change.

“Nice touch,” said Toby, letting the magic of his body flow for a moment until the kid gave him a sly nod. “But you knew already, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.” The kid took a drink out of his own soda and nodded at the metal gas can Toby was carrying, which he had not noticed until now. “Felt you coming up the road. I’m stronger than I look.”

“More humble too,” said Toby almost instantly. “Are we done measuring each other, or do I need to unzip my pants.”

The kid goggled at him before breaking out in a genuine laugh, one that Toby recognized from somewhere long ago, but that remained stubbornly out of grasp as just the wisp of a memory.

“I’m Floyd,” said the kid. “Take it you need some gas.”

“I’m Toby,” said Toby. “Yes to the gas, and how do you expect to be a wizard with a name like Floyd?”

“Same way you expect to be a wizard by running your car outta gas on the road,” said the kid.

The old and dusty gas station had an old rusty tow truck that matched perfectly with the decor, except for the way it fairly hummed down the road back in the direction he had been walking. Toby kept a thoughtful frown as he watched the kid drive, trying to bring out the flickering of memory swimming in the fog of his mind. He wanted to ask, but even the slightest deviation from causality and he would be gone again, drifting, until he touched another life, became another An’thock, or Haerod, or Chen Wi in a foreign land. Still, there was something familiar here that itched at his mind, and another piece of the incomplete puzzle fell into place as he looked out of the front windshield and pointed.

“There’s Lola.”

Red paint and chrome hid a 289 V8 with twin pipes and a custom carburetor, all memories of this body that flooded into his head and most probably pushed some unseen memory of his own away forever. The trip had been conducted in relative silence up to this point, but the kid shook his head as he pulled the old tow truck in next to the shiny Mustang.

“Not a touch of magic on that old heap,” he groused. “How can you throw that thing down the highway without a few enchants, some protective runes. Not even an airbag.”

The prospect for paradox tettered on the edge. Causality was an unforgiving rule, one of the few that he could still remember. A single word, a glance at his watch, or even a step in the wrong direction and he would be gone, and Toby would continue on with his life just as if a time-lost wizard had not borrowed his life and material body.

“Life’s too short to wrap it up in protective runes,” said Toby out of some strange instinct. “You just gotta point your nose down the road and follow where it leads.”

“So, where are you going?” asked the kid as they got out and walked over to the stranded car.

“Don’t know for sure,” said Toby in a sudden burst of honesty. “I know where I started and where I am, but I suppose I’ll know where I’m going when I get there.”

“Seems a waste of time,” said the kid. He popped the hood on the Mustang and Toby could feel the surge of magic sweeping over the cold iron and aluminum of the engine. “That can of gas won’t get you anywhere. Fuel pump is cracked. Feels like… the lever, I think.”

“What kind of fun is that?” Toby chased the kid back and closed the hood. “Hook ‘er up and let’s work on it back in the garage. I’ve got most of a trunk full of spares, ‘bout have to with this antique, an’ I think there’s a fuel pump in there somewhere. Besides, that way we can work in the shade.” He looked up in the sky at the relentless sun, seeming frozen at an awkward angle and just as hot as if it were a few feet away.

“What good is having magic if you don’t use it?” The kid backed up the tow truck to the Mustang with practiced ease and attached the tow straps, about half by hand and the other half by not. He climbed back into the driver’s seat with Toby beside him and began to drive back to the service station, only slightly slower than before.

It could have been a few seconds or a few hours later when Floyd spoke up again. The time-skip was a bad indication of how Toby was slipping back into the chronal fog and showed a high probability of… something.

“How can anybody not know where they’re going on a road?” Floyd pointed ahead of him at the shimmering glimmer of green on the horizon where the empty service station waited on them. As far as Toby could tell, the two of them were the only human beings within a hundred miles, or possibly in the entire world.

“You know where you are,” said Toby. “You know where you started, but can you ever really know where you’re going or when you’ll get there?” The faint waver of reality gave notice that he had brushed up against paradox again, but he pushed ahead. “The only way you can tell all that is if you’re at the end of your journey.”

“Well, I ain’t at the end of my road, Mister Toby.” The kid shifted down gears and carefully backed the antique convertible into the mechanic’s bay of the service station. He kept quiet until the tow truck was parked and the both of them could pop the Mustang’s hood and look down into the mechanical maze it was hiding. Floyd gave off a low whistle as a toolbox obediently rolled across the concrete floor and nestled up next to him. “You weren’t kidding. No magic at all, not so much as a drabble. You sure you just want to plug in a mundane spare? Wouldn’t do you no harm to put a little hoo-doo under your hood.”

The attitude of the kid reminded Toby far too much of himself at that age, all cheeky and ready to use magic to solve any problem. He had gotten started on cars… or was it trucks? See a problem, find a spell to fix it, even if that spell made a bigger problem.

When he had first been swept away in the backwash from the time-traveling spell, he had grabbed frantically onto every single thread or string of magic he could find and pulled, or at least tried to pull before paradox swept him out into the time-stream again. It was an old habit, but had been washed away with most of his memories much as a cloth in bleach.

“Truth is, I like a challenge,” said Toby. “Shortcuts make the victory hollow. I know people who have kayaked down a roaring rapids, dove naked into arctic water, and gone up the side of a mountain with nothing more than a length of clothesline and a few little sticks. No risk, no reward.”

“Huh.” The kid made little or no response other than to make a pass over the engine and light up the working area. “You want to break your nut over something easy, go ahead. I’ll get the old fuel pump out if you go find that spare you were talking about, and no magic. I promise.”

The trunk was a wealth of parts in boxes and bags, which Toby searched through with only the vaguest idea of what a fuel pump looked like. It had been… time since he had last changed a fuel pump by hand. He grabbed a part by instinct and gave it a quick once-over, wriggling the little lever that stuck out and assessing its fuel-pumpieness. The lever was a solid piece of metal jiggled by a cam which caused a membrane to force gas along the fuel line, and seemed unlikely to break, even though he could remember vaguely the sound the end made when it bounced down inside of an engine like—

“Shit!” There was a faint musical sound of metal falling, bouncing twice, and ending with a little click as the broken fragment of fuel pump lever landed somewhere deep and inaccessible in the engine. A similar sound seemed to echo around in his own head, and Toby looked up abruptly at the young man peering into the hole where the broken fuel pump had just been removed.

Well, most of the pump.

He paced up to the front of the car where Floyd was peering into the engine and placed the replacement fuel filter on the parts tray, then wordlessly went over to the tool bench. There was a bent-up clothes hanger among the bits and pieces of junk, which he unwound and began to bend in various twists and turns.

“What are you going to use that for?” asked Floyd. “If you’re just going to use magic to fish it out, you can just—”

It was difficult to think of the blotchy-faced young kid as himself, only younger, but Toby smiled a knowing grin back and waved the bent coathanger as if it were a wand. “You’re likely to crack the pan or bend something if you just use magic without your brain, kid. You want the missing part to come back out the same way it went in, because that’s the way it works. See?”

He pushed the coat hanger into the dark hole in the engine, twisting and bending as he could feel the blunt end descend, then touched the back end of the wire with a shop magnet. It took a gentle touch of magic, just barely a feather, but when he fished the wire back up out of the hole, the broken end of the lever was clinging there securely, and even matched when placed up against the original broken part, indicating that no more little fragments were lurking around in the engine gears.

“Huh,” said his younger self, picking up the new fuel filter and fitting it into the hole. “That’s the hard way, all right. And you still used magic, even if it was just a little bit.”

As he watched his younger self bolt the new fuel pump in, Toby considered his own words. It was obvious he remembered them from his youth or he never would have been able to repeat them to himself, and therefore dodge paradox for the moment. Still, they were good words, and they made the whole world seem to rotate slightly around him. If only his younger self would have paid more attention to Toby and not tried to muscle through everything with magic, he never would have been in this situation, but then again, paradox brushed close with even the thought.

It was odd that he would gain new inspiration into the direction of his travels at a gas station, but also somehow normal, as it was where you asked directions when you were lost. The only thing was you did not normally get those directions from your younger self. When he had first used the spell, he had made a mistake by viewing time travel as the Gordian Knot and thinking he had the sword to solve it. Instead, it was a road, and sometimes you had to go back to where you started in order to finish a journey.

The Mustang started with a throaty roar, making that ‘glub, glub’ noise that he could still hear somewhere deep in his chest even with the engine off and the gas pump pouring dead dinosaur remains into the cavernous tank. A few more bills got transferred in exchange, which gave him a brief glance at the rest of his driver’s license and a little insight into the twisted humor of his unwitting host body, Mister Knottube, but before he pulled the car back out onto the highway to resume his interrupted journey, he gave a little wave to his previous self.

“Hey, kid.” Toby gave the young boy a thumbs up, which triggered the boy’s warm smile. “Be—”

And he was gone, whisked back into the time-stream in the flicker of a moment. What he had wanted to say was for his younger self to be careful, but that had been just far enough away from the real Toby Knottube’s historical words that his unwitting passenger had been plucked away from his host before he could say it.

Still, he had a goal. He was broken, but if he could trace his path back along the trail of breakage while keeping his mind, he might just be able to get out of this intact. The familiar tug of the time-stream tossed him to and fro, rising to a shrill roar and—

Today he was old.

Everything in his body ached in one way or another, from his… no, her female parts down to her feet. Thin shriveled hands holding onto a walker matched the rest of her aged body, with a little bit of blue-white hair peeking down from her forehead, or as much as she could see through blurred vision. The distant sound of cars made her aware of the crosswalk she was standing in front of, which looked to be nearly the same age as her body, as it had faded and peeled until it was only a suggestion, and the button on the post which would stop traffic had long since been pegged by some youthful degenerate with a hammer.

Still, she recognized where she was with a tiny inside smile. Why does the little old lady cross the road? Why, to get to the other side, of course.

“Missus Snodwick?” The voice was strong and deepening, as was the young man wearing just the hint of what would someday be a magnificent mustache. He had a pleasant smile as he touched her on the arm, and although this body had no magic, she knew what was going to come next. “Would you allow me to help you across the street?”

“Thank you, young man.” She watched out of the corner of blurry eyes as the crosswalk signal changed and traffic stopped. “I can cross myself.” She wobbled out into the traffic lane as the young man paced along beside her with one warm hand on her elbow. Her or his younger self looked a few years older than before, with a deep tan from his desert job.

“It’s no problem,” he said, sticking with her until they reached the other side and helping her over the curb. “Glad to help.”

She patted him on the wrist and nodded. “You’re a good boy. It’s so nice in this day and age to see somebody willing to help others.”

Even through her blurred vision, she could see the smile spread over her younger self’s face like a beacon. It was a thread to follow as the world once again dissolved into temporal fuzz and she was swept out into the time-stream, one step closer on her journey down the road.

And home.
« Prev   11   Next »
#1 ·
· · >>georg
Is this thinly veiled Quantum Leap fanfiction?
#2 · 1
· · >>georg
Traveling Time

This is a cool idea if a tad derivative, introduced skilfully. A few hints of mystery come along with the major conceit, and I find myself hooked.

And a bit later, I like the contrasts here: From the aetherial, almost mythic intro, we get into a very earthy scene, which keeps the whole thing grounded … and a discussion about magic and hubris, which keeps it from getting too grounded.

Some nice, quite subtle revelations … and a nice, quite subtle ending, foreshadowed with metaphor.

Yes, I like this. My complaint, I suppose, is that it nudges up against a couple of interesting concepts (like hubris and paradox) without really going anywhere with them. It's not as deep, or involved as I hoped it would be. But it's well written, and works well with the prompt.
#3 ·
· · >>georg

What was his answer in the end?

I liked the world-building and character work you've done here. It kinda edges up on solipsism, which I'm not really partial to, but it dodges just to the side. Unfortunately, while it starts well, the ending just kinda peters out, without giving me much in the way of resolution or satisfaction.

This is good, but I can't shake the feeling that it could have been a lot better.

Oh, unrelated story.

I knew a guy, an aircraft mechanic, who's fuel pump broke down once somewhere in the boonies. He didn't have a phone on him, and hiking seemed like too much trouble, so he unhooked the pump that sprays the windshield with wiper fluid, drained the water out of it, and filled it with gas before hooking it up to his gas line. Whenever his engine started sputtering, he just hit the button on the end of his wiper lever for a bit...

Got him to the next town at least. :P
#4 ·
· · >>georg
An interesting concept though I can't help but think that I've seen this idea before, maybe more than once, though for the life of me I can't remember where. It's infuriating.

Personally, although there is some nice worldbuilding here, what with the hint that there is magic behind a more mundane world in a Harry Potter kind of way, it is so vague that it annoyed me. I wasn't sure how things were supposed to be or how out of the normal the interaction with the kid was or if that's how it often went, simply meeting each other and going their own way or a more organized system somewhere else or... Very, very vague with no hints to entice me to wonder what else is there getting me, as I said, annoyed.

Also, I'm not sure what the MC is supposed to be doing. Is following that thread going to get him somewhere where he can make a change, is he only supposed to see his own moments and what got him to his situation, is it simply a random occurence that he ends up at places he knows as he goes through... well, everything? We don't know, and I get the feeling that he doesn't know either. There's no plan, at least as I understood it, and he feels like a "leaf in the wind" protagonist that has been stripped of all possible action. I think this story would fit better a whole other different kind of story or prompt, perhaps one of powerlessness, rather than the current one.
#5 ·
· · >>georg
Huh. I like the slow reveal on the paradox and causality. I might be slow, but it took me until the fuel pump before I realized who Toby was chatting with.

In terms of critique, this story took a little longer than necessary to get started. The whole first 500 words or so seemed unneeded, just jabbering about roads and how they have two ends. Perhaps its my biases showing, but I always feel an author should start as close as possible to the story's essential action.

But that's nit-picking. I liked the idea here, and the way it slowly developed. The vehicle repair reminded me of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," which actually had a scene with a small metal part dropped into the deep recesses of an engine block. Before I read that, it had never occurred to me that mechanics had these sorts of problems.

Magic probably helps, I guess.
#6 ·
Whoops, I forgot to put in my admission.

Confession for Traveling Time - Woot, sixth place out of twenty-two isn’t bad, particularly considering the company I’m keeping in that slot, the stupidly short period of time I spent writing (Mom had a health issue I had to help with), and the handcuffs I stuck on the plot.

Summary in short: A modern wizard who dared to try traveling in time despite the better advice of his peers is lost in the timestream, with every effort he makes to change his path failing. In the story, he meets his previous self, and begins to follow that thread back toward the timespace of his bad decision. Hopefully, he can survive until then and emerge back into the world. I even have a dialogue worked out for this.

The flashing sorcerous lights and burning incense faded, revealing the wizard still seated in the middle of his circle of runes and magical wards, now all charred and burnt beyond repair. The apprentice peeked from around the wall where he had taken refuge when the spell had begun and considered the molten stone now cooling on the walls and the subject of the spell, seemingly unaffected.

“Master?” he ventured, hoping there was no demonic infestation involved. Those were always a pain to clean up. “Master?” he repeated, in the hopes of getting an answer this time.

“Yes,” said the wizard, although he took a deep breath afterward and squinched his eyes together. “Yes,” he repeated before opening one eye and regarding his apprentice with a wry quirk in the corner of his lips.

“Did the spell fail?” asked the apprentice. “You’re still here.” He winced after making the statement, as if he had just declared the sky to be blue or the thaumetric field to be slippery.

“Everybody’s gotta be somewhere,” said the wizard. He got up and picked his way out of the charred circle and over to the apprentice, who was still running through a few rudimentary cantrips for the detection of demonic possession or loose spirits, just in case.

“Oh. So it did fail.” The apprentice heaved a sigh. “I suppose I should get to work cleaning up so you can try again.”

“Not a chance.” The wizard clapped a hand on the apprentice’s shoulder and turned him toward the door. “We’re going to go down to the auto dealer, pick out a red convertible, and do a little driving today. Life’s too short to repeat. You just need to grab all of it you can the first time around.”

“Can I—” started the apprentice.

“Yes,” said the master with a sigh and a grin. “I’ll let you drive it too.”

>>Cold in Gardez
>>Scramblers and Shadows

The major restriction on this story is, of course, agency. The POV character has almost zero ability to affect the world around him, because if he even tries, he gets swept away by the timestream and into another body before he can trigger a paradox. This is (pardon the word) huuuuge. The turning point comes when he realizes he’s been trying to affect the world when he should have been trying to affect himself (the himself that is skipping through time, not the himselves he’s been visiting).


Quantum Leap (5 seasons - 89-93) is well worth the DVD and holds together despite being twenty five years old (ouch, I feel like a fossil), but in it, Sam Beckett is actively trying to fix time problems to prevent paradox (so he has agency).

The actual goal of this was to write a character without agency and see what direction his decisions would go on account of this. I think I did a fair job, but could have done better. I really need to work on my gentle touch.

Naa, I think I’ll keep ripping people’s hearts out with cute little ponies :)