There's this story that I've been meaning to write for years. The story is about this woman - Louise - who, as a teenager, is sitting on a couch with her new boyfriend - Ryan - when suddenly he starts freaking out. He's hyperventilating and doesn't seem to know where he is or who she is anymore. He finally looks at her and says her name like a question - "Louise?" She thinks he's having a stroke.
Ryan is not having a stroke - he's a time traveler. In this story, you can only travel along your own body's timeline. He's actually a 50ish man who is now back in the body of his 16 year old self. We'll call this new personality Ryan(2). I've not quite figured out the mechanism for persuading Louise that Ryan(1) hasn't just gone insane but she is quickly convinced he's telling the truth.
Unfortunately, by sliding back into his younger self, he's more or less eradicated his earlier personality. Louise's present time is an old memory for him. Ryan(2) can barely recall anything about this time period.
There's one important thing Ryan(2) can recall, however, and its why he was able to leap to this moment in time. This method of time travel only works with any precision if you can really focus on a particular moment in your life. Ryan(2) remembered that a few weeks after he started dating Louise, he cheated on her with one of her friends and then broke up with Louise. He has regretted this ever since and this one night was his happiest one with her. He blurts all of this out.
This, of course, puts Louise in an awkward place. In her time, he hasn't cheated on her yet, but of course in his timeline he has and he's already broken up with her. Its pointless to argue if eradicated Ryan(1) has cheated or not yet because Ryan(2) did. More importantly, Louise recognizes that even though Ryan(2) is in Ryan(1)'s body, his personality is still that of a 50ish man. She's completely repulsed by him. She also starts mourning the younger Ryan that is now completely gone. She also realizes that the fact that she's encountering a time traveler is an infinitely bigger deal than any of the previous information. While Ryan(2) is blurting out his regret, Louise responds with all of these concerns.
Ryan(2) quickly explains that he didn't slide back in time to make things right with Louise. He slid back because he's trying to stop another time traveler from altering the timeline. Ryan(2) has deliberately arrived years before this other "clumsy" traveler so Ryan(2) can have time to track them down and prevent them from altering the timeline in a cataclysmic way
Despite all this backstory, Ryan(2) is ultimately not the main focus of this story. This part of the story provides context for Louise's story.
Shortly after he returns, Ryan(2) realizes he can't remember enough about the past to keep himself from significantly altering it with every choice he makes. He, too is a clumsy time traveler. He kills himself based on the assumption that he'd do less damage to history simply by taking himself out of the picture. He also figures if he dies now, he will no longer have the chance to travel back in time and, thus, might prevent at least his part in the whole sorry affair. Maybe things will revert back to the original timeline if he's gone.
Unfortunately, he just dies in front of Louise. Louise realizes several things at that moment.
First, she realizes that Ryan(2) actually must have slid into younger Ryan(1) from an alternate timeline - thus, there are alternate timelines.
Second, since this form of time travel involves entering alternate timelines, she theorizes that the person Ryan(2) was trying to stop wouldn't necessarily have slid back into the same alternate timeline Ryan(2) entered. There's no point in worrying about the clumsy time traveler that Ryan(2) was trying to stop.
Third, she realizes there's probably no way to protect her timeline - or any timeline - from a clumsy time traveler. To whit, as Ryan(2) proved, you can't protect a timeline without clumsily altering it yourself.
Finally, Louise decides that Ryan(2) gave her enough information about time travel for her to figure out how to do it herself. She goes to college and graduate school focusing on quantum physics and how it relates to the brain.
What she discovers (decades later) is that time travel isn't so much a technology as a technique that involves a mix of consciousness training and chemicals. After getting the chemical mixture correct and injecting them, she is able to momentarily see her whole life as a kind of solid object - like a snake that winds through everywhere she's been and everywhere she's going to go. She sees her whole life snapping back and forth on either side of her present moment like electricity as it snaps from one alternate timeline to another.
The only moments in her timeline that are even close to being fixed are the ones closest to present. She sees the present moment as ball of energy and she finds she can move this ball of energy back and forth along her timelines like sliding around a shower curtain ring. This is how time travel works. Louise mentally gives her present moment a little shove and discovers she's slid back to the moment before she injected the chemicals.
Louise decides to see if she can slide forward in time. She takes the chemicals again, gives her present moment a shove again and finds herself ten days in the future. She is in her own body but she has no recollection of what occurred during those ten days. She has eradicated her future self the same way that Ryan(2) eradicated his past self.
Louise keeps a journal, so she is able to read a little bit about what she did during that time, but the Louise that lived for those ten days has been replaced by Louise from ten days earlier. She's profoundly disturbed by this, since it means she's essentially killed the mind of a Louise from a different timeline. She decides to stay in this timeline and not travel anymore.
Louise wonders what happens to a time traveler's body after their "present consciousness" slides to an alternate timeline. She wonders if her body and a copy of her mind live on without her in the original timeline, perhaps convinced that her time traveling experiment failed. There's no real way for her to test this without observing somebody else taking the time travel injection.
She has enormous ethical reservations about this. First, there's everything she's grappled with regarding eradicating future and past personalities. Second, traveling to another timeline with knowledge of the future gives somebody a certain amount of potential power. She doesn't really trust anyone to leap into the past without trying to take advantage of the situation.
But then a shocking thing occurs. She meets this timeline's Ryan who is very much alive - we'll call him Ryan(3). She's slid into a timeline where he never traveled in time. He's very apologetic about their ancient break-up (which she, of course, didn't actually experience - which makes her realizes those ten missing days were the least of the things she eradicated when she slid into this timeline's Louise). Louise theorizes that Ryan(2)'s suicide in her timeline (and perhaps multiple timelines) meant that he hadn't lived to slide into this timeline's Ryan(3).
She makes complicated charts to keep track of all of this.
Ryan(3) hasn't gone into any field related to discovering time travel. Indeed, he just works in accounting at an insurance company. She starts trying to figure out how he might have learned how to time travel in the other timeline. In the process, they become friends again.
Eventually (and perhaps obviously), Ryan(3) finds out about time travel through Louise and he seems a little unhinged about it. He tells her that if only he hadn't cheated on her, they'd be a couple today and he needs to fix his mistake. Louise realizes the first future Ryan(2) she encountered was lying about his motives for traveling. He must have realized he'd made a dreadful mistake almost as soon as he arrived in the past and made up a story to explain his choice. Lacking the time travel chemical or the knowledge of how to make it, he was trapped.
Louise is too late to stop Ryan(3) from injecting himself with the time travel chemicals. Ryan(3) collapses into a coma-like state. The doctors can find no evidence of brain activity.
Louise has finally gotten to observe somebody initiating time travel from her current timeline. Ryan(3)'s brain dead state suggests that this is what happens to a body whenever the mind time travels. She ponders that there are two brain dead versions of her, including one in her original timeline. She thinks of the burden and horror this inflicted on her friends and family in that timeline. This strengthens her resolve not to use the time travel chemical ever again.
Gradually, though, she becomes terrified that at some point another version of her from another timeline is going to slide into her present body and erase her from existence. If she remains in her present timeline, she won't be erasing another timeline's Louise. However, if she stays in her current timeline, she has to trust that all other Louises in all other timelines will also decide not to time travel anymore.
Of course, she realizes there's an infinite number of alternate timelines which means there's an infinite number of Louises all pondering this same choice (and, perhaps, an infinite number of Louises who never even encountered time travel).
The story ends with Louise standing in her laboratory holding a needle with the time traveling chemicals. The reader is left to ponder whether she uses it or not.
Anyhow, this story has been darting around my brain for over thirty years, ever since I broke up with Louise.
Inspired by this song: