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You Can't

By Wesley Hodges All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Scifi

Time gained cannot be lost.

My fingers drummed a heartbroken rhythm against the half-there surface of a holo-board, almost aimlessly mashing the characters and symbols written into the air as faintly glowing white light. Over to my left somewhere a physical screen displayed the input I furiously beat out while above that a second screen, also physical but smaller and slightly older, showed the code being chewed through for inconsistencies.

Much of my den was like this now, a tired amalgam of old and new technologies thrown together in an attempt to bring her back. I wouldn’t rest until I achieved this and had severed all ties with everyone and everything I had known in my previous life. The only presence I allowed now was the companionship of my AI, an essentially dumb baseline helper program.

“William you’ve missed a whole expression here.” The voice was comforting, male and of inestimable age. I turned a fatigued glance to the uppermost screen but immediately came to regret the decision as an insistent pang of pain shot through muscles which had spent too long in one position. The highlighted block was displayed in a dashed orange border and a scowl was my only answer. Together we had been working on the complex issues that I had to bridge in order to carry out my personal mission, the only reason I was still alive. It helped enormously to have the AI helping me but there were still limitations to what it could do; it could not theorise or speculate new methods as a digital consciousness would have been able to but could only analyse the data I produced.

I grimly set about amending the neglected section of code.
"You can't."
Inwardly I grimaced at the tone of my voice and was reminded of the times my parents had told me that I couldn't. Couldn't go out, couldn't see this person, couldn't do whatever I wanted to at the confident age of fourteen. My daughter screamed in frustration and abruptly turned back up the stairs. A moment later I heard the unmistakable slam of an angry teen's bedroom door.

Finally the machine was complete. I had been forced to utterly vandalise a dead world in order to build it and now the barren planet was ensnared by the enormous machinations of my creation. Tremors shook the surface with brutal force and I watched with trepidation while the power levels climbed on violently illuminated displays, indicating that soon the machine would be ready.
Before me was a single uncluttered console but only one button really mattered. Only that one would have any impact whatsoever if I chose to press it. The others were redundancy controls but most of the machine was automated because I wouldn't have a chance of keeping up with it once it began operating.

"You can't."
The words were as good as a slap in the face. Tacitly I stared down the committee and it felt as if I were daring one of them to say those words a second time.
They all knew exactly why I had to do this and it enraged me that they would oppose the idea. What was the point of being in my position if I couldn't then use my knowledge and skills to my advantage? I was not about to simply stand by and let things play out as they had done. I was ready to interfere. I had been for weeks since my daughter had slipped out at night against my express order.

The loss of my AI had been a difficult decision but in the long run a necessary sacrifice. I would not repeat the mistakes of the last time and now that the automated systems were managed by something faster even than a standard quantum computing substrate the new machine would not fail me.
The most difficult part had been finding a stable star far enough from the Hub that my efforts would not be interfered with. My new machine trapped the star in immense panels and conduits; this time it had taken much longer and the wait had been excruciating, an insult to the very purpose I was trying to fulfil. Power had reached its minimum operational boundaries several weeks ago but having already been forced to so ponderously watch time tick by I had chosen to humour myself with a longer span to see how much my machine could take before collapsing. It had been amusing to watch the star's painful contractions while machine had dutifully worked away at the stellar furnace but now the time for such frivolity was over.
Soon after I activated my machine the star and its system would be rendered apart by forces scarce seen in the period of human expansion. They would never learn of what I had done, I would be the only person to hold that particular secret but when that time came, it wouldn't matter any more.

"You can't."
The man was shocked by the sound of my voice and spun around defiantly to oppose whoever would risk defying him. My own face looked back at me, younger by some immeasurable degree; he was startled at first and then quickly overcome with hateful accusation. He had just destroyed not only a star and its planets, along with an intelligent species; but an entire time-line and the two of us were the only people to know. To refer to us as people at this point though, was subjective, both alive for so long after anyone else would have chosen to move on and with minds that operated sufficiently differently as to make us nearly inhuman. For too long we had been driven by a single emotion and I had learned that this was irreversibly damaging.
"You can't stop it." I reaffirmed with a steady hand gripping his forearm before he could step out from the doorway to save his daughter -our daughter- from the death which had been the sole event driving us forward through our attempts. I looked away and forced him to do the same, making sure to capture his attention before he tried to bolt.
"I did it. It worked and I got her back." I confessed to him and a momentary lapse in his concentration saw him struggle to divide his thoughts between breaking loose and hearing that his daughter -my daughter- had been spared.
"Knowing what I did to get her back has destroyed any hope I ever had of enjoying our time together. I still see her dead every time I stand in front of her, every time I hear her voice. I remember the exact moment I was told-" He twisted violently trying to escape my hold and my left arm tensed, fist clenched as I swung upward hard to break his jaw.
"I remember when I was told what happened to her; what was done to her! I remember the inescapable time I spent alone!" My voice was raising now, there was a danger that she would hear so I hastily lowered my tone, "I was unable to love my daughter after I saved her. The only way we can show some degree of humanity now is to let her father lose her. You cannot replace him."

This time I had a second voice to accompany mine. We had confronted him the way that I had done so; catching our counterpart so soon after the loss of his daughter -our daughter- was vital. It was a risk; he now knew that travel backward through time was possible but had seen what he could into if he chose that path.
"You can't." I said and was quickly seconded.
"You can't."
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