I have a huge weakness for time travel stories (well, duh! I'm writing one!) and AU stories. HUUUUUUGE. And nothing makes me happier than a time travel or AU concept done right or in a new and interesting way.
Books and genre television are litered with time travel and AU stories, usually as one-offs in a long-running series (although I think Voyager's "Year in Hell" block of episodes and the occassional crossovers with the "Bearded Spock" universe on Deep Space Nine are the exceptions to the rule). Quantum Leap used time travel as a framework for its series, but Don Bellisario said it was nothing more than a device to do a Twilight Zone-style anthology series using two familiar characters to draw the audience in on a week-to-week basis.
By and large, time travel works as a one-off. Quantum Leap when it stuck with its anthology roots worked, but the second they tried to arc it with the "evil leaper" concept and then dropped Sam home for an episode where we met his wife, they lost me. I really had no interest in seeing "the women and men behind the curtain" and was perfectly satisfied to keep them confined to Al's throw-away lines. And let me come clean and say that I was one of the few that actually loved the series-ender for Quantum Leap although a lot of fans were outraged.
The problem with time travel stories is that they're usually done poorly or come complete with a big ol' reset button. Much as I loved BtVS's Wishverse, Anya's amulet was the reset. The "Year in Hell" block for Voyager was reset in a big way. The "Bearded Spock" universe was safely in an alternative universe next door.
Sometimes time travel stories are ham-handed as they try to pour one of several concepts down your throat:
1) Time can't be changed and the past and the future are fixed (so long free will, hello fatalism)
2) It's just an alternate universe anyway, so futz up the time line all you want (free will trumps over the force of history)
3) If 2 is the case, well, your (or the character's) true reality is better anyway so, see? You really do live in the best of all possible worlds (mindless opitmism)
4) Doesn't matter anyway because there's a reset button that'll make everyone forget (what was the point again?)
Problem is, the majority of time travel stories usually fall into one of the above categories. Rare is the time travel story that manages to balance the fine line betwee free will and destiny.
One television series that I think got it right was, of all things, Red Dwarf. By and large, Red Dwarf falls into the fatalist camp. To quote Rimmer: "What will happen is what will be happening because it already has happened." But, and here's a big but, no matter how much Da Boyz from Da Dwarf think they know about the future, it turns out that they don't know the future at all. What they know are a handful of facts, but, they don't know how they got there and they don't know what happens after.
Even better, they may know the facts are right, but facts that are right can, in fact, be dead wrong.
Time and time again, Da Boyz have found themselves in the Time Travel trap (Cat remarks in S7's Tikka to Ride that all four of them had been photocopied more times than the poster with the tennis girl scratching their butt.) to the point where they believe they're experts. By the time S8's Cassandra rolls around, Lister is practically a fatalist when it comes to prophecies from the future. However, Rimmer (not the hologram that spent seven years bumbling around the universe, but a newly recreated Rimmer who knows very little about Da Boyz's adventures) points out that there's always a loop hole.
And there always is in the Dwarf universe. It boils down to one thing: information. As noted above: you can have a handful of facts, but in the grand scheme of things, facts can be manipulated depending on who tells it and if you don't know other pertinent information, you can't say yea or nay.
Looking over the series' many, many tweaks at time travel, a pattern very much emerges: Past Boyz get information that something is going to happen and sometimes they try to change the past. However, because they don't know that B happens between A and C, the future is not what they think. Not by a long shot.
In short: some things are going to happen, no matter what. The accident still happens on Red Dwarf killing everyone but Lister and his pet cat. Lister is still going to have twin boys. Lister never avoids joining the Space Corp thanks to a stolen invention that would make him rich. Holly will never get that intelligence upgrade. The Inquisitor still fails to take out Lister and Kryten and replace them with "more worthy" placeholders. JFK still dies. Lister still manages to accidently kill Cassandra.
But...and this is a big but...there's still enough wiggle room for free will to have its say. They can't avoid the accident in Stasis Leak because Rimmer-then thinks he's hallucinating on freaky mushrooms. Rimmer trips up Lister's plans to avoid the Space Corps by stealing the invention that Lister stole, which in a round-about way puts the invention back in the hands of its rightful owner. Who told Lister to sleep with his female counterpart in an alternative universe and get pregnant? And Cassandra lacked important information (the real identity of the real Rimmer) and so was unable to avoid her fate no matter how hard she tried to manipulate events to her liking.
Another story that seems (to me) to get it right is the latest Terry Pratchett novel. Now, I'm not a fan of the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork stories (one of the many groups of characters Pratchett follows in his rollicking Discworld books--people, this is how to do a universe up right--don't bother making one long continuous series following the same ever-expanding cast of characters, make a lot of little ones following groups of characters interspersed with stand alone stories), but my brother, knowing my weakness for good time travel stories, insisted that I read Night Watch.
Man, is he right. I'm in the middle now and I sense that kind of sly, sophisticated sensibility about time travel that I see in Red Dwarf, although he tackles it from another angle. Pratchett isn't just taking on the concept of time travel, but also alternate universes. The Monks of Time (who are meddling to fix time) aren't entirely sure how time works either, but they think they have hit on something:
1) There is only one past and one future, but there are always two presents. In short, it's what you do right here and right now that creates the future as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
2) Just because it's physically possible for something to happen, it does not follow that it will even in an alternate universe. Some things just will never happen. As Sweeper points out to Vimes, while it is physically possible for him to kill his beloved wife, there is no universe in any reality where that will ever happen simply because Vimes, at his core, no matter what the circumstances, is still Vimes.
*hugs novel close*
Now granted, it's a bit of a fanwank on my part, but there seems to be that all-important balance. The future is the future, yeah. But there's a lot of wiggle room in the middle simply because people from the past looking forward cannot possibly know or understand the universe surrounding those facts.
And what goes one way, has to go the other. Think about this. Even in our own lives, how often have we looked at pictures of our younger selves and wondered, "What the hell was I thinking when I wore that?" Or even better, "I'm nowhere near as fat as I thought I was at that age, so why did I think I was fat?"
Even in our own lives, we forget or don't realize the important things that lead up to the turning points in our lives. For example, we know we broke up with that boyfriend/girlfriend and we know we must've loved them because we were devastated when it happened. But 10 years on, we may be hard-pressed to figure out why we loved them to begin with or why we thought it was a foreva kind of love or why we thought the whole soulmate deal applied you and that other person.
We can read about historical events: the Salem Witch Trials, the McCarthy era, World War I, and wonder, deep down inside, "Okay, I get the A-B-C. I know the time line inside and out. But what the hell really happened."
It's this kind of wondering that leads to historians revising history: not necessarily beacuse they want to alter our understanding of history, but because they have found something that throws everything we know out of whack, like the Mayan city that shows all the signs of classical Mayan civilzation a century before we thought it happened.
In a lot of ways, love of time travel and love of history is why I got sucked so deeply in Living History. It was supposed to be a short and sweet story with maybe three chapters, but certainly less than ten. Certainly nothing long, just long enough for Catherine and company to cause chaos and leave. Yet I just got caught up: if we are to believe that Buffy's plan to empower all the Potentials was a history-changing event, then how can that not affect the future? Plus, given that the Council had been blown up and Sunnydale destroyed, it is entirely possible that there is very little (if anything) by way of contemporary information about what really happened. So, anything Catherine and company might think they know would depend on a couple of things:
1) Information recorded and written after the fact
2) Information that's missing simply because the Scoobies and their contemporaries might not think such vital information is important enough to record
3) Faulty memories, not because people are lying, but because people tend to forget details and because everything that happens afterwards colors your perception of the past. Quick: What exactly did you think when you saw the Twin Towers fall on Septemper 11? What did you say? Can you describe the people and the area around you? Are you sure you remembered everything? Are you sure you remembered it right?
4) Who's telling the story? One person might focus on one thing. Another person might focus on another. Check out the four gospels sometime. There are a lot of similaries between three out of the four (the synoptic gospels), but even they tend to empahsize different events and facts. And let's not get into the apocrapha that were not included in the present-day Christian bibles because they failed to meet a certain litmus test.
And that's something as hardcore as learning the "facts." It doesn't get into a whole host of other things such as the point of view of a modern-day person reading accounts of history; cultural assumptions of the source material and the reader, etc. All of these soft psychological issues have an impact on our understanding of the past. No matter how much we may think we get it and understand, we really can't because we weren't there.
In short, as baffled as people from the past might be upon receiving information from the future, people from the future (I can't help but believe) would be equally baffled when faced with the reality of the past.
And it still comes down to that one word: information. Who has it. Who's got it. How it's transmitted. How it's recorded. How it's forgotten. How it's twisted. How it's not recorded. All of this comes into play. Sometimes it's for nefarious purposes. But usually, I suspect, it comes down to simple human nature with nothing more sinister than our own faulty memories.
In a lot of ways, when it comes to Living History I'd like to think that Xander and Faith will be wondering, "What the hell was that?" And contemplating the very idea that someone like Catherine is rooted somewhere in them. They don't see the 824 years in between them and her and even if they did, they could never really understand it. The fact of her is just a fact. But they're at A and Catherine stands in the middle of the alphabet at M. Xander and Faith can't see the letters between themselves and her, although they might pick up the letter C and the letter E along the way, it's all disconnected and is not a simple case of 1 1=2, esepcially when they keep getting the answer of 42.
As for Catherine, she may know all the letters between herself and her Founders, but, she may not understand that the letters hide words, feelings, and unrecorded moments that would make sense of the now-jumbled order she sees.
And there is where there's the wiggle room for free will. It's written in stone, and yet it isn't. It'll happen, but how you get there is still unknown. Knowing the handful of facts does not a destiny make. It doesn't tell you where the seed was planted or who planted it. It doesn't tell you if the future starts today, or if it started eight years ago, or if it'll start five years from now.
Or as Lister put it: "You're born. Then you die. But the bits in between: that's what's called life."
I'd like to think that when it's all said and done, I've written the kind of time travel tale that I'd happily read over and over again. I'd like to think I struck that kind of balance between the convention and my own ideas. I'd like to think I've given destiny and free will their props in how they interract with our lives.
Or, as Sweeper puts it in Nightwatch: What people do matters. What people do is important. The multiverse isn't infinite and people's choices are far more vital than they think. They can, by what they do right here and now, change the universe.
And if I get it right, I'd like to thank Red Dwarf and now, Terry Pratchett, for putting the idea in my head.
Wow. Sorry about the soap box guys. But I was very much inspired today and very much relieved that the ending I've got plotted out for Living History isn't a completely off-base notion.
Ummm, right. On with the story:
Up to part 52 can be found here
Continued from here
Barbara flipped way from the snake’s flashing jaws. While a nice move, one Xander certainly could appreciate for its sheer Gold Medal-worthy beginning, if he were the Russian judge he’d be shaving points off for her landing.
Especially since she landed right into him.
He fell to the ground tangled up with one yelping Slayer and watched helplessly as his crossbow skittered away from him.
“Barbara,” he began as he extracted himself and yanked the girl to her feet, “word of advice: when you’re surrounded by people helping you fight in close quarters, do not go all Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
“Sorry,” she apologized.
Robin danced backwards and Xander discovered that he really, really wanted that sword in the other man’s hands, especially since he’d lost his primary weapon and all he had was a tiny throwing axe that would do shit-all against a scale-clad monster with big sharp teeth.
Vi had managed to get close and give the snake a good jab with her sword, but didn’t manage to draw blood.
HISSSSS! (Hey! Watch where you’re sticking that thing!)
With a flick of a tail, Vi discovered that sliding on gravel hurt like hell, something Xander could’ve told her considering he’d had so much experience.
Robin reached his side, “Okay, walnuts didn’t work. Can you remember anything else?”
Xander hungrily coveted his neighbor’s sword, but since knocking Robin out and stealing his weapon was a good idea only in the world of video games, he would just have to live with the burning envy.
“Something about teamwork splitting the team…” Xander began.
“Guys! Help!” Lisa screamed as she kept smacking the snake in the snout as its tongue harassed her.
GGRRRRR! (Hold still little mousy. Hoooooold stiilllll….)
“Vi, Barbara, Sally! Help her!” Robin snapped while Xander desperately searched his brain for the words that he once believed were burned into it.
“Wait, that’s it!” Xander reached out and grabbed Robin. “Teamwork that splinters the team. We have to split up again!”
“Are you out of your mind!” Robin yelled back.
“No, no! It makes sense,” Xander waved at the cave that lead to the others. “If that thing is guarding the grail…”
“Looks more like it’s trying to eat us,” Robin pointed out.
“Whatever. But we have to get it away from the entrance and we’ve got four tunnels to choose from to make it chase us. The one we came in and the three spares,” Xander said.
Four Slayers let out a unified yelp as the snake tried to scoop them up in one swallow.
Robin let out a huff of breath. “Worth a shot.”
“Right,” Xander nodded as he charged over to the Slayers. “Ladies, we gotta split up!”
“Head for one of the tunnels” Robin shouted as he followed Xander. “Make a lot of noise when you get in there so we’ll be able to draw it down at least one of the passages.”
“Are you nuts?” Sally bounced away from the snake on the balls of her feet, sword at the ready.
“We have to draw that thing away, so try to get it to chase you,” Xander said as he edged for one of the three tunnels. “Maybe we can trap it in there and finish it off. Meet back here when you figure out that it’s not chasing you.”
“This has to be the stupidest idea,” Vi growled as she grabbed Barbara and charged for one of the tunnels.
“Right!” Sally agreed as she grabbed Lisa and zipped to a different tunnel.
Xander sprinted to a tunnel while he heard Robin’s sword make a dull metallic clang against the snake’s skin, probably to distract monster-breath while they all made a break for it. He stumbled into the narrow passage and retreated from the entrance, looking around for some good-sized rocks to toss around.
He was probably going to go to hell for thinking this, but he really hoped that their slithery opponent would go after someone who was actually able to outrun it, say, a Slayer.
While his back was turned to the entrance, something heavy landed into his backside. Without thinking he twisted around, dropped into a crouch, and shot out a kick in a move Catherine taught him.
“Shit!” was followed very quickly by a metallic clanking sound.
As Xander spun back into a standing position, he saw the following:
1. Robin was on the ground clutching his knee and;
2. Robin was unarmed.
“What the hell are you doing here!” Xander shouted. “You’re supposed to get your own damn tunnel!”
“I didn’t know you were in here!” Robin shouted back. “Ow! Knee! Why…”
“I didn’t know it was you,” Xander helped Robin to his feet. “I thought you were the snake.”
“And, what, kicking it in the nose is going to kill it?” Robin asked as he flexed his right knee.
“Worth a shot if you think you’re going to be eaten,” Xander pointed out. “I, uh, can you still run if you have to?”
“Hurts like a son of a bitch, but the adrenalin tells me I’ll pay later instead of now,” Robin gingerly put his weight on his right leg. “Nice shot, by the way.”
“Yeah, well, while you’re complimenting me, you’re unarmed. We’re both unarmed.”
Robin glanced around, his light flashing among the rocks. “Well, that sucks. Can you see anything silver-ish?”
ROAAAAR? (Hey? Where’d everyone go?)
Xander could dimly hear the distant, echo-y voices of the girls yelling and shouting to get the snake’s attention.
HIISSSSS! RAWL! (You know? I’m not happy about this. I’m hungry damn it!)
Xander and Robin exchanged glances as they saw the coils dance in front of the entrance to their passage.
“I was just thinking…” Xander began.
“That we’re both really stupid for not each grabbing a Slayer to partner with us instead of ending up with each other while that thing decides if it wants white or dark meat?” Robin whispered back.
“Ooooh, you very much read my mind,” Xander nodded. “Especially since if it comes after us, it’ll get both white and dark meat.”
“You just had to bring up that together we’re a veritable feast for the monster pallet, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, well, count on me to always find that lower place.”
RRRRROOOOOAAAARRRR! (Come back here and fight you chickens! I’ll take you all on!)
“That thing sounds angry,” Robin observed.
GRRROWL! (I’m waiting!)
“What do you want to bet that thing’s coming down this passage?” Xander asked.
“Not a bet. Because we’re both stupid and deserve to get eaten.”
“Speak for yourself paleface.”
Robin blinked at him. “I’m pretty sure that’s the first time someone’s called me that.”
“Would you prefer I call you MC Woodster?”
“You’ve never heard my ‘Do the ABC’ rap that I used back in my student-teaching days,” Robin said. “All the first graders dug it.”
Xander paused a moment, studying Robin’s face. “You know what? I believe you.”
SNUFFFLE. GRR. GRR. GRR. GRR. (Fine. Be like that. Eeeny-meeny-miny-mo.)
“If I didn’t know any better…” Robin began.
“…you’d say it was doing an eeny-meeny-miny-mo dealie?” Xander asked. “Think we can hope for rock-paper-scissors?”
“Think it’ll change the outcome?” Robin asked as he slowly began backing away.
“Probably not. But we can hope, right?” Xander asked as he kept pace with Robin’s quiet back-away-slowly plan.
HIIIISSSSSSS! (That one!)
Upon seeing the snake thrust its very, very huge head into the entrance of their passage, Robin and Xander did what any sane, manly men with very strong survival instincts would do.
They turned tail and ran while letting out a very girly scream.
Rest assured it was a girly scream, even if the language wasn’t what anyone would call lady-like.
ROWWWWLLLLLLL! (Oh goody! White and dark meat!)
“Move! Move! Move!” Xander yelled as he grabbed a falling behind Robin and yanked him forward.
“You move!” Robin yelled back while he grabbed Xander, who was now behind him, and yanked him forward.
Adrenalin must’ve been working overtime to improve Xander’s eyesight in his one eye, since he was able scramble over and around the scattered obstacles without breaking his neck.
Then again, fear of a very painful death has a way of spurring men on to feats of superhuman greatness.
They both stumbled over random rocks that seemed placed just right to make running all but impossible. It didn’t help that they were busy “helping” each other over the rough spots, although this helping seemed to mostly involve yanking and dragging the other guy over some pretty sharp surfaces.
It was a race to see what would kill them first: one angry, hungry, giant snake or blood loss because they were bleeding from multiple cuts and scrapes.
HISSSSSSSSSSS! (Crap! I’m stuck!)
As neither Robin or Xander spoke Parseltongue, er, Giant Snake, they were unaware that they were saved by the narrowing passage until Robin’s taller body smacked its head on a low-hanging rock.
Xander, suddenly realizing that his comrade-in-terror had dropped like a sack of potatoes somewhere behind him, stopped and turned around. Good thing too, as he was less than three inches away from joining Robin in knocked out land.
“Robin,” Xander desperately hissed as he ran to his fallen comrade’s side.
HISS-RUR-HISSSSSSSSSSSS! (Goddamn it! What? Ow! Ow! I knew I picked the wrong meal! Should’ve gone with the faster food.)
Xander desperately tugged Robin into a sitting position as the principal’s head lolled. He noticed the headlamp was well and truly cracked and that a trickle of blood was seeping from underneath the headband.
“Shit. Notnownotnownotnownotnow…” Xander prayed as he removed Robin’s now-useless light source. As he steadied himself to try throwing the taller man over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, he registered that the snake hadn’t caught them yet.
GROWL! (I can’t believe this!)
While there was definitely sounds of one nutso, angry, possibly famished snake nearby, there was nothing sounding like slithering to go with it.
“Hunh,” Xander said as the thought occurred to him. Knowing that what he was about to do probably wasn’t the smartest thing he’d ever done, he carefully laid Robin back down and picked his way back down the tunnel.
His light flashed ahead, picking up the iridescent scales. Xander froze and let the light traverse to the snake’s head. Upon seeing its failed dinner plans so tantalizingly close, the snake opened and snapped shut its mouth in a thoroughly unfriendly manner.
But, and this was a big but, it didn’t move forward, even though Xander could see the snake was doing its best by the way the muscles undulated underneath the skin.
“Heh.” The sound escaped. Xander slapped a hand over his mouth, not quite able to stifle the very unmanly giggly laughter fighting to break free.
RUUUURRR! (Come closer pal and see how funny it is!)
Xander stood up. “What’s big, ugly, has the brain of a walnut, and couldn’t outwit gym teacher?”
The snake glared back. If Xander didn’t know any better, he’d think the snake could understand him.
Not that it was at all possible, of course.
“Why,” he said in an airy voice. “that would be you!” For good measure, he stuck his tongue out and did the hootchie dance that made him world famous in Kindergarten and made Willow laugh until milk blew out her nose.
GRRRRRR! (We’ll see who’s the walnut brain around here. Just you wait…)
Xander deliberately turned his back on snake breath, tossing over his shoulder, “Man! It’s been so long since I got in some quality taunting. I sooooo needed that. Thanks for the funny. Worth every penny. Let’s not do this again real soon.”
GRUMP! (When I get out of here, you’re first!)
“Yeah, yeah,” Xander muttered as he crouched beside Robin. He gently lifted an eyelid to see what kind of concussion Robin had. The bright light shining in his eye seemed to bring Robin violently around and the former principal gagged slightly as if he were going to be sick.
“Ayup, a beaut you’ve got there,” Xander grumbled. “Lucky me. I get to drag your ass all over the place.”
“C’mon,” Xander unhappily growled as he wrestled Robin into an unsteady standing position and pulled the other man’s arm around his shoulders. “Let’s take it one step at a time, ’kay?”
Robin wobbily nodded. “Where?”
“You. In a cavern. With a big rock,” Xander stumbled a little under the other man’s weight.
“You knocked yourself out, dummy,” Xander began moving forward. He very quickly got the idea that this task was going to be a little bigger than he originally expected. Once again the one-eye having was causing problems with his balance, a balance that was made all the more precarious by Wood heavily hanging off his blind side.
“Couldda happen’ to ’one,” Robin protested.
“Maaaan, you’ve got to loose some weight,” Xander muttered.
“You mean Andrew’s cooking. His mac ’n cheese recipe is a cardiologist’s vacation home on a plate.”
“That’s to show how much he wuuuuuvs you.”
“No. He wuvs Enrique Iglesias. I know because he talks in his sleep.”
“He wuvs you and Enrique. On a half-shell. Wearing togas.” Robin started giggling at the imagery in his head involving peeled grapes, lyres, and a disturbing number of strategically placed laurel leaves.
“Ugh, just when I think you can’t get any weirder, you top my expectations.”
“Nice Xander. Pretty Xander. Almost as pretty as me.”
“Now I know you’re delirious. I’m waaaaay prettier than you.”
“In your dreams pal.”
“Hey! Who’s carrying who here?”
“Not carrying. Dragging.”
“For someone with a bleeding head wound, you’re pretty lucid about complaining.”
“Fine.” Robin pulled away and stood on his feet. He woozed back and forth until nearly toppling over. As Xander caught him before he hit the ground he said, “You know? I could’ve sworn there was only one floor a few minutes ago.”
“And that boys and girls is a sign of a Class A concussion,” Xander remarked as he hefted Robin to get a better grip on the man. “I should know. I’m the king of concussions. No. Wait. Only the prince. Giles has had more, but only because he’s older.”
“Headache,” Robin gritted between his teeth as Xander started half-carrying, half-dragging him forward.
HISSSSSS! SNARL! (Get back here! You think you’re escaping? Just you wait!)
“Oh shut uuuup,” Xander muttered.
“Shhhh! Snake might hear you over the bells in my head.”
“Please. Giganto monster it may be, but it’s still a snake. My witty insults and razor sharp tongue are beyond the understanding of its smash-kill-eat walnut-sized brain.”
GRRRUMMMMMP! (I heard that! I’ll show you who’s the walnut brain around here!)
Xander looked nervously over his shoulder. “Hey, teach, can snakes crawl backwards?”
Robin moaned a bit as his dizzy, hurting brain tried to come up with a reassurance that would make sense. He settled for simple. “Yes.”
“Even giant demonic snakes?”
“Yer an ass. But yer a good egg. Yer a good egg ass.”
“Aaaaalighty then. I’ll take it as a compliment given in the heat of the giddy moment where you realize that we’ve been saved by idiot luck.”
“Or is that the ass of a good egg?”
“See? Now you’re pushing it.”