After the many hiccups in American transportation experienced in the first few decades of the 21st century, a renaissance was achieved, and travel to anywhere became easier and quicker.
And so did travel to any time. The first few years it was limited to scientists. Hesitant but intrepid first steps into a vacuum chamber, where ionization spiked and the time traveler’s stomach would feel like it was catapulted from a swing, and they were off. The time it took to appear in a different era was on par with blinking one’s eyes a few times when waking up and first being bathed in harsh sunlight. Some would see a bright flash, so the comparison was almost exact. Some claimed a darkness beyond dark. Some travelers experienced both as a nauseating flicker.
As the time travel pioneers each returned healthy, their DNA still intact after examination, it only took a few more years before companies of all sizes invested in commercializing this capability.
Governments, of course, regulated. Each traveler was issued a special fanny pack. They could only bring what could fit into said pack, and each item was thoroughly inspected by customs. The pack was also rigged with cameras and sensors to detect movement. The authorities didn’t want you taking too many steps out into your destination and affecting changes. It also wanted to protect you, so that you yourself wouldn’t be obliterated by acts in the past. Many a Civil War enthusiast was saved before artillery could pierce their flesh, and often this pre-designed rescue would come down to the last millisecond. You were only meant to observe. And this was okay. Wealthy tourists got to see a wild myriad of masks worn at Venetian carnivals; hear Jesus orate in Jerusalem; feel the ground shake when mammoths ran across North American plains; smell the cooking of an ancient emperor’s Chinese cuisine; and taste the rain as it dripped down on the Black Forest well before factories ever added to its acidity.
Some did visit the future, but the strange thing was they returned with no memory of it. They’d be in the chamber, thinking they’d stood in their long enough to doze off. They would think the whole thing was bunk, was a scam, and would shout for the machine’s operator to send them off already! It almost always resulted in the demand of a refund, and time travel companies decided to only offer trips in the backward direction.
Companies that specialized in said time travel found they had to thoroughly wash the fanny packs after each trip. A fine dust coated the insides, pressed deep into the seams, stitching, and zippers. It was difficult to get out, but the larger bits of gravel were set aside, because when one held it in the palm of their hands, they’d feel intoxicated. Euphoria would gush up from their gut and warm their face. Everything would be hilarious, time would seem to slow down, and this was the ultimate relaxation, making Xanax seem like off brand daytime cold medicine.
Managers at these companies would look on at their employees with disgust and recommend random drug testing, until they themselves touched the gravel, felt the tingle ride the grooves of their thumb prints, the paralyzing giggles that made them have to sit down until it faded, which wouldn’t be for a long time if they continued to hold the gravel tight in their closed fists.
Scientists studied the gravel and as a result, celebrated the addition of a new element to the periodic table. It was called Gritterium, joining the Transition Metals with an atomic mass of 262.83.
A question was often asked; “why is the grit only all over the insides of these fanny packs, why not all over one’s face, or crammed in between their toes, and arm pits?”
“There’s a bit of mesh circuitry in the packs themselves, it may simply be an issue of static cling.” Though studies never quite confirmed.
Despite the hours researchers spent in the lab, examining how Gritterium interacted with skin oils to cause every handler to feel groovy, the only answer they could announce was that “results at this time are inconclusive.” Some posited that it was the radioactivity, others that the rush one felt was caused by magnetizing the iron in our blood.
Many found a new love for God in their Gritterium enlightenment. A Pastor, who took advantage of an opportunity to touch the gravel, furthering deepening his own faith, said in a sermon: “Let him stump us on this one, just let him have this wild riddle he can hang over our heads and laugh himself silly too. And maybe that’s why we’re laughing! It’s mutual, it’s pure, it’s unexpected nectar in something at first we’d just consider dirty.”
The DEA was quick to classify it as a Schedule I substance, and greater security was implemented into the fanny pack cleaning process to properly confiscate the gravel.
But it was easy for some members of the cleanup crew to conspire with heads of security to siphon off some of the locked up supply, to take out into the streets and make more cash than they did at their day jobs.
When scrutiny came down on these time gravel cartels, hackers would send in tourists of their own. They would override the system to send their tourist on a quick pit stop to a place far removed from the departure platforms, just moments before their return to the time chamber, so they could scoop out the gravel and hand it off to a designated middleman. Sting operations intercepted some of these handoffs when do-gooder management started asking questions about why some tourists were returning without any time gravel in their packs at all.
Scientists at first tried to explain the gravel as a sort of ash that seemed an inevitable byproduct of being flung through the fourth dimension.
But then astronomers began to discover that some stars were disappearing. Random suns were collapsing in on themselves in a matter of seconds, and their timing corresponded with a time traveler’s scheduled pluck and pull through space.
In the precise locality where the stars once burned, astronomers later discovered rings of dust with the same mild radioactive mass as Gritterium. It became apparent that the bending of time was somehow drawing on stellar nucleosynthesis, completely snuffing a massive, luminous body, a consequence unforeseen by the physicists who made time travel possible.
“The fat cats are killing stars!” Protestors would chant and write in bold on their picket signs.
The stakeholders, and their congressman friends, would laugh and say “it’s a star, it doesn’t have feelings. Why don’t you go hug a star if you care about them so much! Haha. Burn your face off, starhugger!”
“Have you ever considered, what if an alien civilization discovers we are the ones who eradicated their sun, and they come after us to retaliate?” some activists would retort.
“You must be stoned on Gritterium, you’re paranoid. Aliens are an impossibility, we would have discovered them by now.” The laughter in boardrooms and Senate sessions would continue.
A wise scientist, well respected in his field, would remind everyone that the same thing was once said about time travel.
Jeff Phillips is a washed up varsity cross country skier and storefront theatre method actor. For two years he was co-host of The Liquid Burning, an apocalypse themed reading series, and for just shy of three years, he co-hosted the Chicago reading series Pungent Parlour. His short fiction has appeared in Seeding Meat, This Zine Will Change Your Life, Metazen, Chicago Literati and Literary Orphans. He has dabbled with a few self-publishing experiments, including the novel Votary Nerves, and is the co-founder of Zizobotchi Papers, a literary journal dedicated to the novella. He is now a regular contributor of short stories and essays at the site Drinkers With Writing Problems.