It was the worst Unification Day picnic in memory. Although it was a very promising day in August, with blue skies lightly marbled with wisps of white, and temperatures coming into the low thirties--hot enough for swimming, but not too hot for volleyball and softball--things just went horribly wrong. Certainly Lakeside Park was ready: the softball field had been mowed and lined, the volleyball and tennis nets were up, and fireworks were set up in one corner of the field which had been roped off and was being carefully watched by a few pyrotechnics experts. But somehow things started going wrong, terribly wrong. As Mrs. Roddenfield said, it was almost as if some vital piece of the puzzle was missing, and without it the puzzle made no sense at all.
It started when the fireworks company arrived, and found Dr. Arnold Hess down by the lake. He had apparently come down in the middle of the night, and had a heart attack beside the water. But it was agreed that news of this would ruin the day, so the ambulance quietly carried his body away, and no one was told.
Then at about eleven in the morning Johnny Adams, showing off to Myra Wilson, had popped the clutch on his reconditioned '98 Camaro, and crashed right into Pete Thompson, who happened at that moment to be crossing the driveway to get to the baseball game. Of course, the ambulance was at the picnic--the whole town was expected to be there, so it seemed prudent to be prepared--but word from the hospital wasn't promising late in the day.
Still, Unification Day was the kind of holiday people celebrated. Many of the adults could remember the tensions of the late twentieth century, when the cold war between the superpowers gave way to the third-world terrorist assault. Bringing the world into a single economic and political system had been difficult--it had taken a generation to accomplish--but it had brought about peace and a certain level of prosperity. The world wasn't really unified; it would take a few more generations before people all over the globe regarded each other as countrymen, as it had for the United States to perceive itself as one nation instead of many, as it had for Americans of every color to see each other as Americans without color. But it had begun, and every day brought the world closer together. It was a day to celebrate. A serious accident of this sort would put a damper on everyone's spirits, but accidents did happen, and the celebration would continue.
And everything else went smoothly for the next few hours. Of course, Mrs. Rogers forgot to bring her potato salad, and a lot of people were disappointed, because it was usually very good. But the softball game was going as scheduled, and there had been several volleyball matches. Everyone had brought their own picnic lunches, and already the smell of barbecued chicken and ribs was in the air: Pete's Barbecue Shack had agreed to feed the entire town, and bill the township for costs only.
But about two in the afternoon, some kids were crying from the woods. At first, there was little attention to this; kids cry at picnics. A few parents looked up to see if their child was among the injured. But the noise grew, and people started moving toward it as the first of the children came from the woods covered with yellow jackets. They had been playing tag, and had run right through a nest of the nasty wasps. Half a dozen children had been severely stung, and as no one had brought baking soda, several families packed up to leave. But the worst was Michelle Potts. She was allergic to bees--and since Dan Jackson of the ambulance crew was Pete Thompson's half brother, the ambulance had stayed a while at the hospital over in Greenwich. Jim, the lifeguard, came running from the beach when he heard; there was little in his first aid kit that would help, but at least he was trained in basic life support. He spent most of an hour keeping the little girl alive; she might survive--the ambulance returned while there was still hope, and rushed her to Greenwich as quickly as they could turn around.
But while Jim was taking care of Michelle, Bob Walker drowned. He had had a bit too much beer, and stumbled on the dock when he went down looking for his wife. With everyone back up watching Jim with Michelle, no one saw him fall into the water or heard his feeble cries for help. He was found floating in the lake when everyone returned; it was too late.
It was about this time that Mrs. Roddenfield was talking with Mrs. Kowalski. "It's been a horrible day," said Mrs. Kowalski. "I don't think I'll ever have quite the same feeling about Unification Day again. As long as I live, I'll remember this day."
"I know what you mean. Mrs. Thompson is a wreck; Bob and Mary Potts--I don't think I've ever seen anyone so upset. And the Walkers! There's a family in shock. It's just like a puzzle with a piece missing, and you can't make sense of anything because nothing fits without that piece. Know what I mean?"
But Mrs. Kowalski really had no idea what Mrs. Roddenfield meant; perhaps Mrs. Roddenfield didn't really know, either.
Still, many people stayed, partly because of the promise of chicken and ribs, partly because they were encouraged by Councilman Jake Jones, who said that the town would have to pay for the food even if nobody ate it. Besides, it was Unification Day; whatever happens, the world should celebrate its unity.
So there were still a few hundred people around when Bill Peterson's fishing line snagged something, and out of the lake came the body of Dr. Arnold Hess. The elderly scientist, who had taught and researched physics for years before his retirement a few years back, had been fatally shot at close range, and his body rather ineptly weighted and tossed in the lake. Members of the fireworks crew seemed especially bothered by this; one asked if Dr. Hess had a twin brother--but no one mentioned having found the same man dead on that same beach that morning. After this, the evening fireworks were canceled, and everyone who remained went home.
Dr. Hess, of course, did not go home. His house stood empty and dark. The strange equipment in his basement was quiet, and the notes on his desk lay open and unfinished. A large-caliber pistol sat in an open drawer, fully loaded.
And during this night, while all were asleep save a few who watch the night, something happened to time itself, something which must have happened before, but of which no one was aware.
As day dawned, a lone figure stood on the hill at Lakeside Park. Dr. Arnold Hess was looking forward to Unification Day; he wanted it to be the perfect picnic. He wanted it to be the best day it could be. His hopes appeared to be arriving--the day dawned clear and bright; the morning dew quickly evaporated in the warming sun and soft breeze. Soon picnickers would join him. The pyrotechnics experts began to set up fireworks.
It was important that he not interfere; the day must go perfectly without his involvement. He would watch; he would wander among the picnickers and enjoy the celebration.
About eleven o'clock, as he was walking over to see if Mrs. Rogers had brought her famous potato salad, Pete Thompson stopped him for a word. Pete still taught up at the university, and sometimes shared the latest gossip, which he preferred to call news. He also asked how Dr. Hess was and whether he was still working on anything. They were interrupted by the squeal of tires, as Johnny Adams peeled out of the parking lot with Myra Wilson on the seat next to him. "Kids!" muttered Pete. "One day that one's going to hit something, and it won't be pretty."
"Yes," Dr. Hess agreed, "given enough time, it's bound to happen. But perhaps he'll learn before it's too late."
"I hope so. I'd hate to see a good kid like that ruin his life over something stupid. Well, I'd better get over to the game; I promised to pitch the third inning. Come by for a burger later, and we'll catch up."
Dr. Hess continued over to see Mrs. Rogers. She had forgotten to bring potato salad; but he suggested that if she asked around, it might not be too late to do something about that. She got her kids scrounging around, and soon had everything she needed. The Simonsons had brought several sacks of potatoes for shish-kabob, and Mr. Cyminski had more onion and mayonnaise than his hamburgers could hold, and the Bahts were having salad from which they could spare some celery and vinegar, so with the help of a pot that Richard Flannagan had brought to boil corn, the potato salad was made, and everyone who contributed to it enjoyed it immensely.
As for Dr. Hess, he moved on to see Mrs. Roddenfield, who was making peanut butter and apple jelly sandwiches for her kids, just to hold them until the barbecued chicken and ribs were ready for dinner. There were a couple of bugs buzzing around the jelly.
"Bees," he stated flatly.
"Yellow jackets," Mrs. Roddenfield replied. "There must be a nest off in the woods; that seems to be where they're coming from. I've told my kids to stay out of there. They can be really nasty. Can I fix you a sandwich, Dr. Arnold?"
"No thanks, Margaret. I've been promised some potato salad when it's ready."
"Suit yourself. Angie does make good potato salad, but I'll be surprised if it comes out so good this time as it does when she makes it at home. What about you, Mr. Potts? Maybe Michelle would like one?"
Dr. Hess moved off to look at the fireworks rig. He spent some time here, just looking at the intricate wiring and blocks of explosive powder, all connected to a computer which would match the firing sequence to the music. The celebration would end well, as a night to remember.
When he came back for his potato salad, Mr. Potts was there again. "Michelle," he called out to his daughter, "You'd better stay over here, honey. Maybe you other kids should stay here, too--there's a wasps' nest in the woods, and you don't want to get stung. Why don't you try to get a volleyball game going instead?" The kids seemed to agree that they did not want to get stung, and turned their attention to the playground equipment.
After lunch, while the smell of chicken and ribs and hickory smoke filled the air, Bob Walker went down to the waterfront to look for his wife. He was a bit unsteady from the beer, and slipped on the wet dock. Jim immediately pulled him back out and scolded him for being so careless; but the laughter from several onlookers probably had more sting than the lifeguard's good-natured rebuke.
Mrs. Kowalski commented to Mrs. Roddenfield that it had been a wonderful picnic--the perfect Unification Day celebration. Mrs. Roddenfield agreed, saying that wherever President Mlambo was celebrating, even he couldn't be enjoying himself more.
The chicken and ribs were delicious, and everyone ate heartily. Bill Peterson caught a large bass, and Pete said his barbecue people would clean it and cook it right up for him on the hickory fire, such that he would never have had such a fish before or ever again after. Bill thought it was the best fish he'd ever eaten, and several who got a taste of it agreed.
The fireworks that night may have been better in Peking or Washington or Moscow or Paris; but nowhere were they more enjoyed. They began about nine, as things really were getting dark, and kept the sky lit for most of an hour. The computer followed its program perfectly, keeping the explosions in synch with the collection of music which spanned several centuries and came from every continent. If there was a message in it, it was that unification was a good thing which had brought only good to the world.
But if there was such a message, most of the crowd was too tired to know it. The park cleared within half an hour, and but for a few who watch the world in the night, everyone returned home to collapse. When tomorrow dawned, they would have to return to work, school, and the troubles of daily life; but today had been a celebration to remember.
Dr. Arnold soon found himself alone in the dark. He walked home. It had been a short distance, and he had not wanted his car to be in the parking lot all day. He turned on the radio when he stepped inside; he should listen to the news, just to be certain that today didn't include the kind of disaster no one wants to remember. The news was filled with reports of Unification day celebrations from around the world. It was a good day everywhere. He was satisfied; it had been perfect.
Down in the basement, he started up the equipment which he had kept so secret. He made a few final notes, and carefully closed everything. Picking up the pistol from his desk, he stepped into the machine; and that which had happened unbidden to time at least once before was this time caused to happen for what to anyone's knowledge might have been the first time or the hundred first.
As Dr. Arnold Hess stood in the pre-dawn darkness at Lakeside Park, a lone figure approached him. He quickly recognized it; it was he.
"It works, then."
"Apparently so. Time travel is now possible. You know what we have to do."
"Couldn't we just hide everything--destroy the notes, dismantle the machine, forget we ever knew anything about time?"
"You know science doesn't work that way. When something is ripe for discovery, there's no stopping it. We might delay it for a few years, but soon enough someone will discover it as we have--and once it's been discovered, a disaster is inevitable."
"You're right, of course. Even if no one gets the crazy idea of trying to change history, eventually someone will do something which will create an infinity loop, and time will be caught forever repeating the same two alternate histories."
"Which is why we have to do it first. The world could be caught in a time loop of which one history is the wars and destruction of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries..."
"...and the other a far worse scenario in which unification never happens, and humanity destroys itself. But is that really our problem?"
"I'm taking responsibility for what I've created. The day ahead is the perfect day--everyone we know and love will have a wonderful time at the picnic, and we will assure that for all eternity all they will know is this celebration."
"And you've done nothing which will be missed?"
"I will stay here, and repeat my actions. They are of no consequence, I'm sure. I asked a few people how the day was going, and ate some potato salad."
"O.K., then. I could wish I were on the other side of the loop, but there's no way to change that. Let's get it over with."
And those were the last words that Dr. Arnold Hess ever spoke; for at that moment, he shot himself--although whether it could be called suicide or murder would have baffled jurisprudence for generations, were there to be any future generations. After having shot himself and convinced himself that the shot was fatal, he dragged his own body down to the lake. Pulling up a couple of cinder blocks, he secured these to his body with a piece of twine. After all, it only had to stay under the water for today. There would be no tomorrow; his bullet had killed the future.
It was heavy work. He had not realized how heavy he was, or how far out of shape he had gotten with age. By the time he had reached the water, he was already seriously out of breath; but he didn't have time to rest--no one must know that he had killed himself. Lifting the body again to secure the blocks to it, he wondered if he would be able to finish before the fireworks crew arrived. More than once he thought he heard a car or truck coming, but as yet it was just morning traffic. He had intended to lift himself onto his shoulders and throw himself several yards out--there was a deep spot right near the shore here where he use to fish, and the body would sink far enough that it couldn't be found. But he was not so strong as he believed, and already far more tired than he anticipated. He barely was able to shove the body into the water before he collapsed on the shore. He saw it slide through the mud out of sight before he closed his own eyes for the last time.
So it was that the fireworks company found the body of Dr. Arnold Hess lying on the shore of the lake when they arrived twenty minutes later. Although they arranged for the ambulance to remove him secretly, it was for them the beginning of the worst picnic of their lives.
M. Joseph Young is co-author of Multiverser: The Game, The First Book of Worlds, and The Second Book of Worlds, plus other books. His web sites and contributions to publications around the web are indexed for convenience. This story was inspired by the time travel theories of Multiverser and a world since published for game play within it.