Rock, Paper, Scissors, Love, Death
by Caroline M. Yoachim
Rock crushes scissors. Nicole sat on a crowded bus to Spokane, knitting a turquoise scarf. The gray-haired man sitting next to her stared obsessively at his wristwatch. He was travelling with his son, Andrew, who sat across the aisle. She offered to trade seats so they could sit together, but both men refused. The bus wound around the sharp curves of Stevens Pass, and Nicole made good progress on her scarf.
Out of nowhere, Andrew’s father grabbed her and shoved her across the aisle, into Andrew’s arms. There was a loud crack, and a roar like thunder. A boulder the size of a car slammed into the side of the bus. Nicole stared at the wall of stone that filled the space where her seat had been. The red handles of her scissors stuck out from underneath the rock, the blades crushed underneath. Andrew’s father was completely lost beneath the stone.
Love shreds paper. After the accident, Nicole met Andrew for coffee. She returned his father’s watch, which had somehow ended up in her jacket pocket, though she couldn’t figure out how or when he’d put it there. Andrew gave her a pair of red-handled scissors, identical to the pair she had lost. She invited him for Thanksgiving dinner with her parents, since he had no other family. They took a weekend trip to Spokane, and when the bus reached the site of the accident, they threw handfuls of flower petals out the window.
Andrew was an engineer and a poet. He built her a telescope that folded spacetime so she could see distant exoplanets, and he wrote her scientific love poems. At their wedding, they gave the guests bags of confetti made from shredded strips of his poems, so they could be showered in love.
Rock destroys love. Two years into her marriage, Nicole suspected Andrew was cheating. He stayed late at work, went out late with the guys, took weekend business trips. He was gone more than he was home, and he got angry when Nicole asked him about it. She already knew what she’d see when she followed him out to Beacon Rock, but she had to see it with her own eyes, if only from a distance. She was surprised to see him with an older woman, rather than a younger one. She filed for divorce, and he didn’t argue.
Scissors cut paper. A few years after the divorce, Nicole sat in the swing on her front porch and cut love poems and photographs into thin strips. It was her therapy, letting go of the memories she’d kept boxed up after Andrew moved out. There was something satisfying about the snip of the scissors. Words flew everywhere. Eternal. Heart. Devotion. True. Paper piled up on the porch, and a breeze sent a few strips swirling. It reminded her of the confetti at their wedding, and suddenly cutting paper wasn’t as satisfying. She hurled her scissors into the front yard.
Death steals scissors. Nicole went out into the yard the next morning to get her scissors. She didn’t want to run them over with the lawnmower later, and she wasn’t quite ready to let go of the first gift Andrew ever gave her. The poems were gone from her porch, and she couldn’t find the scissors in the yard, even after an hour crawling on her hands and knees. The common link between the poems and the scissors was Andrew. Had he taken them? Against her better judgment, she drove to his apartment. The door was open, and there were cops inside. Andrew was missing, and he’d left a note. A suicide note.
The body was never found. Neither were her scissors.
Paper covers rock. Nicole visited Andrew’s grave on the anniversary of his death, even though she knew there was no one buried beneath the stone that bore his name. A slip of paper covered the top of the tombstone. A poem, taken from her porch and painstakingly taped back together. On the back, a message, in Andrew’s careful slanted cursive. If we had stayed together, you never would have let me go back.
Love conquers death. Nicole found the time machine in the storage locker Andrew had rented when he moved out. The machine was set for the day she’d taken the bus to Spokane. The day he died, and the day they met. She reset the dial to when their relationship started to fall apart. She was tempted to go further back, to have more time, but she’d only be stealing from herself. Time reversed its course, and Nicole stepped out of the time machine into her own garage, where Andrew waited with open arms.
folded white paper
contains all eternity
Andrew sat at his desk and scribbled haiku into his Moleskine notebook, casting occasional glances out the window to see if the mail had arrived. He wanted to bring the CZT detectors he’d ordered with him on his trip to Spokane. The detectors were the final component for his latest project, a telescope that would bend space-time to generate high resolution images of distant exoplanets. Folding space-time blueshifted visible light, and the CZT detectors would measure the resulting x-rays so that he could convert them back into a visible image. The telescope would give him something to tinker with between meetings at his company’s annual ‘retreat.’
an icy planet
cast out into empty space
binary no more
He tore the page out of his notebook and crumpled it. It’d been two years since he divorced Liz, and he needed to stop wallowing in loneliness and sorrow. His life was better without all the fighting, and he had more time for his work this way. He willed himself to write a more cheerful haiku, but the words were gone. He stared at the empty page.
A postal worker delivered the mail, and Andrew hurried outside to collect it, pleased to discover a padded yellow envelope in among the other items. He jogged back upstairs to his apartment, unlocked the door, and threw the bills and junk mail onto the counter. He slipped the envelope of CZT detectors into the duffle bag he’d packed for his trip. Then he looked up.
An older man stood in his living room, hands raised so that Andrew could see that they were empty. “When I was fifteen, I cheated on a physics test by writing the entire study guide in Japanese characters on my jeans. I made it look like the fabric was designed that way. No one caught me, which was disappointing. I didn’t need to cheat, but I enjoyed the risk of being caught. I was disappointed no one noticed.”
Andrew had told that story to a few friends, but never the bit about wanting to get caught. He studied the man. His features were eerily similar to Andrew’s, but his skin was wrinkled and his hair was more gray than black.
“You’re me,” Andrew said, “but from the future?”
His future self lowered his hands and sat down on the couch. “I arrived at 11:47am on November 3rd. Remember that. Write it down somewhere. I have two things to tell you before we go to catch our bus. First, if Nicole asks us to switch seats, we have to refuse. Second, when you build the time machine, you must make it entirely out of things that are in your apartment right now. I can’t get back to this moment unless all the pieces are here — if the power source, say, is still in some manufacturing plant in China, trying to come to this moment would spread my molecules between here and there, and I’d be too thin to recohere.”
“So why are you here?” Andrew asked, a million questions racing through his mind. “Am I really going to build a time machine? What stocks should I buy?”
Future Andrew stubbornly refused to answer any of his questions. In fact, he didn’t say another word until they got to the bus station.
“Sometime after we get on the bus, I’m going to hand you some scissors. Hide them, and make sure Nicole doesn’t see.” He got in the line to board the bus, standing behind a woman with short black hair and a cute vintage dress from the 50s. Andrew stood behind himself, wondering if anyone else would notice that there were two of him in line. An old woman in a matronly pink dress hobbled right by them without giving them a second look, headed for the front of the line. She clearly hadn’t noticed that anything was amiss.
Judging by the long line, the bus would be full, so it didn’t seem too odd when his future self took the seat next to Nicole. Future Andrew patted the seat across the aisle. “Sit here.”
“Are you together?” Nicole asked, “I can move across the aisle if you’d like to sit with your son.”
“Oh, no, this is fine.” Andrew said, remembering his future self’s instructions, and wondering why it was so important.
“We both prefer the aisle,” future Andrew added, “more leg room that way.”
Andrew pulled out his notebook. He’d intended to work out a few equations for his exoplanet telescope, but instead he found himself casting furtive glances at Nicole and writing poetry.
pairs of particles
in quantum entanglement
giving birth to time
Nicole went to the back of the bus to use the bathroom, and future Andrew passed him the red handled scissors from her knitting bag. Andrew tucked them into the front pocket of his laptop bag. “What am I supposed to do with these?”
“When the time comes, you’ll know,” future Andrew said solemnly. Then he laughed. “They’re only scissors. Try not to worry about it too much.”
His future self held up an identical pair of red handled scissors, grinned, and then tucked the replacement scissors into Nicole’s knitting bag. Andrew wanted to ask why he’d traded one pair of scissors for the other, but Nicole returned to her seat.
His future self glanced at his watch. Without warning, he grabbed Nicole. He ignored her indignant yelling and shoved her across the aisle, practically into Andrew’s lap. A deafening crash. A giant rock. The bus careened down the mountain road, screeching against the metal guard rail. A boulder filled one side of the bus, from floor to ceiling. A cold November wind blew in through the hole the rock had torn in the roof. There was no sign of his future self. The red handles of a pair of scissors stuck out from the underneath the boulder.
They were closer to Seattle than Spokane, and Nicole had a friend that worked at one of the local ski resorts. Andrew probably should have gotten on the replacement bus Greyhound sent to take passengers to Spokane, but when Nicole offered him a ride back to Seattle, he accepted. His boss would be angry about him missing the company retreat, but Andrew figured any time you watch yourself die in a bus accident, you got a free pass on work.
The day after the accident, Andrew sketched a preliminary blueprint for his time machine onto the gray-lined paper of his Moleskine notebook. He photographed everything in the apartment with his digital camera, taking special care to document every small appliance and electronic device so he would know which items he could use to scavenge parts. He had nearly finished documenting everything when he remembered the CZT detectors in his duffle bag. He could order another set for his exoplanet telescope, but he was grateful these had arrived in time. There was no way he’d be able to build a time machine without them.
He paused. But why was he so grateful? He’d thrown himself into making the time machine because it was, admittedly, a fascinating challenge and exactly the sort of project he was interested in, but his future self died under a giant rock. He put down his camera. Maybe he’d be better off not building the time machine after all.
The red handles of Nicole’s scissors stuck out of his laptop bag. His future self had stolen them and really wanted him to have them. Well, he wanted nothing to do with a future where he died in a freak bus accident. If he was supposed to have the scissors, then he’d get rid of them.
He turned them in his hands.
Nicole had given him her number in case he wanted to talk to someone else who’d been through the accident, stammering that it wasn’t really the same because she hadn’t lost anyone. She’d shoved the paper into his hand and said an awkward goodbye. From the little he’d gotten to know her on the car ride back to Seattle, she seemed nice. A librarian who spent most of her time buried in books. She even liked poetry.
Maybe he would use the scissors as an excuse to see her again. He wondered if that was his future self’s goal all along, and then decided he didn’t care. He had no way of knowing which choices led to a heroic but untimely death, and he liked the idea of seeing Nicole again. It had been a long time since he’d had any interest in dating, and it was time to move on. He pulled out the scrap of paper with her number and called her up to see if she wanted to grab some coffee.
Nicole put her scissors into a compartment at the top of Andrew’s latest invention. He’d built it, but she’d come up with the idea — a device that would let them test hypothetical changes to the timeline and calculate the likelihood of various outcomes. The scissors, which would be crushed by the rock that caused the accident, calibrated the device to the appropriate subset of realities.
They had a few hours to run tests before her younger self got back from the library. Nicole was glad there were only a couple more weeks before the weekend at Beacon Rock. It would be easier once the divorce went through and Andrew could spend more time with her.
“Ready for the first test?” she asked.
Andrew nodded. She entered the first test condition.
Death annihilates scissors.
Test: Andrew convinces Nicole to not get onto the bus.
Result: Andrew never builds time machine, cannot go back to warn Nicole.
Probability of timeline collapse: 99.56%
Probability of death, Nicole: 99.56%
Probability of death, Andrew: 99.56%
Exactly what they’d expected. Nicole was pleased that the device was working. Now they could get on with the actual tests.
Death annihilates scissors.
Test: Andrew convinces Nicole not to get onto the bus AND convinces his younger self to build a time machine.
Result: Andrew tries to build the time machine, but fails; cannot go back to warn Nicole.
Probability of timeline collapse: 98.23%
Probability of death, Nicole: 98.23%
Probability of death, Andrew: 98.23%
“Once you know that you need to build the machine, why can’t you just build it?” Nicole demanded. “You can obviously do it, because you did it in this timeline.”
“I got the idea for how to use gravitational lensing from something your mom said at Thanksgiving,” Andrew said, “and you only invited me to Thanksgiving dinner because you thought I’d lost my dad on the bus.”
“What did she say? We can send that as part of the message to your past self, when you convince him he needs to build the machine.” Nicole started entering the conditions of the test. “Wait! We could do even better, we could send the blueprints back.”
“It won’t–” Andrew began, but Nicole finished entering the conditions and ran the test.
Death annihilates scissors.
Test: Take blueprints for the time machine back in time and give them to younger Andrew.
Result: Timeline collapse.
Probability of timeline collapse: 99.99%
Probability of death, Nicole: 99.99%
Probability of death, Andrew: 99.99%
“Oh, right. If you build the time machine based on blueprints that you bring back from the future, then you never actually think up how to build the time machine.” Nicole tried to remember every trick and twist she’d ever read in a time travel novel, but nothing seemed like it would work.
They tested several other possibilities, but everything resulted either in Andrew dying or the timeline collapsing. When it was nearly time for her younger self to return home, she asked Andrew if she could take the hypotheticals device to her apartment, so she could keep testing.
“I think we should accept the fact that I have to die, and enjoy the time we have,” Andrew said. “We’ve always known it would be hard on you when I go. Your younger self wouldn’t have let me do it.”
“So why should I? Because I’m older, I should be willing to let you go? There have to be other solutions.” Nicole realized there was at least one.
Rock crushes scissors.
Test: Andrew doesn’t go back in time.
Result: Nicole dies in bus accident.
Probability of timeline collapse: 0.01%
Probability of death, Nicole: 99.78%
Probability of death, Andrew: 0.45%
“This is the one,” Nicole said. “It’ll be better this way. Neither of us will ever know what we’re missing.”
“You can’t let me go, so you’re going to shift that burden to me?” Andrew brushed her cheek with his fingertips. “Not fair.”
“At least stay until Beacon Rock. We can have one last wonderful trip before we wipe everything we’ve shared out of existence.”
Their life became a series of postponements. She would try to convince him to destroy the time machine and not go back to save her. He would beg for another day, another trip, another kiss, another memory.
She couldn’t really blame him. Why shouldn’t they enjoy themselves before they wiped their relationship out of existence? She let him stall, let herself enjoy the time she spent with him, and tried not to think about the inevitable end. She allowed herself a year. One beautiful year.
“Four years from today, you go back in time to die,” she told him. “Send me to the future.”
“It’s the same problem all over again,” Nicole explained. “If I’m here, you won’t destroy the time machine. You need to forget about me, move on. Send me to the future, and then all you have to do is destroy the time machine. Any time in the next four years.”
“I can’t do it,” he said. “If I had it in me to let you die, we couldn’t be here.”
“You just haven’t decided yet,” Nicole argued. “You can still avoid this loop, find someone else, live a happy normal life. I’ll disappear. I was supposed to die that day anyway, and you have more to give to the world than I do.”
“That’s bullshit and we both know it.”
She smiled and thought of the teenagers who’d come into the library for the escape they desperately needed from a terrible reality, the researchers seeking obscure titles or ancient microfiche. Her life touched others, and she had a lot to give. But someone else could step in and give those things. She didn’t want to be the damsel in distress, saved by a prince. She wanted to be the hero.
“Send me to the future,” Nicole repeated. “It’ll be easier for you to decide if I’m not here.”
Andrew set the dial on the time machine for 70 years into the future. Nicole took the scissors with her, so he wouldn’t be tempted to run any more tests.
Nicole stepped out into a condo with huge windows overlooking the ocean. A fire crackled in the fireplace, and classical music played over wall mounted speakers. There was a note, written on a torn-out Moleskine journal page, on the table next to the time machine.
a robot programmed
to prepare for this spring day
our joyous new home
The robot described in the poem was standing in a wall alcove. She wondered if it was a special creation of Andrew’s or a standard household appliance. It had a generic humanoid appearance, with facial features that looked like no one in particular. The designers had opted to make it silver, rather than flesh colored. It matched the stainless steel appliances, which she suspected were selected to match the time period she’d left, rather than whatever the modern fashion happened to be.
She heard the soft whir of the time machine behind her, and closed her eyes. Would the shift in the timeline be instantaneous, or would she feel the pain of her death before she dissolved into nothingness? She waited, but the end didn’t come.
“Our timeline starts from the assumption that I go back to save you. I can’t stop myself, even if you ask me to,” Andrew said. “But we can have a little more time together, here in the future, or back somewhere in our past if you’d rather.”
Andrew stepped out of the time machine mere moments after she did, but he had aged. He must have stayed in the past years after she’d left, and she still existed. Which meant he hadn’t destroyed the time machine, and he probably never would.
He took her hand, an excited grin on his face. “Wait until you see the library I set up in here.”
The condo had two bedrooms, and he’d converted one of them into a maze of books. Shelves all around the walls, even up above the door. Rows of shelves in the middle of the room, with barely enough room to walk around them. Shelves underneath the cushioned nook that was built in underneath the window. Every shelf was packed with books.
“Paper fell out of favor,” he said, “but I knew you’d miss your friends.”
She ran her fingertips over the spines of the books. It was an eclectic collection with a little bit of everything, literary classics, science fiction, mysteries, romance. Nonfiction travel books and assorted science texts. Poetry. It was beautiful.
They held hands and walked on the beach, watching teenagers fly around recklessly on motorized kites before splash-landing into the ice cold ocean. Nicole worried about them at first, but they all wore protective wetsuits and emerged from the ocean unscathed. Andrew eventually pointed out robots at even intervals along the beach.
“Probably lifeguards,” he said.
Robots, it turned out, were everywhere. There were shops manned by robots, shuttle buses that drove themselves, even hospitals and schools with no sign of any humans. Nicole wanted to ask someone about it, but the only people she ever saw were the teenagers on the beach, and they were too busy fly-diving for her to get anywhere near them.
Nicole approached one of the lifeguard robots. “Where are all the people?”
“There are 57 people currently using this section of beach,” the robot responded.
“Not here, specifically,” Andrew clarified. “Historically, there were people doing tasks that robots do now. Why are there so few people?”
“We are programmed as caretakers for those who remain,” the robot explained. “Most people have moved on.”
“But are there any people left?”
“I only have data for this section of beach,” the robot said. “Fifty-five entertainment bodies rented via Central 3, and two independent units.”
Nicole figured there’d been some sort of singularity event, like she was always reading about in science fiction novels. After a while, she and Andrew got used to the robots and came to appreciate the privacy. It was a calm, peaceful life, and she was happy. But every morning she looked at the time machine and wondered — was tomorrow the day he would go back? Was today the day she should destroy the machine?
She knew what she needed to do, but she kept putting it off. There was no harm to one more day, a little more time. One more book to read. One more of Andrew’s poems. One more walk on the beach.
Then one day it was too late.
She was in the kitchen cooking breakfast, and he stood next to the time machine. “I have to go now, while I’m still strong enough to carry you over the aisle.”
And with no more goodbye than that, he stepped into the time machine and disappeared. She had waited too long and missed her chance, and now her paradise would be her prison, and she would be alone with only books and robots until she died.
Rock crushes scissors.
Test: Nicole programs the time machine to pull Andrew out of the past before he is crushed.
Probability of timeline collapse: 0.01%
Probability of death, Nicole: 1.48%
Probability of death, Andrew: 50%
An army of helpful robots and a roomful of books went a long way toward solving a time travel problem, but even with all the resources of the future, she couldn’t come up with a perfect result. Even odds was the best solution she’d found, and the time had come to try.
The only way she’d come up with to use the time machine remotely was to send a piece of the machine back in time. Andrew had created some kind of bond between all the parts, and the machine would reach out into the past to try to bring itself back together.
Nicole searched for something she could use to hide a piece of the time machine, and eventually she found an antique wristwatch at a pawn shop. After the accident, Andrew had given her a pair of red-handled scissors, and she’d given him a watch that had mysteriously appeared in her jacket pocket. This watch. Their younger selves assumed that Andrew had tucked it into her pocket as he pushed her out of harm’s way, but perhaps that wasn’t what really happened.
Nicole took the watch home and pried open the back. She removed a case screw from the watch, and replaced it with one of the tiny screws that held the modified CZT detectors to the time machine’s circuit board.
With a piece missing, using the time machine would be dangerous. Nicole didn’t have to worry about it when she went back, because she’d be wearing the watch. After that, though, anyone attempting to arrive in this section of the timeline might partially recohere on the missing piece, spread too thin across time to ever come back together. It would be dangerous until Andrew came back with the watch, the missing screw.
The watch was loose on her wrist, and she pushed it halfway up her forearm to make sure it wouldn’t slip off. At the last moment, she remembered the red-handled scissors. She needed to return them to the past so her younger self could hurl them out into the grass for Andrew to find. She traveled back to when Andrew and both her younger selves were at Beacon Rock. While the house was empty, she snuck the scissors back into their drawer.
Then she went all the way back to the beginning and arrived at Andrew’s apartment a few minutes after the two of him had gone to catch the bus.
Rock crushes love. Nicole arrived at the bus station shortly before it was time to board and cut to the front of the line, determined to be the first person onto the bus. Her age worked to her advantage, because the younger passengers didn’t have the heart to tell an old lady to move to the back of the line. Enough time had passed since Andrew left that she was confident he wouldn’t recognize her, leaning heavily on her cane and wearing thick glasses. Even so, she had dressed all in pink and worn a wide floppy hat. She hated pink.
She made her way to the back of the bus, ignoring the driver’s suggestion that she might be more comfortable in the front. “I like to be close to the ladies’ room,” she told him. She picked a seat where she’d be able to see the accident.
Out the window, Andrew was talking to his younger self as they stood in line. Young Andrew was listening, but he was clearly distracted by the impossibly young Nicole that was in front of them in line. She could jump across time, but never again would she be that young. It seemed like more than a single lifetime ago that she met Andrew and created this convoluted mess in their timelines.
But maybe she could fix it.
Nicole watched Andrew steal the scissors out of her younger self’s knitting bag. She watched him stare at the time on his watch, identical to the one she wore on her own wrist. He had no idea that the watch held a piece of the time machine. He waited for exactly the right moment. He picked Nicole up and pushed her across the aisle into the arms of his youth. That was the moment. She stopped the hands on her watch to record the time.
There was an odd hum from her watch, a vibration that gradually increased in intensity. She worried that the time machine was trying to pull her back into the future, but Andrew was staring at his watch too. He was supposed to take it off and slip it into Nicole’s pocket, and his curiosity turned to panic as he realized he had deviated from the plan.
Outside, the boulder broke free. It was oblong and gray and the size of a minivan, and it seemed to hang for a moment, teetering on the face of the cliff before crashing down through the roof of the bus.
She stared at the wall of rock where Andrew had been.
When the machine pulled at its missing piece, there was an equal chance that it would pull her back instead of Andrew. Fifty-fifty. Even odds. Two watches, two pieces of the machine, only one chance to get it right.
The crucial moment had passed, and she was still on the bus. She prayed that she’d done everything right, that Andrew was safely in the future, and not crushed underneath the rock.
The younger version of herself embraced the younger Andrew.
In the confusion after the accident, she slipped the watch off her wrist and into her younger self’s jacket pocket.
She’d left a note for Andrew in the future, explaining what she’d done. If he lived, he would see it, and maybe he would figure out some way to bring her forward, too. They could join the singularity and transcend together beyond these tangled loops of time.
And if he couldn’t find a way to bring her forward? Well, it would take years, but she would wait for the youngest Andrew to build the time machine, and then she could send herself back into their future.
She watched their younger selves get into a car and drive away, and then she felt it, the tug of the future.
Love conquers death.
About the Author
Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places.
About the Narrator
Nicola Seaton-Clark has worked professionally as an actress for over fifteen years in TV, film and radio. She started her career as a jazz singer and later a singer in a rock band. Her voice-over experience includes TV and radio advertising, singing jingles, film dubbing and synchronization, training videos, corporate films, animation, and Interactive Voice Response for telephone menus. She is also a qualified TEFL teacher and has extensive experience as a vocal coach specializing in South African, Australian and New Zealand accents.