An A to Z of Time Travel Anxiety
If Genghis Khan is impressed by my phone, I might just be spared
Equally as important as winning imaginary arguments whilst lathering yourself up in the shower is anxiously anticipating exceedingly unlikely events, such as accidental— and sometimes Oriental—time travel.
Language barriers, dead batteries, and various fish-out-of-water scenarios spring to mind and keep me tossing and turning at night.
B is for Butterfly
Here’s how this particular scenario plays out:
On a night out with friends, I lose my footing and tumble down a grassy knoll. Facedown in a clearing, pain flares in my right hip. I turn my phone flashlight on and examine the source: a broken arrowhead.
I look up and see a sky resplendent with unfamiliar constellations, the glowing band of the Milky Way radiant in the night sky. I've got a feeling I’m not in Kansas anymore. A trail of blood leads me to a heap of bodies, a shadowy mass of felled horses and soldiers. At least, I don’t think there are any survivors.
I creep a little closer, my heart thudding in my chest. I shine my light over boots, a chestplate, and finally, an ashen face, bloodied and stuck with matted black hair. It peeks out from under a conical hat with upturned flaps. He looks like Genghis Khan. The thought causes nervous laughter to bubble up inside me.
His eyes open.
We both scream.
His turns into a roar as he tackles me. He’s not Genghis Khan, but he is a member of the Mongol Horde. And he’s to deliver me to their esteemed leader. (A spoil of war? I hope G.K. just wants someone to ask about his day.)
Although his manners are as woeful as his stench—he reeks of battle and yak butter—my captor and I reach an accord. Using the wonders of technology, I make our journey a little easier (the flashlight) and a little merrier (my playlist of Miley Cyrus songs). While waiting for our hare to roast on the first night, I introduce him to Plants vs Zombies (for the tactics) and Candy Crush, which has pretty colours.
This guy’s really into Candy Crush, let me tell you, and it’s rapidly depleting the battery. My only proof—and hope of survival—rests in delivering my phone into the hands of Genghis Khan before it dies.
Time travellers have diplomatic immunity, right? Sorceresses too.
At last, we reach our destination. It’s sundown, and we’ve been walking for four days—my throat burns and my every muscle aches. My eyes swim with tears of exhaustion; I can barely make out the thin red line of the battery icon. The phone’s less than 1% charged. I’m a goner.
I pay no attention to the guards. My Mongol friend peels back the flap to the largest yurt in the encampment. There’s rapid-fire speech back and forth in a tongue I’d only heard as orders barked at me. Genghis Khan motions me to approach. My legs are lead.
My heart sinks; the phone feels unfathomably heavy.
No, I’ve come too far.
I screw my eyes shut and hold the button down. Hard. I’m shaking as I offer up the phone.
Please work. Please, please, please.
It thrums in his hands.
Temüjin is a boy again, standing in the tall grass, trapping a butterfly in his hands and admiring the indefatigable beating of its wings. The pangs of hunger receding; ambition blazing in his breast, vast as the Gobi desert. The enchanted tablet is black and glossy, a shard of volcanic glass. He frowns at the white sigil that materialises. Just as suddenly, it vanishes, replaced by the dazzling blue-green of the West Sea. He’s swept away in more memories—of victory, of enemies scattered and cities reduced to ashes. The blinding light fades, leaving only the reflection of the warlord’s face, transfixed in wonderment, upon its cool, smooth surface.
(Every time travel tale needs a (great-great-great-great… you get it) grandfather and a butterfly, don’t you know?)
D is for Delicate
This is a less well-worked neurosis than “Genghis Phone” above, but it goes something like this:
I’m transported back in time to England’s Middle Ages. No matter how many “ye”s I pepper my speech with, no one seems to understand a word I say. But they marvel at the silkiness of my Lululemon pantaloons and take note of my soft, uncalloused hands.
It’s clear to them that I’m high-born, some lord’s cloistered away illegitimate daughter perhaps. Certainly thoroughly unsuited to manual labour. I live out the rest of my days doing needlepoint, playing the harp, snacking on marzipan sculptures, and clapping after every spinet song.
Honestly, they should use this in a hand cream ad. The tagline could be ‘There’s always time to moisturise’, and it could cut to a disgruntled time traveller—indicated by their smartwatch—shovelling horse manure on account of their less supple hands.
F is for Flight
I’m not the time traveller in this scenario; I’m just babysitting one. Mostly I’m trying to stop him from running into traffic while transfixed by some lady’s shapely ankles.
‘How does that flying machine stay up in the air?’ he asks, pointing at the sky.
(In this scenario, I can understand his Old English perfectly. Perhaps Babel fish are involved.)
‘Well,’ I say smugly, beneficently, oh-so-patiently, ‘Let me explain Bernoulli’s principle to you. Have you ever stuck your hand out of a moving car and felt the air cu—’
‘What the devil is a “car”?’
‘I see,’ he says sometime later, ‘Tell me more about this “infernal combustion engine”. How many demons can dance upon its surface?’
‘Oh, at least a hundred. More if you get turbo.’
It turns out I can’t explain anything that isn’t the plot of the latest Marvel movie.
R is for Romance
Before I tell you this one—did Lord Byron have syphilis? Well, in that case, how about Casanova? Sigh, never mind then.
U is for all things good and ungood
Let me in medias res this one:
‘Well, they’re reading it as an instructional manual; that’s the problem.’
‘And now men are called women?’
‘If they ask to be. And, women are called uterus-havers, cervix-possessors, and bleeders—whether they like it or not!’
‘Caesar disagrees! Caesar refers to Caesar in the third person. Caesar doesn’t find declaring third-person pronouns in messages to be at all peculiar. What if your name is Agrippa? How are people supposed to know if you’re a boy or a girl?’
‘No one refers to people in third-person when writing them. It’s a political or even a religious declaration.’
‘Well, I think, as long as you castrate a boy and dress him in empress regalia—’
‘We all know what you think, Nero. Just play the lyre and keep quiet.’
‘I castrated many a boy in my day...’
‘Of course, you did, Megele, of course, you did.’
‘I find the trick to a successful female gender development lies in having the boy simulate intercourse with “her” sibling. While you watch.’
I assume at this stage Megele and Money exchange notes. And maybe there’s a discussion about the first Nuremberg trials also. Followed by charades and sherry.
Worst. Dinner. Party. Ever. Except for Orwell. I’d have Huxley over too. And Shirley Jackson and Mervyn Peake. Although the above scenario would be a far more disturbing answer to that classic (and insipid) interview question. And I’d do it with hand-puppets too.
The title was inspired by the short story anthology: An A to Z of Other Worlds. A play on the London A-Z. This article is notably missing most of the alphabet—I’m either lazy or not nearly as neurotic as I thought. Though I can’t find a single reference to it anywhere, I recall one of the stories in it concerned a hellish Mobius-strip motorway. Come to think of it, maybe it was just the London A-Z.
Speaking of reading short stories online, I used to spend a lot of time over on East of Eden, playing word games and reading rather good amateur short stories. The website also hosts public domain fiction. It was the highlight of my day when I saw that some beleaguered and confused high schooler had complained of Ambrose Bierce’s ‘poor imitation of 19th Century style’ in the comments.
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