Robert Silverberg remembers exactly the genesis of his story “Needle in a Timestack.” He was chatting with another author at a science fiction convention when a young fan intruded on their conversation.
“Go away, kid, or I’ll change your future,” the other author growled.
To which Silverberg responded, “No, tell him that you’ll change his past.” And just like that, Silverberg realized, he had handed himself a terrific story idea.
John Ridley, the Oscar-winning writer of Twelve Years A Slave, obviously agreed. He wrote and directed the film version of the story, which stars Leslie Odom Jr., Freida Pinto, Cynthia Erivo, Orlando Bloom, and Jadyn Wong, and is scheduled to be released on October 15, 2021, by Lionsgate.
In anticipation of the upcoming movie release, read an excerpt from Silverberg's story “Needle in a Timestack.”
Read on for an excerpt, then download the full story!
Between one moment and the next the taste of cotton came into his mouth, and Mikkelsen knew that Tommy Hambleton had been tinkering with his past again. The cotton-in-the-mouth sensation was the standard tip-off for Mikkelsen. For other people it might be a ringing in the ears, a tremor of the little finger, a tightness in the shoulders. Whatever the symptom, it always meant the same thing: your time-track has been meddled with, your life has been retroactively transformed. It happened all the time. One of the little annoyances of modern life, everyone always said. Generally, the changes didn’t amount to much.
But Tommy Hambleton was out to destroy Mikkelsen’s marriage, or, more accurately, he was determined to unhappen it altogether, and that went beyond Mikkelsen’s limits of tolerance. In something close to panic he phoned home to find out if he still had Janine.
Her lovely features blossomed on the screen—glossy dark hair, elegant cheekbones, cool sardonic eyes. She looked tense and strained, and Mikkelsen knew she had felt the backlash of this latest attempt too.
“Nick?” she said. “Is it a phasing?”
“I think so. Tommy’s taken another whack at us, and Christ only knows how much chaos he’s caused this time.”
“Let’s run through everything.”
“All right,” Mikkelsen said. “What’s your name?”
“Nick. Nicholas Perry Mikkelsen. You see? Nothing important has changed.”
“Are you married?”
“Yes, of course, darling. To you.”
“Keep going. What’s our address?”
“11 Lantana Crescent.”
“Do we have children?”
“Dana and Elise. Dana is five, Elise is three. Our cat’s name is Minibelle, and—”
“Okay,” Mikkelsen said, relieved. “That much checks out. But I tasted the cotton, Janine. Where has he done it to us this time? What’s been changed?”
“It can’t be anything major, love. We’ll find it if we keep checking. Just stay calm.”
“Calm. Yes.” He closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. The little annoyances of modern life, he thought. In the old days, when time was just a linear flow from then to now, did anyone get bored with all that stability? For better or for worse it was different now. You go to bed a Dartmouth man and wake up Columbia, never the wiser. You board a plane that blows up over Cyprus, but then your insurance agent goes back and gets you to miss the flight. In the new fluid way of life there was always a second chance, a third, a fourth, now that the past was open to anyone with the price of a ticket. But what good is any of that, Mikkelsen wondered, if Tommy Hambleton can use it to disappear me and marry Janine again himself?
They punched for readouts and checked all their vital data against what they remembered. When your past is altered through time-phasing, all records of your life are automatically altered too, of course, but there’s a period of two or three hours when memories of your previous existence still linger in your brain, like the phantom twitches of an amputated limb. They checked the date of Mikkelsen’s birth, parents’ names, his nine genetic coordinates, his educational record. Everything seemed right. But when they got to their wedding date the readout said 8 Feb 2017, and Mikkelsen heard warning chimes in his mind. “I remember a summer wedding,” he said. “Outdoors in Dan Levy’s garden, the hills all dry and brown, the 24th of August.”
“So do I, Nick. The hills wouldn’t have been brown in February. But I can see it—that hot dusty day—”
“Then five months of our marriage are gone, Janine. He couldn’t unmarry us altogether, but he managed to hold us up from summer to winter.” Rage made his head spin, and he had to ask his desk for a quick buzz of tranks. Etiquette called for one to be cool about a phasing. But he couldn’t be cool when the phasing was a deliberate and malevolent blow at the center of his life. He wanted to shout, to break things, to kick Tommy Hambleton’s ass. He wanted his marriage left alone. He said, “You know what I’m going to do one of these days? I’m going to go back about fifty years and eradicate Tommy completely. Just arrange things so his parents never get to meet, and—”
“No, Nick. You mustn’t.”
“I know. But I’d love to.” He knew he couldn’t, and not just because it would be murder. It was essential that Tommy Hambleton be born and grow up and meet Janine and marry her, so that when the marriage came apart she would meet and marry Mikkelsen. If he changed Hambleton’s past, he would change hers too, and if he changed hers, he would change his own, and anything might happen. Anything. But all the same he was furious. “Five months of our past, Janine—”
“We don’t need them, love. Keeping the present and the future safe is the main priority. By tomorrow we’ll always think we were married in February of 2017, and it won’t matter. Promise me you won’t try to phase him.”
“I hate the idea that he can simply—”
“So do I. But I want you to promise you’ll leave things as they are.”
“All right,” he said. “I promise.”
Little phasings happened all the time. Someone in Illinois makes a trip to eleventh-century Arizona and sets up tiny ripple currents in time that have a tangential and peripheral effect on a lot of lives, and someone in California finds himself driving a silver BMW instead of a gray Toyota. No one minded trifling changes like that. But this was the third time in the last twelve months, so far as Mikkelsen was able to tell, that Tommy Hambleton had committed a deliberate phasing intended to break the chain of events that had brought about Mikkelsen’s marriage to Janine.
The first phasing happened on a splendid spring day—coming home from work, sudden taste of cotton in mouth, sense of mysterious disorientation. Mikkelsen walked down the steps looking for his old ginger tomcat, Gus, who always ran out to greet him as though he thought he was a dog. No Gus. Instead a calico female, very pregnant, sitting placidly in the front hall.
“Where’s Gus?” Mikkelsen asked Janine.
“Gus? Gus who?”
“You mean Max?”
“Gus,” he said. “Sort of orange, crooked tail—”
“That’s right. But Max is his name. I’m sure it’s Max. He must be around somewhere. Look, here’s Minibelle.” Janine knelt and stroked the fat calico. “Minibelle, where’s Max?”
“Gus,” Mikkelsen said. “Not Max. And who’s this Minibelle?”
“She’s our cat, Nick,” Janine said, sounding surprised. They stared at each other.
“Something’s happened, Nick.”
“I think we’ve been time-phased,” he said.
Sensation as of dropping through trapdoor—shock, confusion, terror. Followed by hasty and scary inventory of basic life-data to see what had changed. Everything appeared in order except for the switch of cats. He didn’t remember having a female calico. Neither did Janine, although she had accepted the presence of the cat without surprise. As for Gus—Max—he was getting foggier about his name, and Janine couldn’t even remember what he looked like. But she did recall that he had been a wedding gift from some close friend, and Mikkelsen remembered that the friend was Gus Stark, for whom they had named him, and Janine was then able to dredge up the dimming fact that Gus was a close friend of Mikkelsen’s and also of Hambleton and Janine in the days when they were married, and that Gus had introduced Janine to Mikkelsen ten years ago when they were all on holiday in Hawaii.
Mikkelsen accessed the household callmaster and found no Gus Stark listed. So the phasing had erased him from their roster of friends. The general phone directory turned up a Gus Stark in Costa Mesa. Mikkelsen called him and got a freckle-faced man with fading red hair, who looked more or less familiar. But he didn’t know Mikkelsen at all, and only after some puzzling around in his memory did he decide that they had been distantly acquainted way back when, but had had some kind of trifling quarrel and had lost touch with each other years ago.
“That’s not how I think I remember it,” Mikkelsen said. “I remember us as friends for years, really close. You and Donna and Janine and I were out to dinner only last week, is what I remember, over in Newport Beach.”
“My wife’s name is Karen. Jesus, this has been one hell of a phasing, hasn’t it?” He didn’t sound upset.
“I’ll say. Blew away your marriage, our friendship, and who knows what-all else.”
“Well, these things happen. Listen, if I can help you any way, fella, just call. But right now Karen and I were on our way out, and—”
“Yeah. Sure. Sorry to have bothered you,” Mikkelsen told him.
He blanked the screen.
Donna. Karen. Gus. Max. He looked at Janine.
“Tommy did it,” she said.
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