(reading time: 24 minutes)
Of the sixteen time machines in operation, only one played a video of someone tap-dancing. The machine itself wasn’t much to marvel at; in fact, it looked like a space heater from the 1970’s, just with a fancier coat of paint and 6,380 small wires snaking out of its base and entering all kinds of unusual places around the laboratory. Some went into sockets, some hugged the wall and left the room, and others rose into the air dangerously enough to get tagged with black and orange warning stickers.
Rocky, ready to yell at someone like a drill sergeant who just had his car scratched, tripped over one of the wires despite it being clearly labeled. He spun around to avoid falling and almost wrapped his hands around the wire in an attempt to strangle the breathless thing, but thought better of it. If any harm came to the machine his neck would be served up to the bosses with a side of roasted red potatoes. That was also why that incessant clicking sound that echoed through the facility had to be silenced. It didn’t matter that it was accompanied by some truly swinging music, because this was not the time or place for music. It wasn’t professional. The only music should be the stuff in the elevator with the soft saxophone that looped just long enough for you to notice the awkward break in it before exiting onto your floor.
“Bo, what do you think you’re doing?” Rocky asked a figure lounging in a wheeled chair and staring stupidly into a large oval screen that happened to be connected to one of the time machine’s numerous wires. Bo’s head bopped along with the music, and so did the pair of feet on the screen.
“I’m just listening to some old music. This guy is really good. His name was Ogden O’fern. My grandpa used to play all his videos for me when I was a kid. He told me O’fern worked on the music and the choreography for all the classics. You know, Sandy Shore Leave, Lights up and Dance, The Great Auditions…”
“What does that have to do with work?” Rocky shouted. “And you’re supposed to wear your lab coat at all times.” Bo’s coat was stuck under his chair and had several black streaks on it from being run over.
“Don’t yell at him just because he doesn’t see the need to wear safety goggles when we’ve got nothing to do,” a third voice said. Nettle, a blonde technician whose own coat was decorated with sarcastic pins, walked up to the console. “Although I see it doesn’t bother you.”
“What do you…” Rocky started, but then quieted. He had forgotten he was in fact wearing the bulky plastic safety goggles. He just thought of them as his eyes now. “Even though we’re waiting for approval of the new experiments, we are still at work,” he reasoned. “Besides, it’s just stupid to use one of the most advanced temporal computers in the world to look up internet videos of some dancer.”
“I like the music,” Nettle said and tapped her feet along to the beat. Bo put his arms in the air and shook back and forth, his tie swinging in and out of his face.
“Join the party,” he said to Rocky, whose face grew red. Sure he wasn’t high enough in the chain to fire them, but the fancy ‘supervisor’ in his title was supposed to mean ‘obey me, lab peon’. Music wasn’t going to get anything done. It wasn’t going to monitor allelic frequencies in dinosaurs. It couldn’t record one of Alexander the Great’s speeches. Only the time machine could. And it was their job to stay on their toes, without tapping them, and keep things in working order.
“Put this coat back on right now,” Rocky said and leaned down. He grabbed one of the sleeves and tugged with both hands. The coat came free, but it sent Bo’s chair careening forward in the process. Bo didn’t even have time to stop waving his arms before the chair crashed into the computer’s input table. His slightly pudgy body rolled across buttons, switches, and sliders. All of a sudden everything lit up. The time machine emitted a roiling cloud of smoke as it shook and whistled like it was about to take off through the ceiling and head straight for orbit.
“What did you do!?” Rocky cried.
“Nothing!” Bo said, pulling himself off the panel as quickly as he could. “You pushed me!”
“Shut up, both of you,” Nettle said. Her fingers danced over the keys as she explored the problem. The alarms stopped. The time machine calmed down. Nettle scanned the screen. “Well this is odd. Hmm… Well… If you boys want to keep your jobs we might have to take a little trip.”
“Let me use the bathroom first,” Bo said with a sigh. He made it about five feet before tripping on a wire. Rocky was too angry and worried to say anything. Instead he just stood there, hands yanking on his hair and face growing redder, like he was preheating it to make it easier for their bosses to cook.
Time travel was significantly more… artistic than Rocky had anticipated. From the moment they stepped through the portal they slid down what looked like a strip of old celluloid film. The faded golden aether around them flickered like someone waving their hand back and forth over the sun. Images spiraled around, each one containing an undisturbed moment in history. Although he was the most scared to lose his job, Rocky had been the last to enter the portal. If anyone found out they’d taken an unauthorized trip… they were canned, but if anyone discovered what they accidentally sent back things would be much worse. He noticed that Bo had failed to bring his lab coat and was now sliding down the temporal stream in his undershirt, squealing like a kid on a roller coaster.
“Here we are,” Nettle said as she landed on her feet while her two colleagues instead splashed into a puddle of Paleolithic mud. “43,000 years before Bo belly flopped onto one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments.”
“Yeah, so remind me what I did again?” Bo asked her.
“I don’t quite get what we’re looking for either,” Rocky said. The humidity already made his sinuses feel like burbling primordial volcanoes of phlegm. “All we did was accidentally send an internet video of some guy tap-dancing back in time. There won’t be anything that can play that video here for quite a while, unless that rock over there gets wifi.”
“That temporal computer is a search engine with access to all of Earth’s information going back to its formation. It’s not programmed to deal with representations. From the start of the experiments we’ve been using it to transport real things: recording devices, disguised people, and scientific samples back and forth across the time stream,” Nettle explained.
“So what did we send back?” Bo asked. “Aside from us.”
“The computer checked the video you were watching for information. It used the time machine to go back in time and find the source of that information. In this case, it chose the electrical patterns in Ogden O’fern’s brain at the time of that recording. It took one cumulative second of his life and rocketed it back to the date you accidentally put in with one of your love handles.”
“No, there’s no way a love handle sent anything this far back. I’ve been working out.” Bo joked.
“Shut up,” Rocky said. “And pick up that change you dropped. Anything we leave behind could somehow devastate the future. At the very least, our severance pay.” Bo bent down and picked up the three dimes one at a time. “So what does this brain pattern look like? A bunch of sparks floating around?”
“I swear you administrative guys are useless,” Nettle said. “How many times do I have to tell you that that machine is a lot smarter than you? It found a place to put the information from O’fern. Since the medium for the information was brain waves and electricity, the computer looked for a vessel that could accept the information without changing the format.”
“You don’t mean… a person?” Rocky asked.
“A cro-magnon person to be specific. So, somewhere around here there’s a caveman that’s been injected with a piece of the mind of a twentieth century tap-dancer. And I don’t think I need to tell you that if he shares this information with his fellow troglodytes, the timeline’s going to start wiggling like a squid after a caffeine injection.”
“Ha, I remember that experiment,” Bo said. He wiped the mud off his coins with a fingertip. He made sure to put the mud back on the ground, like he was finger-painting.
“So how are we supposed to fix this?” Rocky asked.
“Don’t ask me,” Nettle said, the job of being an information vending machine starting to get on her nerves. “We’ve got to find him first.”
They searched for hours before anything turned up. The forest they’d arrived in started giving way to the edge of a mountain. Huge boulders sat between towering coniferous trees, growing moss in their pockets and cracks like facial hair on a scarred veteran. One sizable stone was held in place by two curved trees, as if the rock had bent the trees when it rolled into them.
“What’s that sound?” Bo asked. They all stopped to listen. It was so faint and so rhythmic that they kept thinking it was their own heartbeats.
“This way,” Rocky said and took the lead. He charged up a steep slab of rock and led them up a snaking edge. There were no roots now, just gravel, leaves, and chips of bone. The sound grew more distinct. It clicked. It more than clicked. There was something to it, something primitive that didn’t harm the rhythm. The sound grew faster. Clack, clack, clackety-clack. Clickety-clickety-clack!
“Hey isn’t that the tune from the video you were watching Bo?” Nettle asked.
“That would be Leash your Dalmation from the absolute classic Mutts on a Hot Street,” he identified.
“No it isn’t,” Rocky insisted as he stomped across some bones. “That would mean my worst fears have been realized and I’m just not in the mood for that.”
“She’s right,” Bo said. “Hang on I think I remember the lyrics for it… something like ‘let’s bound… let’s bound on down to the drugstore sugar! Let’s bound’…” Rocky whirled around and squeezed Bo’s cheeks together to stop his flat singing.
“Shut up!” he hissed. “Do you want to announce our presence to the whole epoch?” The three continued forward until they found the entrance to a cave. The clackety-crack echoed from deep inside. Other noises came flowing out now: barks of laughter complemented by loud snorts. They saw streaks of what could’ve been paint or just dried blood around the cave entrance. There were pictograms of spears being thrown at horned wildlife. Two tall jagged stones on either side of the entrance had wide-hipped Venus figures scrawled on them.
“Aww, they remind me of this girl Samantha I dated in high school,” Bo said. The others ignored him.
“We’re not going in there are we?” Nettle asked.
“Yes,” Rocky said, hesitation hidden. “Maybe we can just scare them into never making that noise again. We are hideous monsters from the future after all. Everybody get out the most futuristic thing you brought with you and… I don’t know… put on your angry face.” Rocky pulled out a novelty lighter that looked like a tiny plastic pistol. He pulled the trigger and kept it lit. In his other hand he lofted his cell phone with its flashlight application turned on so they could see into the cave. Nettle reached into her coat pockets and pulled out a tiny green stapler. She clicked it menacingly a few times and tried to imagine whether or not it could scare anything at all. Bo dug deep into his back pocket and pulled out something that hadn’t seen the light of day in weeks: a laser pointer with a piece of chewed gum hardened onto its side like a barnacle.
“I think I win ‘most futuristic thing’,” he said proudly before the others shushed him and they tiptoed into the cave. Various pelts hung from ledges on the wall, some rolled up like sleeping bags and reeking of rotten leather. A thin layer of dirt cushioned their steps and further quieted their approach. The din that drew them grew more boisterous. They heard sounds of anticipation followed by roars of satisfaction, like a modern crowd watching a magician abracadabra doves out of his sleeve.
When the tunnel curved they were finally face to face with their handiwork. There was a group of some thirty-five cave folk, all gathered around a fire, either sitting on log benches or standing. The smoke from the fire curled up and vented through a large crack in the ceiling that also let some sunlight in. One figure shuffled around the fire at an impressive speed. The Clickety-Clickety-Clack came from his feet as he performed a series of twentieth century dance steps. On his feet were a pair of hide sleeves tied with flax fibers; two pieces of flint were fixed to the bottom, not only clicking against the raised stone platform the fire was in, but also sending out a shower of sparks with every step.
“Oh, well that’s cool,” Bo said without thinking. The cro-magnon stopped dancing. The last spark fell. Every face turned towards the new visitors. Several hands with dirt-filled fingernails reached for their stone axes and clubs. The few children hopped behind their mothers. A tense silence hit like a heart attack.
“Uh… everybody, future mode!” Rocky declared. He tapped a button on his phone so that it started playing a viral video of a baby lemur trying to eat a submarine sandwich. He held it in front of him like some kind of prophetic tablet. Nettle swung her stapler open and fired a few silvery arcs towards the cavemen. One of them swatted at what he thought were little metal mosquitos. Some of the warriors stood and started to approach. Suddenly the three time travelers felt like prey, as if the cavemen had merely ordered some take-out from the future.
“I’ve got this,” Bo said. He stepped forward and turned on his laser pointer. He made it dance across the floors and walls and made whistling noises every time he moved it quickly. The children noticed it first and started pointing and shouting. Soon the whole clan followed the dot with their eyes. The weapons hit the floor. Every hairy hand in the place giddily tried to grab the dot. Several of them exclaimed when they thought they’d caught it, but sighed when they opened their hands to find nothing. “I think we’re in guys,” Bo said. “This works on my dog every time.”
From the Audio Recordings of Rocky’s ‘My Diary’ Cellphone Application
It seems we’re members of the tribe now thanks to Bo’s laser pointer trick. We’ve got four days left before the time machine automatically pulls us back. That means I have four days to confront the musical Cro-magnon, who we’re now calling O’hairy, and convince him to forget about all this music business. There’s no telling what such an early introduction to these cultural inventions could cause. It might mean wars won’t happen the way they’re supposed to. People who are supposed to be friends might end up enemies over whose dance routine is jazzier. We can’t let it happen.
Day One Progress
Day One was a failure. After waking up on a slab of stone, Bo having totally hogged the pelt we were using as a blanket, I had to take a ten minute walk to find a bush appropriate enough in shape to obscure my urination. The cave people have no such qualms, and seem to enjoy the sight of yellow waterfalls flowing down the rocks. I touched those rocks yesterday. I hate this place.
O’hairy was back up to his tricks by the time I got back. Most everyone else still snored away, Bo the loudest. Maybe that blast of twentieth century energy convinced O’hairy he needed to sleep like a New Yorker, because when I returned the sun had barely started to rise and he was already cutting a rug like he’d guzzled a kiddie pool of coffee. I grabbed him by the shoulders and managed to sit him down. His feet swung back and forth in rhythm the whole time.
“Now stop that,” I said and grabbed his ankles. He stopped and stared at me. “You can’t do that. The world’s not ready for it. You need to focus on hunting and gathering and maybe coming up with the idea of the bathroom sooner.” O’hairy stared blankly. “All that future stuff swimming around in your head and you didn’t pick up any English? You can’t understand anything I’m saying?” The cave man nodded, merely exaggerating the slight head movement I made. He started patting his hands on his thighs to the tune. Then he stopped and stared at his legs, experimentally hitting them a few more times. He smiled.
Oh no, I thought. The monkey’s discovering percussion as we speak. I couldn’t let that happen so I grabbed his wrists in the hopes I could break his train of thought. He had to be watched like a hawk so he didn’t start turning whatever he could get his filthy mitts on into an instrument. His feet started tapping against the stone now that they were free. I grabbed his ankles again, only to have his hands pick up exactly where his feet left off in the tune. I grabbed his hands. I grabbed his feet. I grabbed his hands. He laughed. I gave up.
There’s a better way to do this. If I can’t change him, I can discredit him. I just need to prevent him from spreading the knowledge. If I can discredit him among his caterpillar-eating colleagues, I may be able to keep my job yet.
Day Two Progress
The three of us got dragged out on a hunt. O’hairy didn’t join the hunting party, so I was forced to waste several hours stalking nothing through a yellowing field. Plus it was cold. No animal would stick around with the sound of my teeth chattering like that. It seems the hunters brought us along as some kind of luck charm. It was easy to see the worry on their faces; they hadn’t caught anything in a while. When I thought about it, I realized I’d seen very little food in the cave.
Bo has already gone native. There’s mud smeared on his cheeks and he’s got his tie wrapped around the end of a spear. I wouldn’t be surprised if he abandons his clothes soon in favor of an oversized leaf to hide his crotch. I hope it’s poison ivy. At least Nettle is pulling her weight. She and I whispered plans of action back and forth as the others followed some kind of deer with antlers the size of minivan doors.
“Maybe we can connect their struggles to O’hairy,” she said. “They seem to be in the midst of a food shortage right now. If they ‘realize’ O’hairy’s dancing came along with starvation, they could pressure him to stop.”
“That’s good,” I said. “It relies on the luck that they won’t catch anything though.”
“Do you have a better idea?” she hissed back. I didn’t. Bo sneezed and the deer bounded off.
By the time we got back, the dancing was spreading like the plague. Like most pandemics, the children were especially vulnerable. O’hairy stood atop one of the Venus rocks outside the cave entrance and tapped out a number. Then he stopped to watch the children as they tried to match him: shuffling around stupidly and bumping into each other like drunk ducklings. The sight sickened me.
“Aww, that’s adorable,” Nettle gushed.
“Nettle!” I said, trying to get her back. If I lost her in this festival of prehistoric discovery and hugs I’d be all alone.
“Right, sorry,” she said. I told her it was time to act and that she needed to get the rest of the boneheads out of the cave so everyone could see. She agreed somewhat reluctantly and descended into the cave. O’hairy’s tapping picked up speed. I did have to admire how quickly he’d improved. Feet didn’t seem like they should move that fast. Balancing on the tip of that boulder was no simple feat either.
When Nettle arrived with the rest of the tribe I wasted no time making my case. I tried to take the essence of the fire and brimstone prosecutors you always see on court drama shows and boil it down to its primitive persuasiveness. I drew everyone’s attention with a shout. O’hairy stopped dancing and the children followed suit. All eyes were on me. No words. I couldn’t use any words. It would just be wasted noise that confused them.
I walked over to the hunting party and grabbed their empty hands. I tried to show everyone just how empty they were. My performance became a series of pantomimes. Rub the stomach. Pretend to eat. Look for something to toss a spear at. Rub the stomach again. Moan with hunger. Moan like a big, empty, rusty trash compactor. Do a double take at O’hairy. Climb up to him, keeping one hand in the air and pointing accusingly at him, even if that makes me slip as I climb up. Move my finger to his feet and howl. A howl of discovery. I’d found a witch to blame. I danced and rubbed my stomach. Moan. Dance. Moan. Wait for a reaction.
Day Three Progress
Success! This is how I earned those safety goggles. It’s these skills that earned me an office, a five figure salary, and two weeks of paid vacation full of architecturally-focused bus tours and medium-well steak dinners.
Today is a miserable day for the cavefolk. When O’hairy’s tapping awoke them in the morning, several of them threw things at him. This being a primal time, the only ‘things’ to throw constituted painful objects like rocks, sticks, and bones. The kind of objects O’hairy needed to have thrown at him: the rotten tomatoes of this generation, painting a bad performance the shade of red shame it deserved. O’hairy retreated to a corner of the cave where he took off his unusual shoes and buried them in a pile of ashes. He wept.
It never occurred to me that man’s ancestors cried. They’d always seemed less than human. You never see anything else cry. No sobbing eagles. No bawling mice. Water in the eyes was an adaptation for keeping grit out of a fragile area. It took intelligence and a subconscious link between soul and flesh to subvert that into real, meaningful tears. O’hairy’s tears. No, I didn’t feel good about it. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made. O’hairy having his dreams crushed now would protect the timeline from deleterious effects. So what if he lives the short life of a hunter like everyone else in his tribe instead of the moody odd life of an entertainer? This way he’ll never have to worry about substance abuse or hiring a publicist.
The confines of the cave made it easy to hear the rumblings of everyone’s stomachs. Nobody even bothered to chase Bo’s laser pointer around: it was just another thing they couldn’t catch.
“Do you think they’ll die?” Nettle asked suddenly. I didn’t even notice she had sat next to me. Her hair looked like a small town hit by a tornado and her glasses were smudged so much that she had pulled them down to the tip of her nose to look over the lenses. Her expression reminded me of stones having their edges worn away by rushing water.
“If they do then we just wasted all this time. Nature would’ve taken care of this dancing craze for us anyway. Sort of like an immune response, expelling what doesn’t belong. Look at them. They invented tap shoes before shoes. We can’t have that,” I said.
“I checked before we left Rocky. They’re not supposed to die. This group is an important one for our genetic background.”
“Don’t worry about it. The time machine will pick us up tomorrow afternoon. The tribe is bound to last a few more days at least. They’ll catch some kind of saber-toothed opossum and have a barbecue.”
“O’hairy’s crying,” she pointed out.
Day Four Progress
A terrible ruckus woke me on the fourth day. A terrible ruckus with a perfect tempo. The cave was full of dust, kicked up by the activity and sticking to the glistening skin of the shirtless denizens. A huge fire was going, with several items skewered on a stick and roasting over it. It was quite a spread: turkey legs, potatoes, zucchini, red onions, chunks of pork and beef, massive red prawns with blackened tails.
In trying to stand up I accidentally plunged my foot into something big, red, white, and plastic. My foot seemed to instantly freeze. I hopped into the air, flinging crescents of ice and water around in the process. It was a cooler! It was a cooler family reunion! Dozens of the modern boxes were opened all over the place, with plastic packages and silverware hanging out of them like costume jewelry. I had slept through a feast and now everyone, absolutely everyone, was dancing.
The cave had turned into a movie set circa 1950. Everyone’s choreography was perfect. This was no spontaneous rave full of random bouncing and wriggling. This was a coordinated attack on my plan. The dance steps were old-fashioned and agonizingly charming. Without a language to unite them, everyone hummed or whistled the tune instead. Bo and Nettle, traitors both, danced along. Bo wore nothing but a loincloth, even less than what most of the cave folk wore, and Nettle had ditched her lab coat and glasses.
“What happened?” I cried out to them over the music.
“You didn’t think I sent us back for four days without any guarantee of food?” Nettle said with a smile. “I programmed the machine to send us a shipment of food whenever it arrived at the lab. It was supposed to get here two days ago, but I guess I miscalculated a little. It arrived right after you went to sleep last night and well… we decided to share!” She spun wildly, grabbed Bo, and dipped him close to the floor.
“You undid everything! How did this happen so fast?”
“After we ate, I gave O’hairy his shoes back,” Bo admitted. “He already had the choreography in his head. I guess he’s been planning this little number the whole time. We practiced all night. You can’t stop it Rocky! We’ve just got to dance! You can’t kill the music!”
The dance procession poured out of the cave, carrying me with it like a barrel from a shipwreck, bobbing up down in the swaying waves. In the open air I could see just how organized they’d become. Patterns of people played out across the rocks like pieces on a board game. Pairs of cro-magnon spun, tapped, and switched partners with flawless timing. Ten cavemen, all with tapping shoes of their own now, stomped out the beat atop the rocks and hummed the low portions of the song. They all clapped, prompting me to scream.
I tried to rip some of the pairs apart, but just got picked up by a cro-magnon woman instead. The look in her eyes told me she had plans for me. She dropped me onto my feet and spun me around, forcing my legs to go along with it, lest I fall into the muck. Every time I tried to break away she pulled me closer and kicked at the bottom of my feet so I had to keep dancing. I was being molested by a cave wench. It’s the kind of thing that forces you to realize that your career is over.
There was nothing I could do… except give in to the music.
End of Diary
The trio returned to a changed world. Fewer wars had been fought. Things just seemed to move differently, like everything human naturally had a melody to it. Every book could be sung. Every sport had rhythm, making it so the players never collided. People lived longer.
Rocky, a new person with a new career, now lived in a glass-walled penthouse atop a building so tall that it stuck above the clouds like a lighthouse over the sea foam. Every morning he watched the sun rise. Even though it was completely silent at that altitude, he always heard something moving with the little dancing flares on the edge of the sun. A song. A song that had been there since the dawn of man, bred into us by countless generations of dancing and singing and happiness. The human song. Rocky tapped his bare foot to the beat.