Time travel finally became a reality by the end of the 21st century, alongside matter transmission and a teapot that didn’t dribble. As you know, the middle eastern attack of 2046, whereby the ruthless dictator Abul Hussien – Disney flooded our TV channels with non-stop barrage of infomercials, left the re-discovery of our history an imperative priority; few survived the attack, and those who did discovered themselves as gibbering maniacs with little or no recollection of their former years and cognitive processes. Despite the 20th century being known as the age of communication and information, little sense could be made of the assortment of news reports, documentaries and comic current affairs media that remained. The government decided time travel was the only way to unlock the mysteries of the past and commissioned a full-scale, long term research project into its feasibility, taking the cash from health and education – which were low priority in this period, since nobody knew how to condescend any more.
Progress was slow at first, but by 2079 scientists had succeeded in sending a small piece of paper ten minutes into the future (a scrap from the Labor party manifesto; when it reappeared the word ‘not’ had been mysteriously inserted into all of the sentences). Negative time travel was also possible, but by this time had been outlawed by the 2068 Protection Against Paradoxes and Spice Girls act. Our struggle had been desperate, yes, but the fresh start of 2046 had started humankind on an upward spiral of prosperity – furthermore, the liking of pan-pipe music had been completely eradicated – and we didn’t want to lose our substantial advantage over our recent ancestors by meddling with the time lines. The argument went like this: if you traveled back in time there was the possibility you might run into your grandfather and kill him, thereby collapsing the whole of your future like a deck of boats (we still hadn’t got 20th century collective nouns right by that stage). The pro-time travelers replied to this, “OK, we’ll be sure not to do that then.” But wait, continued the argument, how would you know it was your grandfather? How, for that matter, could you be certain that something you did couldn’t indirectly bring about the death of your grandfather? What if your grandfather was a thief and he mugs you? What if you had to kill him in self-defense?
There followed a brief and fruitless attempt to find a man or woman who had had no grandfather. In the end the solution was stumbled on by a scientist involved in the matter transmission project I mentioned earlier. Whilst teleporting a human subject from his laboratory to the local bakery, an order for bagels clutched tightly in his hand, a fly somehow got caught up in the dematerialization matrix; fantastically, the man’s brain got transferred to the fly’s body and vice versa. “This is great,” cried the time scientists, “now we can disguise a man as a fly and send him back in time to gather information. Nobody will ever notice him!” So the time team was assembled, and I was among their number. “Be wary of rolled up newspapers,” they told us, “and for God’s sake keep away from moving cars.” The next thing I knew I was perched on the lip of a cola in a downtown burger bar south of Detroit.
There were six of us in total: me, Fred (a noted political and social historian of our time), Ian (an expert in temporal mechanics), Gant (three times winner of the Mr Bulging Bicep competition – he was our protection), Sanjit (for equality purposes) and Marcie (for sex appeal). Fred met with a tragic and untimely death during the first week of our expedition on a routine food gathering trip – he felt a strange attraction to the purple light on the restaurant wall. Gant quickly found a liking for bedroom walls and parted from our group, claiming he was going independent. Ian got off with Marcie and the two set up a family on a turd in suburban Chicago, and Sanjit got stuck in a web whilst practicing his low level flying manoeuvres. So it was just me in the end – and, I have to tell you, I got pretty paranoid about it. With eight weeks still to go before our recall date I hung out in a New York alleyway with a safe bin, counting the days remaining with a tally of regurgitated Twinkie.
One morning I was disturbed from a moment of passion with a voluptuous young bluebottle who had wandered my way by the sound of running footsteps. A man in his early thirties was sprinting down the alley, only to find it a dead end. The face was a familiar one, and I was trawling through memories of photographs and database references when I realized in a flash that the man was none other than my grandfather. He was followed by a group of three youths with flick-knives, and their intention was all too clear. I felt compelled to act. Grabbing my female companion by the wing, I swooped down upon the scene and threw the poor girl into the lead thug’s mouth. And, as he ran out into the street, his bony finger down his throat, my grandfather made good his grateful escape.
And then I realized what I’d done. Of course! What an idiot I had been! The records showed that my grandfather had died on a business trip to New York whilst his girlfriend of twelve years – my grandmother – was pregnant. She had been planning to have an abortion, but so great was her grief she decided to have the child as a symbol and memento of her undying love for grandpa Joe. And thus my father had been born. Now that my grandfather was still alive the abortion would go ahead. I would never be born! The timelines had been altered irrevocably and the future – my past – would indeed collapse like a deck of anchovies. And I was responsible.
For an hour I flew like a fly possessed, the tears streaming from my eyes. I was waiting for my body and soul to dissolve into the oblivion of erased space-time, but nothing happened. I began to wonder if there was yet hope. Then I ran into Ian.
“Ian!” I cried, “I’ve been such a fool!” And out poured the whole story. “Listen,” said Ian, “I’ve made an incredible discovery – you’re not going to believe this!”, but every fly on this planet is a time traveler from the future. It was a chance conversation – I mistook a passer-by for Marcie and – y’know – I wanted to know what the hell she thought she was doing leaving the kids on their own like that. Imagine my surprise when the fly started talking back to me in a Cornish accent. “You’ve got the wrong fly, my lover,” she told me, “In fact, I don’t believe we’ve met. Mary Philips: Holographic Archaeology, late 20th century; Manhattan team.” Apparently the historians of the future want to create complete holographic records of every moment in history – including the launch of the stuffed crust pizza – to this end they sent millions of flies back in time, all with miniaturized light recorders hooked up to their visual neural pathways. But get this – when the first team got here they discovered that all the other flies they encountered were also time travelers – from farther into the future than they were. In fact, there’s not a single non-time travelling fly to be found. Normal flies have never actually existed.
The news only seemed to add to my depression. I could only think of the poor girl I had thrown into the jaws of death but an hour ago. I had said nothing to her during the brief period of our acquaintance, assuming her to be merely an insect; she, presumably, had considered me the silent type. “But what does this mean?” I cried. “Are the flies from our future also disguised researchers? What about the minds that used to fill these bodies of ours now? Is my original body stuffing itself some-when with pasty, clotted cream and enormous wedges of saffron sultana cake?”
And clearly Ian had yet to grasp the connotations of my grandfather being in a living state. I stopped a passing fly and asked him what he thought of the infomercial crisis of 2046, and the fly replied, “What crisis?”
Ian grew pale. Further investigation revealed my grandfather to have been a significant figure in this fly’s history – Prime Minister of England for seven-and-a-half years and guest guitarist on Cliff Richard’s seventy-third hit single, “It’s Sodding Christmas Again,” released to commemorate the ageing singer’s baptism into the Movement of Eventual Cynics. The Arabs had liked the song so much they made complete and unconditional peace with the west, and Cliff was later found swinging by a chord of irony.
Action had to be taken. We tracked my grandfather down to a taxi doing fifty down twenty-third Avenue. Ian took the driver’s right eye; I took the left. It was over in an instant, and when we emerged from the burning wreckage, battered and exhausted, it was to a world with no flies: a world that had never known flies and probably never would.
Why I still exist is a complete mystery to me. Naturally our recall date came and went – there were no flies in the future to send back any more. Our future had replied entirely upon the alternative future’s existence in order for flies to be populated therein. As the great philosopher Martusso said in 1798, “Flies are flies and dung is dung, but I know where dung comes from.” You work it out if you can. I’m living off a rind of bacon in 42nd Street with Ian and Marcie. We’re trying to repopulate the species.