He was there on the steps as I left the solarium. He wore a long overcoat despite the dry desert heat, his thin face poured with sweat, his long hands twisted and shook.
As I began the long climb up the mountain, he fell into step beside me and sniggered nervously, his eyes squinting against the blazing sun.
“I’m Gadfafl,” he said, groping for my hand. “Alan Gadfafl.”
“Orwell Bibblenib,” I grunted, gripping my umbrella a little tighter.
“Pleasure of your acquaintance,” said Gadfafl. “Actually, Dr Bibblenib, I know who you are. I have seen you on television, and I have read your book – in fact, both of your books.”
I stopped walking, and Gadfafl turned to face me, something like triumph crossing his narrow features. His lank moustache twitched and dripped, and a soggy cigarette curled snugly behind his ear.
“Mr Gadfafl,” I said. “I am afraid you are mistaken. We are poor people in these parts: I have never seen this television, much less appeared on it. I have not written any books, and am besides a computer technician, and not a doctor, as you suggest..”
Gadfafl cleared his throat as if beginning a speech.
“Dr Bibblenib,” he leered earnestly, flashing impeccable teeth, “no doubt you are a busy man, and I will not keep you long. But I promise that if you give me a few minutes of your time what must seem like gibberish now will become perfectly lucid.”
I resumed walking, exasperated. Gadfafl hopped along beside me, sweat patches developing alarmingly rapidly on his thick coat.
“Look, I really must insist,” I began, determined to set this nonsense aside, but Gadfafl cut in over me, leaping excitedly.
“Before I explain,” he twittered,” I must alert you to a limitation existing regarding this conversation the result of forces entirely beyond my control. Certain chronological continuities must be preserved, and therefore, somewhat inconveniently..”
“Look here,” I tried again. The man was mad. Why, he…
“You see, doctor, I can’t hear a word you’re saying. I mean, well I can hear you in a literal sense, of course, but I can’t respond in the normal way.”
“What do you mean?” I asked tremulously. This Gadfafl was beginning to frighten me.
“Forgive me if I appear somewhat melodramatic, doctor, at what must seem a time of insignificance and perhaps irritation, rather than one of any great import or moment . I can only tell you that from my perspective, this meeting is profoundly important, the apex, in fact, of a decade-long project, and the cusp, if I might be bold, of my life.”
I quickened my pace, but he kept up easily, striding energetically up the slope, waving his hands in the wind.
“This conversation, Bibblenib, like all others, of course, monumental or irrelevant, is entirely predetermined. Preset. Unalterable. A causal certainty. Immutably fixed in history’s amber. A combination of predispositions, both genetic and environmental, will inevitably shape the nature of our thoughts, our line of reasoning, and our responses to the responses of the other. The continuity of cause links chains of events preceding us in this point of time by a thousand years or a few hours , which accompany us into the future, manifesting our unenvisaged will in accordance with a trillion parameters of effect..”
I said: “I’m not sure I understand you, Mr..” I but Gadfafl swept on, ignoring me entirely.
“There is, as I’ve said, nothing exceptional about this particular exchange in itself, in terms of its causal arrangement. But in this instance, my friend, one of the participants has had advanced perusal of the dialogue. I mean, me. And in fact, having the advantage of you, Dr Bibblenib, having read the script ahead of time, by means that will shortly become clear to you, carries with it a significant responsibility.”
“You mean you know what were going to say before we say it?” I offered cautiously, upset by Gadfafl’s sudden animation.
“In short, I know exactly what we’re going to say, “ he repeated, “before we say it.” He grasped my arm. “The problem is, now I’m here, talking to you my prior knowledge of our meeting avails me nothing at all. I assume I cannot break with the script, but, wary of disrupting some fundamental fatalistic harmony, have rehearsed every word countless times. The fundamental laws of the cosmos forbid me to deviate from the original course of events, or else irreparably alter the Earth and the universe for all time to come.”
There was a pause.
“Patience, dear Bibblenib – patience. It…”
“But you don’t. know what…”
“Yes I do,” said Gadfafl quickly, “you were going to ask why the…”
“…why the fundamental laws of the cosmos should concern you. Suggest that the future hasn’t happened yet, that, it’s an open book, it’s what we make it. That we’re all responsible for our destiny, not locked into a pre-determined sequence of actions, words, and thought… ”
I had been about to ask almost exactly that, but: “it’s just that it’s extremely irritating never to be allowed to finish,” I said, sounding, I realised, peevish and staid. But it had been a long day, and the path was, in places, steep, and I was preoccupied with the imminent prospect of Pasquito’s excellent tortillas, which had been promised for dinner, and an early night. Besides, I thought, if he has, by some supernatural agency had prescient insight into the course of our interaction, he’s had every opportunity to examine his rather discourteous conduct, and despite any regret, he evidently feels compelled to repeat it. It must have appeared rather odd on the page, I remember thinking at the time – my part in the exchange was nothing so much as a series of monosyllabic truncated utterances, punctuating Gadfafl’s virtual soliloquy.
“I was nervous coming here.” He appeared nervous now, his fingers digging into his neck, his eyes never still for more than a second, examining the distance in all directions. You see, though you may be confused at present, this meeting will in time have had considerable impact on both of our lives.“
“It’s preposterous,” I cried, turning on him angrily. “ Firstly, you descend upon me, mistaking me for some author and doctor, and then insist upon a precognitive ability that allows you complete insight into..”
I stopped. Gadfafl was looking at me expressionlessly. Then I realised. Regardless of the absurd delusion this man was entertaining, as far as he was concerned, my outburst was useless. He was following a script, and would not easily be deterred. Had, in fact, as he saw it – for whatever reason – no choice but to continue.
“How long have you known all this?” I asked, after a long moment,..
“Ten years,” he said, in a rare burst of continuity. “Ten years, since I found that book.”
“Book? What book?”
“..and every minute of the intervening period has been spent in preparation. You can’t possibly know how it’s been for me – the anticipation of meeting you.. The long years of study, and then experimental research. Everything sacrificed to a single dream, dedication fuelled by complete conviction.”
I decided I’d heard enough. The man was clearly a fanatic of some kind. “I’m not …”
“Dr Bibblenib, as difficult to apprehend as this might be, I find myself compelled to put it to you without further preamble. I’m from the future. Well, as you understand it. From my perspective, of course, I’m visiting the past.”
“You’re actually a time traveller?” I laughed, but he said forcefully “Yes. Exactly. ”
I sighed, resigned to hearing him out. Perhaps he was harmless, after all. A harmless deranged madman. The wind was strong higher on the slopes of the mountain, and the village was still some distance away. For a moment I wondered what would happen if somehow I managed to divert this discussion, or perhaps end it altogether. But the very attempt would give credence to the fantastical notions this odd Gadfafl had proposed: in some way it seemed I might inadvertently validate whatever peculiar world Gadfafl had chosen to subscribe to. He shrank a little inside his coat and continued.
“When I was nineteen, by chance I found an old library in a long abandoned suburb of the city, now theoretically preserved as heritage. But mine is a disposable age in general, and forward looking. No one had been in there for years. The books on those old shelves were archaic, some of them centuries old. Before I learned how to properly preserve the relics housed in that museum of words, several valuable books were destroyed, crumbling in my hands.
“I myself had previously had no interest in history, occupied like other adolescents with thhe latest groobules and fostifurbs, but now I was fascinated. I went there every day to read. One of the most ancient tomes in the place particularly interested me – and not, perhaps, unsurprisingly, since the book’s name was my own: Gadfafl.
“Naturally I assumed at first I was uncovering some chapter of my ancestry, a biography, perhaps, of a forebear, one of the more remarkable Gadfafls of another century. But almost immediately I began reading, once I got the book home, I realised this was something considerably more important. The volume was an account of a strange meeting the author had had with a crazy man who claimed to be from a distant future, and claimed, what’s more, to be the inventor of a time machine, which had borne him centuries into the past, just in time to keep an important appointment.”
Now I was becoming engaged in Gadfafl’s story. This was reasonably familiar territory, after all, as I am an avid reader of certain of the science fiction masters to whom the causal conundra of time travel are stock in trade. Delusion or no, I was intrigued. But in the dramatic pause which followed his convoluted near monologue, as I struggled to comprehend the import of this knotted ribbon of time, an epiphany struck me – a future vision, a premonition of my own. Sensing a sort of drab doom looming for the ungainly creature loping along beside me, I slowed my hurried progress up the path, gasped for air, and was showered with spittle as Gadfafl began again…
“The account made it indisputably clear, Dr Bibblenib…”
“I’m not a doctor.!”
“however unlikely it may appear..”
“Just Orwell is fine.”
“..that I was the focus of the book , and not an ancient relative, as I had supposed. The implications were tremendous. Nothing could make this so clear, you understand as discovering the actual words of this conversation printed in the book’s pages – I was able to read exactly this exposition of the success of my work, just as you are hearing it now. So you see, I knew I was destined to come to this place ten years hence, four hundred and forty years ago, and hold this conversation with you.”
“How odd it seemed to have unearthed my own future in a long-forgotten relic of the past..”
“You, Dr Bibblenib” thundered Gadfafl, looming over me exultantly. “are the author of that small but instrumental volume. When I startled you earlier, doctor, (and as I have explained I had no recourse other than to do so) with talk of television, books, and ph ds, I was talking of things still in your future. Events and achievements as yet unrealised. ”
My senses reeled. His story had about it a sense of plausibility. Ridiculous as it was, this gaunt harried man appeared to be telling the truth. I attempted to recover my composure, folding my umbrella and flossing my teeth inconspicuously.
“We,” Gadfafl went on impressively, “are two men caught up together in a peculiar eddy of the universe’s insensate temporal winds, the destiny of each impossible without the other. Without you I would never have been inspired to build my time machine. Without me you will never achieve the short-lived fame and considerable wealth that is your fate. And so, Dr Bibblenib, pleasure of your acquaintance, and may we both fulfil our respective parts. Not,” he added, “that we really have any choice.”
Gadfafl stopped talking and gulped furiously, wiping at his eyes, and wobbling on his high-heeled shoes. He peered hopefully at me through the waterfall cascading from his brow.
We had come to a halt, but almost upon the village – it was just a few hundred metres away, the path snaking between the anthills clinging to the side of the mountain. I began to roll a cigarette from the mixture of herbs I kept in a pouch at my belt. Gadfafl was still silent – evidently the script called for me to speak.
For a few long moments I said nothing, drawing deeply on my cheroot, enjoying Gadfafl’s urgent nods and muffled grunts. For the first time since he had begun his tirade I had a moment of relative calm and objectivity.
“Mr Gadfafl,” I said, at last, sternly, “I have no doubt as to the authenticity of your tale, or at least that you yourself believe it. But I fear you are guilty of a gross oversimplification.
“What?,” said Gadfafl, flapping smoke away from wide eyes. “What do you mean?”
“My point is that I suspect the universe to be a far larger place than you suggest. And I refuse to accept your tidy time loop theorem.”
“But it’s watertight, Bibblenib.”
“Just the reason I don’t like it..” It was a pity Gadfafl had not come upon some of the 20th century’s science fiction works in his ancient library. Something by Stanislaw Lem, or Philip K Dick, or Robert Silverberg that might properly have warned him against dabbling in the vagaries of extra-chronological travel. It appeared that now it could be too late.
I strummed my lip ruminatively. “At the commencement of this conversation,” I said, borrowing Gadfafl’s high style, “you made it clear that you could do nothing more than recite the dialogue you found in that arcane book all those years ago. Have you ever really looked at that dialogue? This dialogue? It’s nonsense. It’s just not coherent. Sometimes you seem to respond normally, otherwise you take no notice, or deviate wildly from your original point. Your exposition is patchy, leaving me to piece its content together myself, although you appear confident of a powerful and inescapably persuasive rhetoric .”
“It sounds to me, Gadfafl, suspiciously as if this is actually a jumble of slightly dissimilar conversations, piled on top of one another. “
“What do you mean?” Gadfafl said again.
“According to the scenario you outlined, Gadfafl, you were inspired in your time, four centuries from now, to build a working temporal travel device. Although you have hardly explained the minutiae, I suppose I’m to understand that you have the necessary training, and access to components and energy sources almost beyond the lurid fantasies of scientists of my own time. Quite by chance you find a passage in a book written by an obscure 20th century technician, and expect to fulfill your destiny with a single hop, and an absurdly easy meeting with the author of your inspiration.
Gadfafl stared at me in disgust. He had become so agitated he “Simply? Hardly – hardly simply, doctor, if you knew the time and expense I’ve..”
“Just finding this ridiculous costume was a substantial undertaking. I was forced to raid a museum – I worked there for six months just laying the groundwork…”
That’s fine. I don’t. doubt it,” I assured him. “But don’t you see it, man,” I continued, as gently as I could,. It’s tacky.
“It’s Hollywood material. Schmooze.”
It was hopeless, but I tried again. “Time, Gadfafl, can’t be parcelled up and shuttled about in pieces at our convenience. That sort of meddling can only backfire.” I lapsed into silence, giving the man a moment to absorb what I was trying to tell him.
By this time we were sitting on rocks in the sun, passing a pipe. Gadfafl was drawn and pensive – his perfect teeth ground noisily together. Suddenly he looked silly, with his big coat and thin arms, long fingeres scraping along the ground.
“Look,” I said, after a time, “it seems to me your fallacy is in your expectation this loop you’ve created will endlessly repeat itself identically. But I’m not the Dr Bibblenib who wrote your book. I’m part of a different chronology, a different version, a simple technician from the village on the mountain. Like the dialogue we are currently engaged in, this patch of reality appears to be a series of overlays, each similar to the last, and somehow, seemingly, affected by it..
I’m no philosopher, Gadfafl, and would perhaps be ill-advised to offer counsel on metaphysical matters. But I’m convinced that you yourself are on some level aware of the truth underlying your amateurish assumptions about the nature of time. If you’ve subjected this conversation to even the most rudimentary linguistic analysis, you should have seen in your own language a deeper current of understanding, although it runs contrary to the reasoning of your conscious mind.”
“I don’t understand you, Dr Bibblenib, and I refute this nonsense absolutely,” Gadfafl started bravely, but I was warming to my theme. “When you explained your presence here to me just now, Gadfafl, in describing the discovery of the book which so inspired your course, you referred to your experience, quite naturally, with the use of the past tense. ‘I discovered an abandoned library,” “I was forced to raid a museum. All these events, while occurring in some objective sense four hundred years in the future…”
“Four hundred and forty.”
“Alright, four hundred and forty. Regardless, the events you related, while occurring in some objective sense in the distant future, are in fact, from your perspective, objects of the recent past.”
Your past., Gadfafl.”
Sand showered my shoes as Gadfafl scraped his fingers back and forth along the ground, his anxious face papery and yellow.
“Even had your amateurish conception of time held water, Gadfafl, your preparations for the trip appear at best primitive. Merely learning the script for a conversation you were to hold in the past is hardly sufficient protection against the subversion of causality in a world in which a gust of wind can become a cyclone, and a microbe multiply to decimate a population. I mean, you’ve barely taken any notice where you’ve stepped, or what wildlife you might have destroyed., You’ve coughed and spluttered, and sweated, heedless of the certainty that your body carries viruses which are 400 years’ more advanced than anything my immune system has had to cope with. It’s simple stuff, Gadfafl, no doubt second nature to the more seasoned travellers in time who will come after you.”
Gadfafl was silent. At this crucial moment his script had failed him. And in the absence of any genuine idea as to how to help this refugee of another chronology, I kept talking. What do you say to someone who’s falling through a crack in the universe?
“ Whatever the case, Gadfafl, I’m afraid there’s no guarantee that the future I’m looking forward to will exactly resemble the one you’ve left behind. In fact, the reverse is much more likely. ”
“I’m surprised,” I remarked, “that having read all this in that book of yours, you didn’t abandon the project immediately.”
“Oh,” said Gadfafl.
“What’s that?” I said.
“Oh. This – well, it was different. It was different in the account you wrote..
“You were enthusiastic, encouraging, you questioned me on details of your book, to furnish yourself with a starting point., ideas for structure and style. We – we’ve abandoned the script.
“Don’t panic,” I said, knowing it was useless.
“Don’t panic?” barked Gadfafl, springing to his feet and tripping over a rock. ”Ten years I’ve worked towards this moment, whole-heartedly devoted to a single noble aim, the zenith of my life..” He picked himself up and straightened his thick-rimmed spectacles.
“Ten years, and now it’s all – it’s all – oh.” He stopped.
“Oh,” he said again after a moment.
“What is it?” I asked, knowing full well.
“It’s just – presumably, four hundred years from now, another Alan Gadfafl will have found this version of the dialogue in that library, never become a temporal physicist…”
“Gadfafl,” I cut in sharply, “I’m not going to write a book.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he cried. “Don’t you understand? There’s another version of me walking around in the future wearing my life. The life I should have had, a sane, ordinary life. And Bibblenib, where does that leave me?”
I knew already it was too late to do anything, even if I had known what to do. Gadfafl was already thinning out at the edges, losing substance.
“I’m a ghost,” he said thinly, and I had to listen hard to hear him. “A phantasm.” He tried to take a few steps, but sank into the sand almost up to his knees. The look of surprise on his already indistinct face was too much to bear – I directed my eyes at the ground.
When he was gone, I collected up my pipe and umbrella, and went on towards the village, only another minute’s walk from where we had sat.