Undo

undo

I held my breath, and I pushed the button.

The men and women filed silently into the room in official fashion. Some were in military uniform, most wore suits. Some knew what they were here to see, and others, I was sure, had no idea. I stood nervously at the podium.

This was not my usual audience. I was used to presenting to scientists and academic types, but really, I’m in sales. Sometimes I wear a white lab coat, just to fit in. Today, I’d be presenting to the people who controlled our funding. They were here to demand results.

“Good morning,” I began once the unsmiling group had taken their seats. “The prototype you’ve heard so much about is right here.” I gestured to the unassuming box, about the size of a toaster, which sat on a table on the stage. “Today, you will witness a live demonstration of its capabilities.”

I talked for a good twenty minutes, showing slide after slide, carefully pronouncing words only some of which I understood, all of which I was sure were beyond the vaguest comprehension of my audience. I paused for feedback.

“This research has cost the taxpayer a lot of money,” spoke a man with many stripes on his uniform who had clearly been waiting for a chance to voice his lack of conviction. “What have you got to show for it?”

I took a deep breath and answered, “The proof that it works… is that is does nothing.”

I waited for the murmur of confusion to settle down.

“When I push this button, time will be reset to approximately 2.8 seconds prior. If the previous 2.8 seconds were to be replayed exactly as before, then I would push the button again at exactly the same moment. We would then be stuck in an infinite loop.”

The expression on the general’s face changed subtly from confusion to concern. “Go on,” he commanded.

“Theory informs us that there will always be some variation due to quantum fluctuations in the space-time continuum.” I decided to throw some sciencey-sounding vocabulary at them, since they had as little idea what I was saying as I did. “Eventually, something would break the loop. Maybe a freak bolt of lightning would strike the device, making it inoperable, and then time would go on. Our engineers have considered this, and this is why they’ve built in a safety feature to break the loop in a controlled fashion. You see, when I push this button, the non-deterministic quantum random number generator embedded in the device will determine whether or not to allow the device to function. Right now, it’s set to allow the device to function 99% of the time. This means that 1% of trials will allow time to continue as usual. Ladies and gentlemen, when I push this button, we will repeat this experiment until the device is allowed to fail.”

With that introduction, I pushed the button. As expected, nothing happened.

“This is ridiculous! You just blew 300 million dollars out the federal government’s ass!” The general seemed somewhat unconvinced by my demonstration. Following his lead, the rest of the audience was equally unimpressed.

In the weeks that followed, the department was dissolved. My colleagues were all dismissed or reassigned, and the equipment was mothballed. Nobody seemed to care much about where it went. I managed to salvage the device that had been on stage that fateful day. I took it home with me discretely as I packed my belongings into a cardboard box.


The device that was the instrument of the destruction of my career sat on my kitchen table for a couple weeks. Occasionally, after a few drinks, I would push the button just to see if something else would happen. Nothing ever did. I began to believe the general.

It was late one evening that I received a call from a former employee of the lab. Dr. Stephenson spoke slowly and cryptically. He seemed to be interested in knowing the whereabouts of the device that sat in front of me, but he wouldn’t say so.

“Look… if you want to see it, just come over. It doesn’t work, anyway,” I said into the phone. He hung up immediately.

When he arrived at my door, he was visibly agitated. He’d obviously been drinking, and I wasn’t sure I should let him in.

“Let me see it,” he demanded. Against my better judgment, I showed him to the kitchen. When he saw the device there, his face turned white. “Have you been pushing the button?” he asked breathlessly as he collapsed into a chair.

“Sometimes… when I’m bored,” I answered, suddenly realizing the implications of what I’d been doing.

“Every time you push that button, time plays out again, but a little bit different each time. Have you touched any of the settings?”

“Settings?” I had no idea.

Dr. Stephenson breathed a heavy sigh. He seemed to relax a bit. “OK. Let me work on it for a few days. I’ll sleep right here, it’s no problem.”


I allowed the professor to spread his material all over my kitchen. He barely spoke to me for the next four days, and I never saw him sleep at all. Finally, he found me watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island in the living room.

“Time is an illusion,” he announced triumphantly, as if this was his own original observation.

“Yeah?” I said, feigning surprise as I chewed a chicken nugget.

“Yes. Time is subjective. We remember the past, not the future, but our perception of where we are in time depends on our memory. If time is undone, then so are we. This device doesn’t so much reset the whole universe to a previous time as it changes our perception to correspond to a different one of the infinite number of branching possible realities.” The professor then talked for the next several minutes about multiverse theory, many-worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics, Riemann zeta functions, and whatnot before he noticed that I had gone back to watching Gilligan.

“Never mind all that! Do you want your job back?” he finally said, which got my attention.

“Sure! Things could be a lot better for me right now.”

“Yes, that’s the point. Things could be different. You see, I’ve reset the device in your kitchen to 38 days instead of 2.8 seconds. Also… I’ve disabled the safety.” Dr. Stephenson spoke these last few words in a wavering voice. “If you push that button now, you will reset our perception of time to the day before your presentation.”

Suddenly, Gilligan seemed less important than the professor.

I held my breath, and I pushed the button.


The men and women filed silently into the room in official fashion. Some were in military uniform, most wore suits. Some knew what they were here to see, and others, I was sure, had no idea. I stood nervously at the podium.

This was not my usual audience. I was used to presenting to scientists and academic types, but these people controlled our funding. Today, they demanded results.

“Good morning,” I began once the unsmiling group had taken their seats. “The prototype you’ve heard so much about is right here.” I gestured to the unassuming box, about the size of a toaster, which sat on a table on the stage. “Today, you will witness a live demonstration of its capabilities.”

I talked for a good twenty minutes, showing slide after slide, carefully pronouncing words only some of which I understood, all of which I was sure were beyond the vaguest comprehension of my audience. I paused for feedback.

A man in the front row with many stripes on his uniform was making a skeptical face. He started to speak, but another member of the audience cut him off.

“The theory is well-established,” said the impeccably dressed man at the back of the room. He spoke with the air of a man who knew far more about the topic than I did. “But the temporal loop generator has never been successfully tested. Is this what we are here to see?”

“That is correct.” I relaxed a bit. I had the audience’s attention, and my presentation seemed to be getting a good reception. “What you will see today will be the first live demonstration of a truly game-changing technology, a breakthrough in applied theoretical physics.”

The rest of my presentation went very smoothly. I shook many hands as I left the meeting room, and I received congratulations from many important-looking people. In the weeks that followed, funding for our project was increased.


It was late one evening in the lab that I met Dr. Stephenson. The staff had finally finished celebrating another in a string of generous funding increases, and the place was a bit of a mess. Empty bottles of Champagne lay scandalously close to various sorts of expensive equipment. Dr. Stephenson was a talker, especially after his third glass of bubbly, and he had somehow latched onto my ear. We were the last ones left after midnight, and he wasn’t nearly finished explaining the finer points of infinite-dimensional Hilbert spaces to me. Finally, I had to interrupt him.

“This is fascinating, professor,” I said as convincingly as I could, “but what’s the point of it? I mean, whenever we use it, nothing happens. So what’s it good for?”

A grave look came across the good professor’s face, as if I’d pronounced some sort of magic spell. “It’s the safety.” He’d clearly been giving this question quite of a bit of thought. “If we disable it, then…” He left me to my own devices to complete his thought.

My devices being somewhat more limited than his, I answered dimly, “Then… what?”

Fortunately, Dr. Stephenson was a patient man. He could sense that he had my interest, which was all he demanded. It was obvious that he’d been looking for someone with whom to share his little secret, and I fit the bill. “I will show you,” he grinned. “Come back here next Friday, after work.”


I waited for the last technician to leave the building and went into the lab. I found Dr. Stephenson sitting in front of a small TV set, watching a Russian soap opera. On the table next to him was the device. A minute went by before he noticed me standing behind him.

“Can you keep a secret?” he said in the manner of a schoolboy telling about his first kiss.

“Sure, it’s my job,” I said.

The professor smiled mischievously. He showed me what he was holding in his hand: a Russian lottery ticket. When the drawing came on TV, he smacked the ticket down on the table.

I watched in stunned silence as, one by one, the numbers on the ticket were drawn from the chaos of flying ping-pong balls on the TV set.

“I… I don’t understand. You didn’t push the button!” I could barely speak. The amount of the jackpot on the screen was flashing nine digits.

“Ah, but I did. Each time the number that was drawn was not mine, I pushed that button. But we don’t remember that, because we were undone with everything else. You see, I disabled the safety.”

The professor had invented a genie in a bottle.

“But why a Russian lottery ticket? How are we going to cash that in?” I demanded, somewhat presumptuously.

“First, I wanted to make sure there would be nobody here in the lab when we watched the drawing, and the Russian time zone makes that convenient. More importantly, I wanted to avoid suspicion. I don’t think our superiors would take kindly to this use of our little toy. But also… to avoid the temptation to cash it.”

He had to be joking. “Are you mad?? You mean you’re just going to throw that ticket away?”

“No, I will burn it. I want no trace of this little experiment.” He looked me sternly in the eye, now playing the headmaster, not the giddy schoolboy. “You said you could keep a secret.”

He made me swear a solemn oath, which I did reluctantly. This experiment had been, he insisted, in the name of science, not personal profit. Why he thought that, of all people, I would be above such mundane concerns as winning a hundred million dollars is beyond me.


For years, I kept that secret.

Life was good. I met Jill at an after-work party. She was drunk and beautiful, and we hit it off immediately. A few months later, we were engaged. In the meantime, I was promoted to head of marketing. After the wedding, we moved into a spacious five-bedroom at the north end of town. It was far more house than we needed, but it made Jill happy. Our differences became evident after the second year of marriage.

“Is something wrong with your car?” I asked Jill. She had been asking for a new one for a few weeks.

“It’s three years old, and besides, all my friends drive better ones. It’s embarrassing!” she pouted.

“How did I manage to marry a woman with such an appetite?” I mumbled to myself.

“What?”

“Never mind. Of course you can have a new car, dear. I’ll talk to the bank about a loan tomorrow,” I said. “Like your purse, it will be worth far more than its contents.” I didn’t dare pronounce this last sentence, but kept it safely confined to my own thoughts.

After the car, Jill insisted on jewelry, dresses, and extravagant vacations. I made good money at my job, so she quit hers so she could take up shopping as a full time occupation.


It was Valentine’s Day, and Jill had booked the restaurant for us that night. Naturally, she ordered the most expensive bottle on the wine list. Jill had recently signed herself up for an oenology class, so she pretended to appreciate its nuances.

We discussed our next vacation plan, her recent shopping adventures, and if our coffee at home was really good enough. After desert, the waiter came back with my credit card.

“I’m sorry sir, but our machine seems to be having some problems. Do you have another card we might try?”

Jill took a sudden interest in her glass of wine as I obliged the waiter. He came back again a moment later.

“I do apologize, sir… Perhaps we could try a different card?”

This continued until I had exhausted all five of the credit cards in my wallet. I finally had to find a cash machine to settle the bill.

The drive home was quiet. I finally broke the silence.

“Funny about their machine at the restaurant. None of the other patrons seemed to be having that problem.”

“Yes, it’s strange,” Jill agreed distractedly. The sound of rain on the windshield filled the space between us as we rode through the darkness.


The next day, I resolved to confront Jill with her spending habits. I knew this conversation would be difficult.

“My friends all have nice things! Why can’t I have nice things?” she cried.

“We can’t pay these bills. You need to spend less money,” I told her matter-of-factly. “We’re going to lose the house.” Jill stood in silence as I held my head in my hands and sighed, mostly to myself, “We could have been rich as Croesus.”

“What are you talking about?” she demanded. I tried to deflect her question, but she insisted. Jill knew of the device, and she remembered the rumors of its potential from her days at the lab. I had kept this secret long enough anyway. When she finally extracted the truth from me, she was beyond furious. She left the house in a fit of blind rage, I supposed to try to find this mythical wish-granting machine.


I called Dr. Stephenson and arranged to meet him at our regular pub. We had a habit of having a pint after work once a week, then twice. Lately, it had been almost every weekday.

Jill and I don’t normally fight. We don’t even talk, really. But tonight… we had a fight.” I confessed the nature of our disagreement to the professor.

The professor gave me a stern look I had not seen in many years. “There’s only one thing to be done.”

We talked about the possibility. We’d had more than our usual quota of beer by the time we decided to visit the lab. There, in a forgotten corner under a pile discarded equipment lay the box with the magic button. Research into this device had been discontinued years ago, but Dr. Stephenson had continued working on it.

“I keep it there so no one will notice, but I tinker with it occasionally,” he explained. He showed me the dial that he had added. With a trembling hand, he turned it slowly to read “5 YEARS”.

“What about you?” I asked, suddenly feeling very selfish.

My friend looked at me, his eyes filled with a sadness only he could understand. In that moment, I knew that what was true for me was also true for him. Things could be better.

I held my breath, and I pushed the button.

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