“Look at them,” Mel said. “Look at the way they live. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?”
“It’s not so hard,” the girl said.
“Are you kidding me?” Mel responded. “It’s terrible.”
“What are we doing here, anyway?” the girl asked. She was about twenty, thin, pale, and uncomfortable looking in a plaid skirt, which she constantly wiggled around in.
“I wanted you to see him a little younger before we get to the right place. He’s twenty-eight now, right inside that house with his wife.” Mel manipulated a few controls in the vehicle the two of them were in—it hovered directly above a tidy street lined with tidy houses in a tidy subdivision in the tidy north Chicago suburb on this summer day in 1965. Children played in the street and in the identical little yards. “I’ll get a little lower, they’re about to come outside.”
The girl grasped the horizontal bar at the bottom of the vehicle’s window and leaned forward to watch, fascinated, as finally the front door opened and a young woman emerged, stepping forward onto the walk that led from the front door to the street. The vehicle’s adaptive screen calculated the sight lines and a circle appeared on the window, framing the image of the woman from the girl’s point of view. Above the circle, which followed the woman as she moved, a date and time stamp was displayed: “June 18, 1965; 10:15 am.” The last digit in the time clicked to 6 as the girl watched. A label appeared nearby, identifying the woman in yellow text as Rebecca Hendley, born 1944, died 2002. “She’s twenty-one right now?” the girl asked.
“That’s right. Birthday was in May,” Mel responded. But she’s just the first wife. Here he comes.” A man appeared in the door; he also stepped out in to the sun. Tall, black hair, he was dressed in slacks and a formal shirt, but no tie. “There he is,” Mel said.
Just as before, the adaptive screen drew a circle around the man and a yellow-text label appeared for him: “Robert Hendley, born 1936, died 1998.”
“Handsome fellow,” the girl said, and then turned away from the window.
“Did you get a good look at him?” Mel asked. “I want you to be able to recognize him when we see him later.”
“Yes,” the girl said. “I got it. Let’s go.” She sat down on a long bench near the chair where Mel was busily manipulating controls.
“Now, you understand that he is your pivot,” Mel said. “You mess up, and I’m going to make sure something happens to him. Before his next marriage, you get it?”
“Right,” the girl said. “Let’s get it over with.”
The man manipulated a series of controls, and the craft began to move silently upward, leaving Mr. and Mrs. Handley, newlyweds doomed to divorce, far below. The craft rotated so as to stand the quickly receding houses on their sides; somehow, the craft’s occupants were not affected by this change in gravity’s vector, and then the window went black as the adaptive material darkened to protect the occupants from inadvertently viewing nearby stars. The ship always seemed so much smaller with the screens blacked, the girl thought silently. She crossed her arms over her breasts and wiggled in her skirt. “Do I really have to wear this getup?” she asked.
“Yes, you really do. Mr. Handley down there is counting on you, you know.”
“Mr. Handley. My pivot,” the girl repeated. “Show me again, how is he my pivot?”
Mel twisted a control and the window, now a black panel, came alive with a large diagram, yellow, blue, white, and red boxes of text connected in a complicated way with yellow, blue, white, and red lines. Mel spoke without turning his head away from the ship’s control panels, viewing the same image on one of his own screens. “You see, there you are in the blue box, and the paternal line back is in yellow. The maternal is in red. See how the lines intersect?”
“That means that some of my ancestors were related, right?” the girl asked.
“Yes, exactly. It’s always that way, if you go back far enough,” Mel said. The relatedness of one’s ancestors was the solution to what was sometimes known as the Ancestor Paradox.
Consider that each person has two parents; each of those parents had two parents, and so on. This means that for every person alive, there are or were two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. Go back 10 generations and you have two to the tenth-power ancestors, or 1024; go back 20 generations and you have 1,048,576 ancestors. And yet we know for certain that less people, not more, lived in the past. How are these two facts reconcilable? That’s the Ancestor Paradox.
The answer is that any one person in the past filled multiple ancestor roles for people in the future. Even a father with only one child would, over the course of hundreds of years, find himself multiple-great-grandfather to thousands of people—and multiple-great uncle to thousands, and so forth.
But every so often, the ancestral lines come together in such a way as to make one person a critical link in the chain; this person is called the pivot, and usually represents the easiest point at which to interfere with what was called the Destined Line: the long series of individuals that would come into being naturally over the course of time. Interfering at the pivot point in the line was the most effective way to erase a particular person while minimizing the damage to all the other lines, and to the present stream of history.
In this case, Robert Handley was the girl’s pivot. And so, Mr. Handley’s well being was a topic of considerable interest to her and to the 800,000 or so other people in the girl’s timeline for whom Mr. Handley was a pivot. Mel didn’t concern himself about the 799,999 others; their fate, as well as her own, was in the girl’s hands.
“All right, we’re here,” Mel said, bringing the craft to hover directly above the middle of the street, just as before. The windows shimmered to transparency and this time, the houses were larger, farther apart, with more elaborate landscaping. The trees were mature, and no electric wires or phone lines were present on poles up and down the street.
“Is that the place?” the girl asked, nodding to a large brick structure.
“That’s it,” Mel said. “It’s about fifteen years later now. Handley is there in the house, with his second wife. That’s your line.” He paused, consulting a series of readouts. “They should be out in just a moment—the man first, then the new wife.”
“New? How new?” the girl asked.
“Well, new to us. They’ve been married now about five years.”
The man came out of the house; he was clearly the same person the girl had observed in 1965, but visibly older now, heavier, slower. He shuffled out down the walk and stooped to pick up a newspaper, wrapped in plastic and sitting there on his driveway.
“Why is he so slow?” the girl asked.
“Arthritis,” Mel answered. “An inflammation of the joints. Pretty common in this period. Painful. The wife will be along in a moment.” The man had straightened back up now, and was shuffling his way back into the house when the wife appeared, a bathrobe wrapped around her.
“She’s young,” the girl said.
“Fourteen years his junior,” Mel responded. “Old men sometimes marry younger women. Sometimes they have children by them,” he continued. “This particular old man will have a son by this woman in about four years from this point.” He turned around to face the girl. “That is, if you cooperate.”
“All right! I’m cooperating! I’m wearing this stupid skirt thing, aren’t I?” she said, wiggling uncomfortably.