BY JENNIFER LAVOREL
Sometimes betrayal is the strongest form of love.
The poet William Wordsworth wrote of our connection to the eternal. It is strongest in childhood, he surmised. When we are young, “every meadow, grove, and stream, the earth, and every common sight,” he wrote, appears as if “appareled in celestial light.”
For a child born into a broken home, this connection is severed early, cut off by a set of emotional and practical struggles requiring constant attention and energy. Whom can I trust? Who will feed me? Where will I sleep? Will I be awakened by someone seeking something from me?
Thomas was born into such a home. As an infant, he was removed to the home of an aunt and uncle. At the age of 3, he was taken from their home in the wake of abuse allegations. When he met his first foster parents, they kneeled to greet him, extending their hands and smiling. “Hello, Thomas,” they said. He had a bedroom and plenty to eat, but he felt no connection to them. The need for caution had been imprinted upon his soul.
Thomas was placed with a new foster family at the age of 5, then removed from that home at the age of 8. At the age of 10, the odds were already against him. Averse to attention, withdrawn, and introverted, Thomas attracted the interest and then the sympathy of his fourth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Rose, who had herself spent time in foster care. She was kind to him, drawing him out and befriending him.
Among the things Thomas had learned in his young life was that if he needed something from someone – a meal, shoes, a place to sleep – then the person who agreed to meet his need had a right to ask him for something in return. This was how things worked. So it was only natural that Thomas associated “having needs” with “feeling vulnerable.” Since he didn’t really need anything from Mrs. Rose, he was able to build a relationship with her that was satisfying in an unfamiliar way. She was patient and kind. She was generous. He began to trust her. He would go to her classroom after school each day to sit quietly and do his homework while she graded papers and prepared lesson plans. She always had a snack for him. One day she presented him with a laptop computer. “You can use it every day after school, and I will lock it in my desk overnight so nothing happens to it,” she said. He waited to hear what she wanted in return. But she simply set it in front of him, turned it on, and logged it into the school network. Then she smiled at him and returned to her desk.
One afternoon, a woman named Annette came to Mrs. Rose’s classroom. As she and Mrs. Rose seemed to be friends, Thomas was willing to give Annette the benefit of the doubt. When Mrs. Rose explained that Thomas was interested in science, Annette asked him lots of questions. He responded immediately and enthusiastically.
One day Mrs. Rose apologized and said she had to leave. She invited Thomas and Annette to remain in the classroom for as long as they liked. On that day, Annette asked Thomas some questions about his experiences. He was reluctant to answer her at first. This happened a few more times, with Mrs. Rose leaving and Annette asking particular types of questions. Eventually, Thomas found that he was able to share with Annette some of the things that had happened to him. When he would cry, she would sit with him quietly. Sometimes, she would cry, too.
Mostly, Thomas loved to talk about science. Inquisitive by nature and blessed with natural intelligence, Thomas had taken an early interest in science. In fact, his devotion to science had been among the only constants in Thomas’s life, along with instability and fear.
The newly discovered field of cellular mnemonics emerged roughly in parallel with Thomas’s childhood, and he followed it to the best of his abilities. He didn’t understand all of it, but he understood that it was somehow related to time travel, which fascinated him. He dreamed of stepping into a vessel of sorts – he imagined it as a sort of elevator – sliding a door closed, holding on tightly, then emerging into a different time and place.
While cellular mnemonics did make time travel feasible, it worked a bit differently from how Thomas imagined it might. Cellular mnemonics combined virtual reality with genetic elements called “recollection organelles,” or “recollelles.” These elements had been discovered accidentally, by scientists seeking to discover a unified framework in which both quantum mechanics and gravity could be explained. The scientists had first devised a theory of cellular memory, then proven the theory, discovering the existence of recollelles through a series of experiments.
The way Thomas explained it to Mrs. Rose and then Annette was to first point out that matter can be converted into energy and energy can be converted into matter, but neither can ever be destroyed. “You can’t get rid of matter or energy,” Thomas said. “You can only ever convert one into the other.”
As Thomas explained it, the discovery of recollelles was the first step in a series of events that paved the way for time travel. First, scientists discovered that recollelles hold human memories. They then discovered that recollelles are so small that they cannot be broken down into smaller pieces – meaning that they can never be converted into energy. “Energy is what holds two or more things together,” Thomas explained. “If you have one thing that cannot be broken down into smaller pieces, then it holds no stored energy. It just is what it is.”
These two discoveries led scientists to postulate the existence of a collective genetic record. “When a person dies, they stop making memories,” Thomas explained. “When the memories stop, they don’t go away – because the recollelles are never broken down into smaller pieces. Instead the memories are recorded forever and ever.” Eventually, the recollelles become part of the environment, then make their way into new human cells. “When a baby is born, the baby’s cells contain recollelles, which carry memories created by the experiences of people who lived previously,” Thomas explained. “And as the baby grows and has experiences of its own, new memories are created.”
Both Mrs. Rose and Annette marveled at the ease with which Thomas could describe complex scientific concepts. For Thomas’s part, he was delighted when they would listen intently, then share an observation of their own. “Wordsworth wrote: ‘Our birth is but a sleep and forgetting,’ Thomas,” Mrs. Rose said, adding “perhaps his sentiment had a basis in cellular memory.” Annette said, “I am wondering the same thing about that feeling of déjà vu!”
Thomas was a little less clear about how cellular mnemonicists, as they were called, had devised a means of pairing recollelles with virtual reality, but it had been done. Thomas knew only that it had something to do with mapping the genealogical attributes of cells to create a huge family tree that went back to the beginning of humanity, then finding a way to visit any place on the map, virtually.
When Thomas turned 11, Mrs. Rose and Annette threw a party for him. They took him to a movie, then to an ice cream parlor. As they sat eating sweet treats, Annette asked Thomas whether he would like to come to live with her and be his son. She explained about adoption, and that it might take some time, but that, once the process was finished, she would be his mom. He agreed. The process did take a while. He had practiced thinking about Annette as his “mom,” and that was what he now called her. At first it still felt like practice. Before long, it was simply who she was.
Within a year or so, Annette met a man named William. She brought him home one evening to meet Thomas. William wrote about science for a magazine. He knew a lot about cellular mnemonics and time travel. Thomas was 14 when Annette told him that she and William wanted to marry. She asked whether Thomas would like to have William as his dad. Thomas agreed.
Thomas was 15 years old when Annette gave birth to a baby girl, and Thomas became a big brother to Lia. The first time little Lia smiled, she was looking at Thomas. She reached for him. Thomas experienced a feeling that he had never before known. His eyes welled with tears, and he began to sob, laughing and crying all at once.
When Mrs. Rose came to visit, she marveled at the bond between Thomas and Lia. She quoted Wordsworth again, saying Lia’s heart “leapt up” when she beheld Thomas. She left a gift for Lia – a book of Wordsworth’s poems.
Through his baby sister, Thomas experienced childhood anew, in the best possible ways. It wasn’t simply that Lia had a stable home, a safe place to sleep, and plenty of food. It was that she ventured boldly into life, fearless and eager to explore. Where Thomas had been withdrawn, timid, and fearful, seeking always to protect himself, Lia was all in, a bundle of senses in a world filled with stimuli.
Thomas delighted in reading to his baby sister. She would listen, sometimes distracted by her fingers or toes, or patterns of light reflected on the ceiling or walls. Though the cadence of his speech would eventually lull her to sleep, she would fight to stay awake, her eyes widening as she sensed his enthusiasm for the things we would tell her. “You may look like a bouncy baby girl,” he would say, “but your tiny little body is comprised of trillions of cells, each carrying recollections of events small and large, going back to the beginnings of human history!”
One day Thomas realized that he was happy. It came upon him unexpectedly, this feeling - a sense of wholeness combined with a sense of connectedness. His heart was filled with love for his sister and his family. This feeling enabled him to open his mind, letting go of patterns and techniques that had once been so vital to his survival. In one moment he realized that he had relied on science as a way of crowding out thoughts that threatened otherwise to consume him. In the next moment, he realized that science wasn’t just something in his brain – it was in his heart, as well. As these feelings washed over him, his love of science surfaced in a fresh and powerful way. He felt suddenly hopeful, confident that it was ok to dream about the future. And he realized that he wanted to devote himself to science, joining the ranks of the Time Travel Academy as a delivery driver – a person trained to accompany a time traveler, or “pilgrim,” back in time and then safely home again.
Thomas was accepted to the Academy. When he was 18 years old, he left to begin training. He came home whenever he could. Lia would greet him enthusiastically, and his proud parents would struggle to strike the right balance between letting him rest and opening their home to visitors. Always, Thomas made time for Lia, describing in detail the “deliveries” in which he had participated as an apprentice: The family attorney who went back to observe a client’s grandfather’s death in order to settle an inheritance claim, the sailor who went back to witness his mother’s final moments before his own delivery. “That one was tricky,” Thomas explained, “because her recollelles registered only moments before his birth.”
Lia was 9 when Thomas graduated. She and his parents came for the ceremony. After the commencement address, the newly designated delivery drivers stood and placed their right hands over their hearts, preparing to recite the solemn oath: “The history of humanity is a matter of record. The future of humanity is a matter of faith. I pledge my fealty to history, with which I shall not tamper.”
At dinner that evening, Lia asked: “Why do you have to pledge not to tamper?” she asked. “Could you tamper?”
“Yes,” Thomas answered. “The pilgrim may only observe. The delivery driver retains certain controls, as a matter of necessity.”
“So you could change history?” she asked.
“Yes,” Thomas replied. “Much of our training is about the science behind the travel – we need to understand how it works in order to protect our pilgrims in case something goes wrong. But ethical training is a huge piece of the curriculum. The compulsion to act can be tremendous. We have to understand the ethical reasons for inaction. We have to unlearn our instincts to protect and prevent harm, because any action taken that amounts to tampering with history – any event small or large, for a reason that may seem wholly justified – will have consequences, the extent of which we cannot predict.”
“Wow,” Lia replied.
“The oath is deceptively simple,” William observed.
“What happens if you break it?” Lia asked.
Thomas paused. “The penalty for betrayal is expulsion from the Academy,” he said, “and imprisonment for life.” Then he added, “but it is a betrayal for which one could pay the ultimate price – the death of oneself and untold others – since we have no idea whether or how any particular instance of tampering might skew history.”
“Wow,” Annette replied.
Thomas began his work as a delivery driver the next morning, taking the first of a series of solo trips to learn to engage with the environment and build his confidence. Over the next several years, he developed an aptitude for working with pilgrims who had experienced trauma and, at the urging of loved one or therapists, sought to see things from the perspective of those who had harmed them.
One day, his phone rang. It was Annette’s number. “Hi mom,” he answered. There was silence at the other end, then sobbing. Lia was dead. She’d been hit by a car. The driver, an elderly man, hadn’t seen her. She had died instantly. Thomas dropped the phone. He was someone who had started life with very little and had gained much. It was his first experience with loss.
Retreating into habit, a technique his brain had somehow retained the capacity to perform, Thomas showed up at work the next day. He initiated a solo launch. It was not unusual for a seasoned delivery driver to undertake a solo launch. What was unusual, however, was that Thomas never returned.
But nobody noticed. Not even Lia. No, Lia went about her life, raising her three children, writing children’s books, teaching, traveling with her husband. Occasionally, when she read Wordsworth, she would have a feeling of déjà vu. “Trailing clouds of glory do we come.”
Thomas could not have known it, but the driver of the car was his uncle. The man whom Thomas killed that day, tampering with history and betraying his solemn oath, was his grandfather.