A WASTE OF TIME • by Peter Wood

Professor Cornwall stepped into N.C. State University’s basement physics department lab and stared at Garcia, the discoverer of time travel. Hunched over his work station, the boy genius fiddled with a mobile phone. The faint sound of Day Tripper leaked from his headphones.

Cornwall tapped Garcia on the shoulder.

Garcia flinched and spun around. He saw Cornwall and smiled. He dropped the headphones onto a greasy takeout pizza box. “Hey, doc, I thought I was the only one who worked Saturday nights.”

Cornwall gripped the gun in his jacket pocket. He despised Garcia, the only grad student who acted like a full professor. He hated the punk most because Garcia’s conceit was not misplaced. He was more qualified than any professor. Time Magazine said he might outshine Einstein. Cornwall couldn’t argue with that assessment. “I wanted to double-check those readouts from yesterday.”

Garcia arched an eyebrow. “That couldn’t wait?” He pointed at Cornwall’s hand. “Kinda warm for gloves, eh, doc?”

“I have a rash,” Cornwall lied. He changed the subject. “Something wrong with your phone?”

Garcia flashed a salesman’s grin. “Doc, no need for a particle accelerator chamber any longer. You can have time travel in the palm of your hand.” He sounded like he was making a sales pitch during a television infomercial.

Cornwall glanced at the lead-lined door to the time machine across the room and back again to the ordinary-looking mobile phone that Garcia brandished. “That phone’s a time machine?”

“Sure thing, doc. I was just going to test it. I was thinking about going back about a minute.”

“Jesus Christ.” Operating the chamber took more computer power than an average office building. A mobile phone couldn’t possibly do it.

Garcia pulled a magazine from under a stack of papers. “You ever read this?”

Cornwall squinted at the copy of Scientific American. “It’s too populist for me.”

Garcia tossed the magazine onto the desk. “They want to do a story about me. You think I should do it, doc? Magazines must want to interview you all the time.”

Garcia knew damned well that nobody had ever interviewed a physics professor at NC State. Cornwall gripped the gun tighter. Until Garcia came along, few people even knew NC State had a physics department. “I don’t know what you should do.”

“I guess you’ve never been interviewed by a populist magazine, have you, doc?”

Garcia was enjoying himself too much. Cornwall just wanted the conversation to end. “No, I’ve never been interviewed by anybody.”

Garcia opened the takeout box and took out a piece of cold anchovy pizza. “Want some?”

Cornwall’s stomach lurched at the thought of eating lukewarm fish. “No, thanks.”

“Hey, aren’t you supposed to be at that Symposium at Berkley?”

Cornwall smirked. He was relieved Garcia thought he had flown cross-country to California. He had taken great pains not to be seen the past day. “I’ll go yesterday.”

Garcia flicked back his long black hair. “Huh?”

“You’re the damned physics rock star. You figure it out.” Cornwall’s hands shook as he pulled out the gun he had bought off the streets in the projects. He was pretty certain it was stolen. Nobody could trace the weapon back to him.

Garcia dropped the slice of pizza. “What the hell’s going on?”

“Shut up, you cocky son of a bitch.” Cornwall picked up the Scientific American and heaved it at Garcia. “You just have to rub my face in it, don’t you?”

“This is about the magazine?” Garcia closed the phone and centered it on the desk in front of him.

“Stop messing with the damned phone!” Cornwall’s voice rose. “It’s not just about the magazine. I’ve been here twenty years and you walk around like you own the place.”

“I don’t understand.”

Cornwall snorted. “Yeah, you probably don’t. Let’s just say I’m really sick of this place always being about you.”

Cornwall fired twice. Garcia collapsed on his cluttered desk, knocking the pizza box onto the floor.

Cornwall tossed the gun in the trash can. He picked up the time phone.  Once Cornwall time traveled back one day and flew to California, he’d have the perfect alibi. A thousand Ph.D.’s would vouch that he was in San Francisco when a burglar murdered poor Garcia.

He flipped the phone open. The pulsating screen said T minus 45 seconds.

Lights flashed. The laboratory spun in a twisted kaleidoscope.

A wave of nausea swept over Cornwall. In front of him, his past self fired the pistol. Neither Cornwall had time to react.

Two bullets, intended for Garcia, instead hit Cornwall in the chest.

Cornwall slumped onto the concrete floor. He heard a loud thud. With great effort he lifted his head and saw his other self crumple to the ground, undoubtedly with two recent bullet holes in him.

None of it made any sense.

“A new twist on the twin paradox,” Garcia said. He bent down and snatched the time phone from Cornwall. “I guess they can try both of you at the same time.”

“You’re a lucky bastard,” Cornwall panted. “What are the odds that I’d go back so I’d shoot myself?”

“Luck had nothing to do with it.” Garcia pulled up his NC State sweatshirt and revealed a Kevlar vest. “Why the hell do you think I programmed the time phone to go back 45 seconds? I saw the whole thing coming.” He smirked. “I have a time machine, you know.”

Before Cornwall passed out, he realized the paradox would make Garcia even more famous. The bastard would probably hit the talk show circuit.


Peter Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina where he lives with his surly cat and patient wife. He has had stories published in Daily Science Fiction, Bull Spec, Stupefying Stories and Every Day Fiction. His favorite type of story to write is southern fried science fiction and fantasy. He is proud to live within walking distance of NC State. He can neither confirm nor deny the University’s ownership of a time machine.


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