FLIP BACK • by Matthew Harrison

Usually the algos handle a show like this, I’m too stretched, but Harry wants me to monitor this one myself. It’s T56, the morning mag everyone watches, and they’re interviewing someone called Joe Farrell. Is he is a celeb? No, Joe’s just an ordinary guy, forties, living in a suburban block somewhere. T56 is interviewing him on time travel.

I wonder why. It’s just time travel into the past, hardly notable nowadays — and Joe’s a nobody. But then I’m not the producer. I suppose I’m more like the Government censor, although Harry calls it keeping people in the right mood. You need discipline when you’ve got time-travellers potentially clashing with themselves. Though why this particular Joe needs my attention, I don’t know.

T56 has sent Jennifer A to do the interview. I’m watching her on holo, long-legged as if she’s right there in front of me, and she knocks on Joe’s door. The usual crowd of viewbots are crawling up the walls, the balcony rail.

This must be Joe now. Ordinary is the word — has he even shaved? He’s pretty bowled over by Jennifer, but he recovers and welcomes her in. The viewbots scurry after her like a pack of large spiders, fanning out over wall and ceiling. This freaks Joe a little; he obviously hasn’t seen it before.

Now Joe and Jennifer are sitting on Joe’s sofa. They’re knee-to-knee.

“What does time travel mean to a normal guy like you?” Jennifer says.

“Yep, I’m pretty normal — I guess!” Joe laughs. “Time travel, for me it’s really been about using slack time. Remember when you had to queue at restaurants, because everyone wanted to eat at the same time? Well, it’s because of time travel all those queues have gone away.”

Jennifer’s heard this before. I’ve heard it before.

“Now you just flip back to when the restaurant was quiet, eat, then flip forward again. And the prices are lower too.”

“You like lower prices?” Jennifer asks. It’s not just entertainment, Jennifer has to keep viewers in the mood.

“Sure I do.”

“So what’s the catch, Joe?”

Joe explains the rules — no self-encounters, no changing anything except what you’ve booked. If you breach the rules, you get flipped forward again.

He sounds resentful. But does he realise how hard it is to deliver time travel without screwing up the universe? If it weren’t for me and Harry and the rest of us, things would have gone off the rails long ago.

Meanwhile, the ratings are falling. “Okay,” Jennifer says sweetly, hand on Joe’s knee. “Now, tell us — anything, ah, extra-curricular?”

“Want to be my time-share girlfriend?” He laughs. “I did hear about this guy stacking them up in different time slots. He sure was busy flipping! But you know, with unlimited time a girlfriend gets just like a wife. And the actual wife could be flipping, could be checking. After all, they have your coordinates.”

Jennifer laughs. The viewers like this. I smile too, although it’s getting a bit close for comfort.

“So, nowadays most of us are pretty regular,” Joe continues. “We’re good guys now.”

“Anything else to share?”

Joe has something. “That no-self-encounter rule — it doesn’t apply when it’s in your head. Flipping your mind back a few minutes, it’s no worse than a dream.”

I’m starting to see why Harry put me on this one. Jennifer looks doubtful, too.

Joe hasn’t finished. “I used to get out of control, let fly at people. But now they’re watching, and at the first bad word I get flipped back. So now I’m nice.”

The ratings soar: viewers like self-revelation. But it’s getting too warm for me. That’s my job Joe’s talking about. People think we read minds, but we can only react when thoughts are actualised. It’s the not-knowing that makes my job stressful. Of course, there’s the tracking algos, but really we’re just guessing most of the time.

“So we’re all nice now?” Jennifer smiles.

“Not everyone.”  There’s a glint in Joe’s eye. “The other day I met a guy who’d been flipped ten times for saying the wrong thing.”

Jesus! What is he doing? And why doesn’t Jennifer stop him?

Joe continues remorselessly, “All that flipping shortens your life. Or rather, your life-span’s unchanged but it gets used up in micro-flips. That guy was old. Pretty soon, he’ll be gone.”

“You’re — you’re okay with that?” Jennifer stutters. (She’s still not stopping him!)

“Yep, I’m okay.”

Joe sounds ironic. Surely he knows he can’t get away with that, live too?

“My friends,” he’s saying, “they’re all nice. You’re nice. And if ever we aren’t, they sort us out. A little flipping, and we’re all back on track. That’s why the Gov…”

I’m watching, paralysed, when suddenly Harry’s face appears. I jump, and belatedly do my job.

Joe stops suddenly, his jaw frozen, and his face seems to shrink. He jerks, relaxes, then contorts again.

And just to make sure, I give the treatment to Jennifer too. Now the two of them are jerking around on the sofa like marionettes as their minds are flipped back.

The editor is busy smoothing the holo — there’s a few seconds before it’s actually streamed — so the viewers won’t see this. But it was a close call.

Now it’s over, and they’re just sitting limply. Harry gives me the thumbs-up. Frankly, I’m shaken. I should be used to this, but somehow each time it’s a wrench.

Meanwhile, in the holo in front of me, Jennifer’s getting up. She shakes Joe’s hand, thanks him. And she makes it all the way back to the door, the viewbots skittering after her like frightened kittens. She’s tough. And Joe — is he a one-man revolution, or what?

I guess we’ll question them. But an average suburban guy and an interviewer, for Christssakes! They know nothing’s getting out to the viewers, but they still try. You see how tough it is doing my job. I’m beginning to think we’ll never be able to control humanity.

Matthew Harrison is a writer and researcher living in Hong Kong. His published works include ‘Queen’s Road Central and Other Stories’ and ‘Benjamin Bunce’.

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Every Day Fiction