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Stories

By Steven Stringfellow

Skip Feathersmith and the Old Man with the Funny Hat

Brainbox Skip is visited by a mysterious old man who gives him one simple instruction: on no account should he invent time travel.

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Humour, Sci-Fi

Story Details

  • Title : Skip Feathersmith and the Old Man with the Funny Hat
  • Author : Steven L. Stringfellow
  • Word-Count : 3773
  • Genre : Sci-Fi, Humour

About The Author

Author

Steven Stringfellow is a divorced African-American, Christian nerd that has loved science fiction and fantasy ever since he saw his first black & white episode of “Lost in Space.” Since then, he has read, watched, listened, gamed, collected and written his way through life. He attended an old college on a hill, served in the Marines, held various jobs and fathered three special needs children that constantly remind him that he is just a minor character in their story. Steven is still working on his first book, an epic fantasy that features a sci-fi loving protagonist that gets into an even bigger mess than Skip Feathersmith.

The Time: Now

The Place: Kevin L Johnson High School

The second period bell sounded, and Skip Feathersmith was the first to step into the empty corridor and begin the long trek from AP Calculus to AP Physics. The hallway soon filled with a diverse assortment of teenagers, all engaged in a myriad of between-class activities. They gossiped. They flirted. They bullied. Most, however, simply walked the familiar path with Stepford-like indifference, but unlike Skip, their burden of books was considerably lighter.

Out of necessity he carried ‘Honors Calculus’, ‘Advanced Physics’, ‘College Chemistry’ and other academic tomes, but for down time, he also had ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, ‘Childhood’s End’, ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Ender’s Game’ and ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’. Each hardback (because Skip could never wait for paperback) was economically stuffed into his official KLJ book tote. If only he were allowed to go to his locker between classes, he could drop off a few of the academic books, but visiting lockers between classes was not allowed. Skip swore under his breath as he adjusted the heavy load, but the strap still bit mercilessly into his shoulder. It was a pointless rule. But despite his protests, backed by his towering intellect, no one paid him any heed because he was only a high school junior. That irked him something fierce. One day, Skip was going to do something so big, so important, and so earthshattering, that he could ignore the rules. Especially the stupid ones.




First, he had to finish high school and college. Easy! Then he’d have to get his doctorate in a few sciences and write a book or two. Naturally! But then what? The excellent junior was at a loss. What could he do that would be profoundly revolutionary? Make a discovery? Invent something? What?

That’s when Skip saw the old man in the funny hat. How could he miss such a blatant visual anomaly, especially one so squarely in his path, not more than ten feet away? For some reason, the other students maneuvered around the strange man as if he were just another wayward pupil. His mode of dress was unremarkable: khaki pants, white shirt, a dirty lab coat and glasses with round lenses. Just like mine, thought Skip. Oddly, the man’s torso was noticeably bent to one side as if he carried some invisible burden. The strange visitor compensated for this deformity with a stylish metallic cane, the handle of which was shaped like pi. Judging by the many wrinkles that crisscrossed his face, and the long wizard-like hair, the man was at least in his sixties. Skip was certain he had never met this man, but for some reason he seemed familiar. Most curious of all, the bent old man wore a hat that looked remarkably like the planet Saturn, natural satellites included. The hat’s dome emitted a slight glow and the smaller satellites of various geometric shapes were indeed orbiting the crown. Some even moved in counter-orbits. What was that thing? And why was he just standing there?

No, he wasn’t standing. He was waiting. Waiting for Skip.

At once, a wave of curiosity and a multitude of questions flooded Skip’s mind. The man wasn’t wearing a visitor’s sticker. How had he been admitted? More importantly, how did he know this character? Finally, the boy stopped at arm’s length from the living mystery.

“Right on time, Skip,” said the old man with unexpected energy for one so aged.

“How do you know–?”

“No time for silly questions, my boy,” said the man hurriedly. “We only have four minutes before the N.E.R.D.D. returns me to my temporal origin.” He pointed to the strange hat.

“What?” But even as Skip uttered the rhetorical question, his fast moving, sci-fi loving mind was already eliminating the impossible and reaching for the most improbable truth, even as the stranger confirmed it.

“I am Dr. Skip Feathersmith. I am you, Skip, fifty years from now. I’m from the future.”

Looking closer, Skip soon recognized the face he saw in the mirror each morning. He was face-to-face with himself! Sadly, he had not aged gracefully, so he turned his gaze to the strange hat. Even the orbiting objects had smaller satellites of their own. And those satellites had even smaller bodies in their orbit.

“That thing got you here from the future?” asked Skip pointing. “That’s the N.E.R.D.D.?”

“The Neural Einstein-Rosen Displacement Device. Yes,” replied his doppelganger proudly. “It also generates a hologram that disguises my true appearance to anyone without my specific brain pattern, so–”

“So I can see you,” interrupted Skip, “And everyone else just sees the hologram. Right?”

“Indeed,” said the old professor giving Skip a pat on the shoulder. “However that is trivial. What you must know is that when you go to AP Physics today, you learn something that allows you deduce that time travel is not only possible, but quite within our technological reach. A few decades later, you make time travel a reality.”

“Time travel!” exclaimed Skip. “That’s it! What a great idea! I was wondering what I could do. I’ll invent time travel! That is so freakin’ incredible. It’s perfect!”

Dr. Feathersmith frowned and winced, but not at the pain in his bent spine. “Yes, you do. But no, it’s not perfect. In fact, it’s terrible.”

“Huh? What do you mean?” asked Skip, already dreading the answer.

“That’s why I’m here. To warn you.”

“Warn me?”

“Yes. You must not pursue time travel.”

“What? Why not?” asked the boy incredulously. This must be what it’s like to discover you had superpowers and then be told that you could not use them. “It obviously works. You just used it. What’s the problem?”

“True, my young self, it works. Unfortunately, too many people have gained access to the technology. The government. Corporations. Powerful individuals. Too many.”

“What? How?”

The aged inventor groaned and made a sweeping motion with his free hand. “Benign fools on my staff that leaked data. Hackers. It’s not important now. Pandora’s box is open! Do you understand? Too many people are writing and re-writing history.”

“Re-writing history? You mean like going back in time to kill Hitler?”

“Nothing quite so idealistic. Or grand,” explained the scientist as he made a quick time check. “In fact, they are meticulously careful not to do anything too encompassing least they negate their own existence, or worse, ours! Then there would be no time travel at all. But make no mistake. Many are being purged from reality along with whatever contributions they would have made.”

The idea of people being wiped out of existence was probably bad, but if the users were at least being careful not to erase him, maybe time travel was worth it. Was that selfish, he wondered?

“Look, if they are being careful, maybe–,”

“Skip,” interjected the scientist, “These people are only careful to advance their own interest.”

“But if no one does anything too big, why scrap time travel?” argued the teen, refusing to relent.

“The issue is not the scope of their temporal alterations, or even the specifics of their actions. The problem is time travel. ”

“Why?” asked Skip, exasperated.

“Multiple temporal transgressions are damaging the space-time continuum, thus jeopardizing the entire universe.”

“The universe is being damaged by time travel?”

“Precisely,” said the old man as he looked at his timepiece again. “I’ve got less than a minute. Listen carefully. I don’t have all the data, but each space-time transition causes “cracks” in the fabric of space-time.”

“Cracks?”

“For lack of a better term, yes. If enough ruptures occur, the universe will shatter.”

“Oh, crap. Can’t I . . . I mean you . . . just stop traveling through time?”

“I have! But too many unscrupulous entities will not. They don’t believe, or rather they choose to ignore my data, incontrovertible though it is.”

The boy fell silent.

“I should never have developed time travel. The civilization of man is just not ready,” lamented the old man. “That’s why I’m here. I’ve done my part. Now you’ve got to do yours or the universe won’t last another decade. Two at the most!”

“Two decades?”

“From my perspective, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Only you can save the universe, Skip,” said the scientist with a flourish of his free arm.

The boy sighed. “So what am I supposed to do?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? You mean don’t invent time travel?”

“Exactly. You are the prime point in this causality.” The old man’s image shimmered like a mirage, and he checked his watch once more. “Damn. I’ve only got seconds.”

“Hey wait! What if I can fix it?”

“No!” shouted the older Skip, “You must not. Humanity was not meant to possess the ability to time travel. You have to let it go, Skip, or the universe is doomed.”  With that the old time traveler seemed to flicker like an old TV broadcast then began to fade. “Oh! And stop carrying around so many damn books,” he added as he adjusted his crooked spine once more.

Then his ghostly form vanished in a flash of blinding white light.

***

The second period bell sounded, and Skip Feathersmith was the first to step into the empty corridor and begin the long trek from AP Calculus to AP Physics. The hallway soon filled with a diverse assortment of teenagers, all engaged in a myriad of between-class activities. They gossiped. They flirted. They bullied. Most, however, simply walked the familiar path with zombie-like indifference, but unlike Skip, they didn’t need to feed their minds so literally.

In his official KLJ book tote, Skip carried the books he needed for his next few class and his kindle, which was filled to capacity with his favorite works of science fiction. In secret, he also carried about two dozen candy bars.  He usually snuck in a few before each class in order to sustain his vastly superior mind until lunch. If only he were allowed to have a sandwich or two in class, it would make life so much easier, but no eating in class was a rule, albeit a stupid one. Still, what could a lowly high school junior do? Even one so brilliant, if somewhat overweight?  But one day, Skip vowed, he was going to do something so big, so important, and so earthshattering that he could ignore such idiotic rules. What could he do? That was the question. It would have to be something really radical.

That’s when Skip saw him.  A very elderly, very obese man standing in the middle of the hallway wearing a dirty lab coat and a hat that looked like the planet Saturn. Somehow the old man looked familiar, but he could not recall when they had met. He was at least in his seventies and wore glasses with round lenses. In fact, they were just like Skip’s. Did he know this old man?

“Yep. That’s what I thought,” said the stranger grumpily, as he slapped the candy bar from Skip’s fat fingers.

“Hey!” exclaimed Skip.

“Save it, Skip. We’ve only got four minutes.”

“What? How do-”

“I’m you from the future. Sixty years, to be exact.”

Skip looked closely at the old, fat face. Such a possibility was infinitesimally minute, but it was the only viable conclusion given the weird hat with the orbiting mini-moons and the physical similarities. This was indeed a Dr Skip Feathersmith from some distant date.




“Wow!” said Skip, suddenly losing his appetite. “How-”

“No time for silly questions. The N.E.R.D.D. will send me back soon. I must warn you.”

“Warn me? Are evil cyborgs from the future going to–”

“No! No! If only it was that simple,” said the old man in disappointment. “When you go to AP Physics today, you learn the information necessary to deduce that time travel is plausible. Years later, you bring it to fruition.”

“Wait. That’s it. Time travel,” said Skip excitedly, “I invent time travel. That is so awesome!” Skip raised his chubby hand for a high five.

The elder Skip lowered it. “Not awesome. Terrible.”

“Terrible? Are people trying to go back in time to kill Hitler?”

The old man sighed as if already weary of the conversation. “No! That . . . never mind.  In short, too many people – fools with more money than sense, get access to the technology. The repeated space-time displacements are causing ruptures in the fabric of space-time. Continued use will cause the entire universe to rupture.”

“That stinks,” said Skip, now depressed. “Why don’t people stop or just fix it? Can’t you fix it?”

“No, Skip! It can’t be fixed because it’s not broken. Time travel is just profoundly unnatural, especially to the past! Just as the skin of a balloon will rupture when exposed to too sharp an object, so will the fabric of space-time when it’s exposed to temporal juxtaposition.”

“But it’s . . . freakin’ time travel,” whined the teen, not really knowing what to say.

“Yes. But it is imperative that you not pursue this technology. The results will be catastrophic!”

“But if you could keep it secret . . . maybe limited use would–”

“No! Limited use would only delay the same catastrophic result. Besides, such a secret cannot be contained. I needed too many resources, thus involving too many people.”

“But…”

“No more ‘buts,’ Skip. You must understand. This is the critical moment for you, for all of us, for all of humanity. You must not pursue this terrible knowledge.” Suddenly, the strange visitor started to oscillate as if he were only an illusion. “Damn! It’s pulling me back!”

Even as the old, fat man spoke he was fading out, then he vanished in a blast of white energy, leaving behind a lingering echo of his last words. “And get a freaking hobby besides eating . . .”

***

The second period bell sounded, and Skip Feathersmith was the first to step into the empty corridor and begin the long trek from AP Calculus to AP Physics. The hallway soon filled with a diverse assortment of teenagers, all engaged in a myriad of between-class activities. They gossiped. They flirted. They bullied. However, most simply walked the familiar path with drone-like indifference, but unlike Skip, they were not allowed to use a backpack.

Skip had permission to use a special KLJ-approved, transparent backpack. It looked stupid, but it was the only way he could safely carry his books and kindle while he was still on crutches after that fall from his extreme bike last month. Of course, this injury was very minor compared to the double arm break he had a few months back due to a miscalculation on his extreme board. Fortunately, his newest leg cast was due to be removed in a week. The thought excited Skip, as he was anxious to try out his new extreme roller blades. He smiled then frowned when he remembered that he still had to endure several week of mandatory physical therapy.  He didn’t need it, but if he missed a single session, the school would ban him from the extreme chess club. What could he do? It was a rule, a really stupid one, but he was only a humble high school junior. Even though he had the highest IQ on the continent, he was powerless before the institutional machine. One day, however, that was going to change. One day, Skip was going to do something so big, so important, and so earthshattering that he could ignore asinine rules and regulations.

That’s when Skip nearly collided with a robot. No it was a man, an old man wearing a metal suit. No, it was an exoskeleton. Skip stepped back to look at the strange cyborg, just standing in the hallway. The man looked at least eighty years old. He wore a dirty lab coat that was apparently tailored for his unique frame and ordinary glasses with round lenses. Oddest of all was his hat, which looked like the planet Saturn. It even had little moons orbiting the crown.

“Look, kid,” barked the old man loudly as he seized Skip by the front of his jacket and lifted him with one mechanically enhanced arm. The gears and levers whirred and whined with each articulation.  “You are starting to get on my nerves,” the old man bellowed angrily.

“What?” asked Skip innocently, clearly astounded by the old man’s power, “What did I do? Who . . . who are you? What are you?”

“What I am is short on time and very PISSED OFF,” shouted the angry senior, “but to answer your question, I am you, from seventy years in the future.”

Skip, still dangling off the floor, had a good look at the old cyborg’s face. “You are me? You really are! Wow? What happened?”

“First, lay off the extreme ultimate crap. It takes a toll, and you’re not very good at it. OK?” said the old man, clearly irritated.

“Done,” exclaimed Skip.

“Now listen,” continued the mechanized man as he put Skip down and helped him recover his crutches. “You invent time travel. You learn what’s necessary when you go to today’s AP Physics lecture.”

“Really? That’s awe– urk!” Skip was silenced instantly as the old man seized each cheek between his metal clad thumb and index finger.

“Not awesome! Get it?”

“Got it,” said Skip as he was released.

“Good.” The old man looked at a watch that emerged from a slot in his arm, then vanished behind a tiny sliding door when his gaze returned to Skip. “Listen! Too many stupid, freakin’ sons of bitches are using that damn technology! You got that?”

“Yes sir,” replied Skip meekly.

“Each time a space-time jump is executed, there is a rupture in the fabric of space time. All this damage is cumulative and will cause the entire universe to shatter in a matter of months. From my temporal perspective of course.”

“Of course, of course!”

“There is no way to perfect the technology or repair the damage. It must be stopped before it even begins. Do you know what that means?”

“It means I should not invent time travel.”

“Exactly!”

“Don’t worry. You know, I think I’ll even drop AP Physics. Maybe pursue some other interest altogether.”

“That’s good. I know you love it, Skip, but Physics only gets a mind like yours into trouble. Unfortunately, it won’t be enough.”

“Not enough? Why not? Isn’t that the pivotal moment?” asked the teen, confused.

Dr. Feathersmith’s face grew somber.  He removed the N.E.R.D.D. from his head, revealing a bare crown, ringed in long, sparse gray strands. “I’ve made another discovery. A fairly recent one,” he said, the anger gone from his voice.

“What?” asked Skip, even though he was certain he didn’t want to know. After all, wasn’t breaking the universe bad enough?

“Each time I travel back here to talk to you, I fail. I now believe that each time I leave, there is an E.B.O. effect with my departure.”

“E.B.O.?”

Equal but opposite,” explained the elder Skip. “This effect was completely unforeseen in my simulations. Nevertheless, I believe that while the N.E.R.D.D. generates the temporal energy wave that sends me forward to my own time period, it also produces a counter temporal energy wave that propels everything here back in time. When I leave for the future, I send you to the past.”

“Equal but opposite? You mean you send me seventy years back? That can’t be right. That’s before I was even born.”

“Not that far back for you individually. The counter energy is not focused on a single person like myself. The wave is dispersed over a wide area.  Thus you and every person and particle of matter for several miles are probably only sent back several seconds. No one probably even noticed. And it’s still just a theory.”

“But you’re sure of it. Aren’t you?”

“Yes. Although events can unfold differently, you don’t retain enough of what I say to deter you from pursuing time travel.”

“So what can we do?” asked Skip, running various scenarios through his head.

The old man’s body began to fluctuate if he were only a hologram. “Heh. Out of time,” he mused thoughtfully. “That means this time, it’s a one way trip.”

“One way?” Skip felt the familiar dread he experienced when he was midflight on his board and knew he was going to wipe out.

The old man’s image shimmered and began to fade. “Some rules,” he said emphatically, “you cannot escape. Like . . . ” He seemed to search for words then his eyes met Skip’s, and he smiled as their minds connected. “It’s like when you’re on your board and you know you’ve exceeded your limits. All you can do is fall.”  Then with a final nod and a powerful shrug, he crushed the N.E.R.D.D. in his mechanically enhanced hands.  Skip shielded his eyes from the dazzling release of blinding power.

***

            The second period bell sounded one week later as it always did and Skip Feathersmith was the last to step into the crowded corridor and begin the long trek from AP Calculus to study hall. The hallway was filled with a diverse assortment of teenagers, all engaged in a myriad of between-class activities. They gossiped. They flirted. They bullied. Most, however, simply walked the familiar path with lemming-like indifference, but none were as pensive as one particularly gifted teen.




Skip Feathersmith carefully looked over the list of possible courses that could fill his second period. He had dropped AP Physics a week ago, after he had experienced a strange vision. He still couldn’t explain it. He still liked physics, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that it would lead him to a bad end. But what could he take in its place?

That’s when he saw it! What an intriguing class. He’d sign up for it at once. He hoped it wasn’t full. Wouldn’t that be a pain? Classes could only have so many students. It was a stupid rule, but what could he do? He was just a meek junior with a genius IQ. But one day, he was going to do something so big, so important, and so earthshattering, that he could ignore that kind of foolishness. But for now, he was going make a trip to the office and sign up for AP Sorcery and other Arcane Arts.

 

 

END

 

Steven L Stringfellow asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

 

 

1 review for Skip Feathersmith and the Old Man with the Funny Hat

  1. 4 out of 5

    :

    I love time-travel stories and all the complexities they involve. This one happens to be funny, too – as you can tell by the title.

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