Tony Baloney was a pizza-delivery boy from Yonkers. He was saving up for college. Tonight, like most nights, he had the graveyard shift—delivering pizzas to other schmucks working the graveyard shift.
And tonight, like many other nights, he was headed for Chronocorp. No one knew very much about Chronocorp. Or, perhaps I should say that those who knew kept mum. It was a secretive company, rumored to be involved in classified R&D. Although he’d been there many times before, to drop off a hot pizza, even Tony didn’t know much about the place.
In fact, it went against company policy for employees to order takeout pizza. Chronocorp had strict protocols to guard against a security breach. Only authorized personnel were allowed to enter the premises—after eyeballing a retinal scanner.
However, it was the management that enforced the security protocols, and the management didn’t work the graveyard shift. So those who did, like custodians, security guards, and lab workers burning the midnight oil, ordered takeout pizza on a regular basis. Indeed, no one violated the security protocols more often than a hungry security guard.
One of the lab workers—Dr. Tweed, a precocious, frizzy-haired twenty-something post-doc from MIT—had a standard arrangement with Tony. Dr. Tweed would order a couple of pizzas. The guard at the checkpoint would get one of them—the one with the meatball, onion, pineapple, pepperoni, and jalapeño topping—then wave him through, while Dr. Tweed would leave the backdoor to Building D slightly ajar for Tony to come in and drop off the second pizza—the one with the sausage, feta, ricotta, provolone, and Canadian bacon.
Building D was the size of an aircraft hanger and fairly dark inside except for a flurry colorful lights on a large array of fancy, unrecognizable gizmos—blinking like Christmas tree bulbs or the Las Vegas Strip.
Tony would normally take the pizza straight to Tweed’s computer station, near the center of the building, where Dr. Tweed was ordinarily performing some mathematical calculation involving transfinite numbers.
Tonight, though, his station was temporarily unoccupied. Tony looked around, but couldn’t see anyone in the darkness. However, he could make out the sound of moaning and groaning in the background. Apparently, Tweed’s scientific pursuits extended to comparative anatomy.
As Tony was waiting for the tip, he decided to scope out the building. After browsing around he discovered a machine that looked like a big bubble with a driver’s seat. He looked around to see if anyone was watching him—not that he could be seen in the dim lighting. He thought it would be fun to slip into the driver’s seat and study the dashboard, which had a superfluity of illuminated buttons and gadgets.
But as soon as he took his seat, the door locked behind him while an automated seatbelt strapped him in. The machine made a series of whirring noises. The “windshield,”—which was really a big computer screen, like you find on a flight simulator—came to life, displaying an image of Salon-de-Provence—a picturesque town of about 40,000 inhabitants in the South of France.
As Tony watched, the scene began to change from newer cars older model cars, to carriages—while barns took the place of town-houses, and the street reverted to a barnyard, with a stable and a chicken coop. It was like watching a segment from the History Channel.
For Tony, the experience was something of a letdown. He was hoping for something more spectacular. Then “windshield” went dark, and the door opened.
He stepped out—into a pasture. It’s hard to say who was more surprised—Tony or the startled cow.
He found himself on the outskirts of Salon-de-Provence. Same town, but smaller—surrounded by farmland. The time-machine was humming in the background as he gazed at the town in utter astonishment. Not that the town itself was all that astonishing. Just the fact that he had been transported in time to...to...well, he didn’t know the date, or even the place, but he’d clearly left the twenty-first century far behind—or should we say…ahead? It was all a bit disorienting.
He heard a door close behind him. The humming grew faint. He spun about, just in time to see, much to his dismay, the outlines of the time-machine take on a watery appearance, and the interior fade away, so that he could now see the other side of the pasture through the driver’s seat—before the whole contraption abruptly vanished from this segment of the space time continuum.
However, he didn’t despair. After the shock wore off, he assured himself that Tweed would send time-machine back to wherever or whenever he was to rescue him and return him to the twenty-first century—as soon as Tweed discovered the accident.
In the meantime, Tony walked over to an orchard, plucked a green apple, and returned to the pasture—where he sat down and slowly ate his apple as he was waiting for the time-machine to reappear—like a taxicab from the future—to take him home. Wincing at the sour aftertaste of the apple, he told himself that if he had it to do over, at least he’d bring a pizza along.
After Tweed completed his experiment with the test-subject—a shapely young thing who was part of the custodial team—he returned to his computer station. There was the pizza box. Tweed shut the backdoor, returned, once again, to his computer station, and began to munch on the pizza—which was getting soggy and tepid from neglect.
As he absentmindedly pulled up a number of different screens, he suddenly saw, to his horror, the record of a recent teleportation. The time-machine had, indeed, been preset for such an operation, but that was part of a routine diagnostic program. No one was actually supposed to get inside and take a trip.
Then a thought crossed his mind. Tweed went back outside. Sure enough, the pizza van was still there, in the parking lot—with the keys in the ignition.
What was he to do? He should have sent the time-machine back into the past to pick up Tony and return him to the future—or the present, depending on your viewpoint. But what if Tony went on some TV talk-show to describe his experience?
Chronocorp took a dim view of employees who broke the rules—especially if it had the potential of becoming a media sensation. In one sense, Chronocorp offered every employee job security. No one who ever worked there ever left—at least not by the front door.
This doesn’t mean that no one was ever fired. Just that, if they were fired, they had a way of going away without going away. That was one of the fringe benefits of having a time-machine on the premises to enforce the confidentiality agreement.
Indeed, that’s why happened to Tweed’s predecessor. After a serious security breach, they strapped him to the time-machine and sent him back to the Mesozoic era, where he had a rather unfortunate encounter with a largish theropod. This also came in handy when dealing with overly-inquisitive reporters.
To be sure, these disappearances would sometimes cause a homicide detective to pay them a visit. But there was never any physical evidence of foul play since the incriminating evidence had already been transferred to some geological eon in the distant past. And, in any case, Chronocorp was a defense contractor, so it only took a phone call for a pesky detective to be reassigned to Oshkosh, Nebraska.
So Tweed decided to delete the record of this transaction. It’s not as if he was harming Tony. After all, by that time Tony had been dead and buried for 500 years. Tweed didn’t kill him. For all he knew, Tony lived to be an old man. And Southern France wasn’t exactly Siberia.
Besides, if you sent an empty time-machine back into the past, there was no way of knowing who would climb in and go for a ride. Suppose a French peasant found the machine before Tony did? How would Tweed explain away a security breach of that magnitude? Instead of solving the problem, he would redouble it.
It would be necessary to dispose of the pizza van, but since the security guard was complicit in this violation of the protocols, he and Tweed worked together to find a different parking space for the van—at the bottom of the Bronx River.
But as the hours wore into days, Tony’s interpretation of Tweed’s conduct was a good deal less charitable, not to mention a good deal less printable. Still, he was evidently stuck in the past, and a steady diet of green apples only went so far. He needed a job. And a place to stay. Sleeping in a barn was uncomfortable, as well as odiferous.
Tony had a knack for machinery. But unfortunately, auto mechanics and Web design weren’t the most marketable skills in the sixteen-century. Tony tried to open a pizzeria, but the locals were suspicious of tomato products. It was only later, when one of his descendents, who inherited Tony’s cookbook, opened a pizzeria in Naples, that Tony’s crumpled old recipe was put to good use.
Another problem was the language barrier. Thankfully, Tony had taken French in junior high and high school, but they didn’t teach the quaint sort of French that native-speakers were using in sixteenth-century Provence. So it took him a while to get the hang of it. Yet he had a good ear, and since his landlord would swear at him whenever the rent was overdue, that gave our stranded time-traveler a fluent command of vernacular usage.
To support himself, Tony then hit on the idea of becoming an astrologer. Not that he believed in astrology. He wouldn’t be doing astrology for real. But it was a good cover.
Tony was in a unique position to predict the future—since he came from the future. And he’d already boned up on a lot of modern history in preparation for his college major.
But he had to watch his step. Certain forms of fortune-telling were associated with witchcraft. And the church frowned in witchcraft. That would buy you a one-way ticket to the stake. By contrast, astrology was a respectable profession. So he would pose as an astrologer, cloaking his predictions in the rigmarole of astrology and other esoteric verbiage.
In composing his quatrains, he drew from memory on a wide variety sources he’d seen or heard or read about as a boy from Yonkers, including the Psychic Channel, the National Enquirer, Marvel Comics, the X-Files, Dark Shadows, the Da Vinci Code, the Adventures of Asterix, Rosemary’s Baby, the Omen, and a dash of Pig Latin—to strike the right tone.
He also had to come up with a new name for himself—something more distinguished than Tony Baloney. As a football fan, it occurred to him that he could tinker with Notre Dame. And that’s how he came up with Nostradamus. It had a nice Latin solemnity to it: pious, impressive, and enigmatic all in one.
He would also have to fabricate a backstory for himself—inventing relatives, a fake resume, birthplace and birthdate.
At first he thought it would be easy to predict the future. After all, he really did know what was going to happen. But then it dawned on him that this was a bit of a conundrum. He’s predictions would only come true if people didn’t believe him. For if they took him seriously, they were then in a position to thwart it. If they could see what was coming, they could dodge it.
Put another way, he could get it right the first few times. And that would convince his readers that he was reliable. But once he got a reputation for being reliable, they would hire him to cast a horoscope so that, if they didn’t like the outcome, they could cheat fate by doing the opposite of what the quatrain predicted—and thereby avert personal calamity.
Since the past effects the future, a single change could trigger a domino effect. Once you change the future at one point, that realigns the future at other points down the line. Events no longer fall into line the same way. Instead, they veer off in another direction entirely. Because all your predictions were accurate up to that point, all your predictions beyond that point may be rendered inaccurate thereafter.
So it’s only if people didn’t believe him that he could accurately forecast the future. But he wouldn’t make any money that way!
He was also haunted by from another nagging anxiety. What if he were to inadvertently alter his own future? If enough people took him seriously, that might change the outcome such that his mother wouldn’t meet his father.
Then what? Would that rewind and reinitiate the original timeline? Would he go back to the future? Back to the moment just before he stepped into the time-machine? Would he go all the way back? Back to the pizzeria? Back to the womb—and start all over again?
But then what? Would he keep repeating the cycle? Step into the time-machine. Become Nostradamus. Predict the future. Change the future. Rewind the future. Step into the time-machine again, and again, and again—et nunc, et semper, et in secula seculorum?
He found that prospect oppressive. To be forever trapped in the same interminable cycle.
Or would he simply go poof, like a puff of smoke? If, as a result of his “prophecies,” his mother didn’t meet his father, would he be erased from the spacetime continuum? Not merely cease to be—but cease to have been.
And yet that didn’t seem possible. How could an effect negate its cause? Without the cause, there wouldn’t be any effect to negate the cause. Or was it a delayed effect? Both would go poof—one after the other—like a stream of soap bubbles.
Well, he didn’t care for either scenario. And he couldn’t afford to test either one, for the consequences were equally bad. How could he straddle the knife-edge of a self-defeating specificity?
He decided to strike a compromise. Through studied ambiguity, he would make his quatrains sufficiently equivocal that they would be consistent with any outcome. Just enough people would believe him to make the project lucrative, but not enough people would believe him to scuttle the project, annihilate the future, or freeze the future in a Möbius strip. And so he published his “Prophecies,” in the confidence that he had the contingencies and variables under this thumb.
The sun was rising over Ferrara. A dog was barking in the deserted street. Suddenly, a large, bubble-shaped contraption materialized in front of the Palazzo dei Diamanti. Gerry Savonarola, a pizza-delivery boy from Yonkers, stepped out of the time-machine. It’s hard to say who was more surprised—Gerry or the startled dog.