A Matter of Oaths: An interview with Helen S. Wright
M.A.R. Barker, Emperor of the Petal Throne

Fiction: 'Alf' by Mazin Saleem


Time travel was invented twice. First, by the woman who burst into the lab of Rosa Maravu looking like an older version of her. She gave the young physicist a hand-drawn plan, sobbed, then disappeared. Rosa worked on this plan but also became convinced of something: her own indestructibility, at least till that point in her future when she’d travel back and hand the plan to herself. Quashing her nervous nature, she took to parasailing and was struck by lightning (tow rope sizzling to the boat deck in an exclamation mark). Time travel was invented by her lab partner, Maria Seini; it appeared that the present was an ultimate point, forever unfurling. All that existed: the glacier of the past.

Travelling back only the single hour that she dared, Seini discovered that to reach the past you crossed what she would call time-space, a kind of infinite gel. Though she’d taken a camera and held tight, she arrived not only empty-handed but naked. And when she tried to travel back, she got stuck in time-space, forever. Who knows how many millions of times Seini drowned in gel till by some fluke of intuition one realised you couldn’t return, not even to the new future you’d made. The two remaining Seinis theorised that self-contained vessels could survive in time-space - and thus set apart, conduct experiments on the past. But it took a century for their theories to be put into practice - a century and a planet-wide gridlock of authority locking into place and starting its final choke of the Earth.

At what point had this world been set on its path? A roundtable of three thousand thinkers boarded the Angelus Novus that began its one-way voyage in the only direction possible. As the ship slid and shunked through the gel of meta-time, they could see in its wake the present bubbling into the future; see but not access. The moment anyone disembarked at a point in the past, hence changed history, no point later than that could ever again be reached. The motto of the ship: ‘What was the great mistake?’ Its mission: how to correct it.

Factions debated the answer but were united by a belief: most ideas were not eternal: humour, justice, even love - their occurrence depended on history. But other ideas did not need history to be achieved. Freedom, for one, was immanent; every member of the species knew, if not experienced it. The roundtable chose 1889 as the first point at which to try and break this freedom out of the world.

The team ended up in 1894, but near enough Passau to snatch a five-year-old in white ruff and socks from his screaming mother. The roundtable were ethical women and men; the infant was neither clubbed nor strangled but taken back to the ship, where he was adopted; the embarrassed nickname that his parents gave, Alf, was a contraction of Adolf.

Alf heard stories throughout his childhood of what ‘he’ would’ve grown up to have done. But when he was twelve, his parents showed him recordings of what they’d seen come to pass over the ship’s sides: the Mutter Deutschland movement, the implacable, alienatingly beautiful Frau Stroher, her cannier outfoxing of Stalin, and the world she made…

* * *

Alf’s first memory was his abduction; the rest, the two decades on the ship, where his mothers and fathers raised him turn by turn. The roundtable took those two decades to choose the point of the next mission: just before the previous time but at a different place. Alf, sceptical, nonetheless joined the team. His skin prickled as they crept the pre-dawn Bosnian village at the thought that an infant of himself was five hundred miles away, a crackling ball of potentials. And Alf would be the one to grab another baby and bundle it through the exit.

This abduction of a newborn was to be their last ever ‘kill’ mission; as a mother of Alf complained: “Why would removing a match from dry forests baking for decades prevent the fire?” They saw that all they’d done was delay it and worse: equipped with the technology of 1934, the great war was truly the one to end all. Yet, unlike the rest of the crew, Alf was not dismayed. Seeing as the ship was near enough a closed system, babies were strongly resisted, if not prevented. He now had a son.

He tried to teach time-orphaned Gabriel as well as he’d been taught. But despite the crew’s principles, their time was taken by work, and any children that were aboard were neglected. Good children, but not above brandishing history books at young Gabe and calling him an archduke-killer. Trying to comfort his boy, Alf explained, “Power over others is childishness. It stunts you if you never grow out of it. They are children. What are you?”

This would be one Gabriel’s first and best memories. Freedom, and pity - the only eternal recurrences!

* * *

The roundtable circled a different faction to prominence next, which argued that no removal of ‘great men’ could resist the mudslide of history. (“The bloodslide,” a mother of Alf’s joked.) Instead they sent a team to 1648, a diplomatic mission from a made-up principality, hoping to nudge the Peace of Westphalia away from nations and towards a world without borders. But on entering a second week’s worth of introductory etiquette the team’s exits stopped working.

At a loss of ten people the roundtable had learnt the limit of how long anyone could stay in the past and hope to return aboard. Worse: nations and their armies still spread back through history from out of the sides of the ship. The roundtable had also learnt how strangers could not initiate change in the time available, and especially where the acceleration of history was too great. The ship needed to travel to an era of less inertia.

The roundtable synthesised; they would no longer remove great men nor try to change ideas from the ground up; they’d influence the powerful to use their power over others for better ends. When the next mission disembarked in Clermont just before the 12th century, they used short-term predictions to pass as angels and gain audience with Pope Urban II. They pleaded that instead of the First Crusade he declare a Council of Accord, promise that eternal reward came not from slaying pagans but loving them, call for a kingdom of equals under heaven, and seal the commitment of the faithful by saying ‘God Wills It’. The Pope stroked his beard then threw the team into the dungeons. Alf, who knew the best look-out spots, saw the team ground to meat by the first inquisitors; ‘An equal meat’, the Pope is said to have remarked.

* * *

The ship was running out of crew with which to correct the world. They were running out of history, and in doing so, were running out of means to talk: once they got 3000 years past Christ, they’d be rendered speechless. Unless they could learn how to mime ‘free your people’ to Mesopotamian kings or hand-write cuneiform.

Marlon, the ship’s Old European languages expert, asked the roundtable, “Why stop states being formed when we could halt - in exemplary fashion! - the very notion of a nation?” But from the Pope disaster they’d learnt that persuasion was impossible. Any change in notions would have to come from a person themselves, or appear to. How to do this came from Alf.

Alf no longer looked over the sides at the carnage but watched from forgotten portholes: two women in giant hats milking camels, faces in a storm; a baby in a reed canoe crying as its parents swam off: the anonymous of history. It was in these watches that he worked out how and why to help Marlon change the mind of King Alfred, and so avert the creation of England itself.

He could appreciate the shock of the Royal Hunt when their team disembarked. He’d read Maria Seini’s notes so often they’d become his memory: how reality starts pinching backwards to a vanishing point; dots appear on the point but don’t move; then they become squat figures, moving up and down; these draw closer, and with a yell your eyes and ears pop, and there the team are in a naked pile on the floor.

They wasted days relocating the King. Alf had to keep an eye too on Gabriel, aged twelve but on his first mission (crew running short; needs must). Unlike Alf, Gabe couldn’t remember anything beyond the Angelus Novus. The boy ran through the forest and would not stop smiling, his dad stumbling behind saying be careful please. When they found King Alfred cowering with his son Edgar, the team posed as druids and Alf spoke first as he flickered sunlight through a caterpillar-holed leaf.

He reminded the blinking King of his past early days in villages with no Big Man where all goods were held in common; in fact the roundtable’s sad stories of their former homes. Since these stories were real memories, the King imagined them so vividly he confused them with his own. Then he’d glance at his son and become confused.

So Alf repeated the stories, but changed a landmark here, a battle’s outcome there; the King’s correcting mind knitted these false memories with his real ones. But in doing so, it reminded the King of his hard and bitter childhood.

The end of the week was nigh. Gabriel tried to tell his dad how clear the river had been from where he’d gotten water, but Alf was too busy thinking what next to say to the King. Perhaps it was this hint of a life of fruitless work that made up Gabriel’s mind. He tried to tell his dad, but Alf had found his persuasion. When the King and Prince woke again, he gave them a speech that contained his own past: childhood, fatherhood, the depth and variety of love he’d known and given, and how it had taught him that the point of history was to end it.

Cautiously satisfied, the team had begun opening an exit when Gabriel announced to his father that he was going to stay behind.

Alf scoffed, so his son reminded him he wasn’t a child any more. Alf warned Gabe that olde England wasn’t just forests with squirrels leaping branches from Penzance to John o’Groats - but these words rang false, based as they were on books and not on any living memory. Gabriel was unpersuaded.

As Alf was led away, backwards into the vanishing point, he cried, waving goodbye forever to his son. He looked over the sides and in every porthole for him, for whatever ankle the boy would break that wouldn’t be mended, whatever septicaemia from nicking a thumb. He found the young man on his knees, nose pinched to make him swallow black mushroom broth, as two seers gutted him and sorted through his fairy entrails for their own time travel.

It was little consolation when Freeman Alfred united this new England with his burhs, not fortresses but oases, havens called things like ‘eden burh’, ‘scar burh’… Less consolation too when, sure enough, in a last diminishing foam, they watched these burhs overrun by Frankish warriors.

Nonetheless Marlon said he’d learnt from his mistake; Alf listened sadly to the man’s new theory of how to prompt in King Arthur a different grail legend: not a quest for Christ but peace, the true knight being the one to put down arms, and persuade others to do so, and so avoid that great mistake of war. Alf tried to persuade the roundtable to instead send a team to just before the Alfred plan, but they could not form a consensus on the wisdom of intervening on their intervening; besides it’d only been a little mistake. They went with the Arthur plan. This plan also failed.

In those last, desperate times, the table turned to the fundamentalists. For them, language had to be be stopped, or tools, or fire, which had let humans invent cooked meat, so travel less, settle more - let their fiery new brains settle and get fat and wrong.

One night, Alf dreamed of that first monomaniac ape rubbing sticks till they began to smoke, only for a team to come out of the underbrush with a bucket of water, douse the ape and jab a finger in its terrified face while saying: No. No.

When the rest of the crew woke and looked over the side they didn’t see the disputed coronation of Charlemagne nor the premature ascent of Baghdad; they saw wilderness with just the odd Australopithecus afarensis.

Alf’s note explained: he just wanted the bloodshed to end. “The roundtable will circle forever without ever admitting the great mistake was ours.” The note continued: by the time they read it, he’d have disembarked then immediately exited back into the gel to minimise any further disruption. The note ended with an offer:

“Before you move the ship further again, remember: you could all disembark. Start your own world, afresh, as you want it. Or don’t, and never get off, and let the world roll out like it was always going to have done.

“I hope the memory of poor Gabriel will persuade you to the right choice.”


Mazin Saleem writes at Tabulit, Open Pen, Litro Magazine, The Literateur, Big Other, Little Atoms. He has previously written stories about Eddie Murphy, teeth and islands, and articles on 2001, the merits of Veep, the sins of Jurassic World, and what Lost has in common with The Tree of Life

Art by Dearbhla Ní Fhaoilleacháin Ryan.