I'm sitting in the chilly darkness of the cave, wondering when they're going to finally get around to inventing fire. It could be any day now that someone gets bored enough to wander out into an electrical storm waving a dry branch. Really, it could. I keep my hopes up because entertaining the alternative—that I'm the only one on this flying wad of mud who cares about the advancement of civilization—would probably break me. I've gone crazy before, and it's a huge hassle. I don't feel the need to do it again.
And now you're looking at me in confusion. I can tell I'm losing you. I'd better back things up a bit and explain.
Perhaps you've been in this sort of situation before: time machine, best of intentions, turn the dial a little too far to the left aaaand…BAM! Ice age! Some wandering beast that looks like a shag carpet gone rogue steps on your equipment, strands you, and the only thing you can do is howl at the uncaring sky about how things should have been different and that you only wanted to talk to Bruce Lee for a few minutes.
What are you looking so skeptical for? That sort of thing doesn't happen where you're from? Are you at least familiar with time travel?
Okay. Good. You've seen the movie. Everyone's seen the movie. It established the whole scientific field of temporal tunneling, even if it got a few things wrong. For whatever reason, a Ford pinto works better than a DeLorean. The universe just has no sense of style, but I digress. It's amazing how easily the mind wanders after a century of living in a hole in the ground with only a hooting band of man-apes for company.
Yes, I am that old. Yes, I know I don't look it. Haven't your people figured out regeneration yet? No? Well, do you still need to eat? You're kidding me. Pfffft, peasant.
Wait! Come back! I didn't mean to offend you. I haven't had to practice politeness in so long that I'm afraid the skill has atrophied. Please forgive me the occasional breach of etiquette, backwards yokel. I'm sure your people have achieved great things too.
What's an internet?
Never mind. That sounds way too complicated. Give me quantum molecular transference technology any day over that. Or at least give me fire. Please give me fire.
Speaking of which, just as I can feel my knees start to cramp up from chronic prolonged sitting, one of the monkeys comes back from hunting. He's dragging what looks like a moose as MC Escher would have envisioned it. Some of those horns seem to go in directions that don't exist. Nonetheless, the monkey seems to be very proud of his find. His band doesn't usually get to have meat.
My heart swells. Finally. Tonight could be the night that the neurons stir in their primitive brains and one of them thinks "hey, you know what? How about, for a little variety, we try cooking this?" I bustle around the cave, getting my preparations ready.
A few good paces back from the entrance is a little ring of stones that I've built. Inside of it I've placed a generous double-handful of leafy branches. It's autumn, and the maple leaves burn a bright array of crimson and gold. You know, without actually burning at all. The whole thing looks like a convincing abstraction of what a fire ought to be, but the monkeys aren't so good at abstract thought. Mostly they just trip over it in the semi-dark.
At first, their band thought I was some sort of mystic witchdoctor. Or maybe a god. But as soon as they realized that I didn't actually do anything, they took to ignoring me and my creations. This frustrates me to no end, because I can't afford to be any more direct.
History is a pretty flexible thing. You can always change the little stuff, just like you can throw a pebble into a stream without causing flooding three towns over. However, if you try to change something major—and history knows what those things are—the effect is similar to tipping Mt. Everest into the Mississippi. You might paradox yourself so thoroughly that the universe is forced to retcon you, or you might grow an extra appendix, or your skin might turn lime green. Modern science is unsure which of these is the most likely to happen because there are no recorded cases of people dramatically changing history and continuing to have existed afterwards. Hence, I prompt the monkeys as best I can, but I don't dare run the risk of giving them fire before they learn how to make it on their own.
Prompting sometimes means grabbing one of them by the hand and leading him over to my makeshift fire pit so that I can point significantly at it. I do this with the moose hunter and he lifts one of the branches out of the stone ring and settles it on his head like a hat. The other monkeys think this is incredibly clever. I groan and give up for the day.
Dinner consists of smelly slabs of dying flesh and, if your taste runs that way, maybe an eyeball. I don't partake. Even if I did need to eat, I've never been a big fan of venison.
After the meal, when twilight truly begins to settle in over the world, the monkeys form up into a semicircle facing the mouth of the cave. This is how they sleep, on guard for the slightest hint of danger outside. I can't help but feel my gaze drawn to the space in between them; the space that ought to be lit by flickering flames. Its dimensions are such that if someone were to start a fire right in the middle of it, that fire would be the perfect distance away from everyone. Just close enough to warm, but not enough to burn.
I wonder if this is a coincidence, or if some sort of racial memory has echoed down the generations in reverse. Maybe traveling backwards through time isn't just something that people do.
Yes, I know I'm being silly, but philosophizing is the only entertainment I have most days. The monkeys don't play games. Even simple ones. They're too busy with survival. Their only indulgence is the telling of stories.
Silently, one monkey detaches itself from the semicircle and walks into the center. He stands in such a way that, if a campfire were there, it would be directly behind him, outlining him in light for the benefit of his audience. He clears his throat, making me think about racial memories again, and then he begins to pantomime.
From what I can decipher, he's telling a slightly amped up version of the exploits of Moose Hunter. First, he plays the role of the prey: grazing placidly on an imaginary branch, with his hands cupped in claws behind his head to simulate horns. The other monkeys understand who he is immediately, and a few of them let out low hoots of approval. Nodding back at them solemnly, he switches roles and becomes the hunter. Now he's scampering about furtively, peering over make-believe boulders and studying implied tracks.
I yawn. I've seen this routine thousands of times before. Time passes, generations die, but some stories never change. The only difference between this night and all the others is that the amateur thespian ends his performance by launching a flying tackle at himself and nearly tumbling into his audience, who bounce up and down in frenzied approval.
"Why are you all bothering with that?" I mutter, although not loudly enough that anyone hears. "You could be warm in the winter. You could be safe from predators. You could have a place to harden spears and cook food. You could start civilization. But no. You waste your time with drama."
And maybe that is a little harsh, but you haven't had to put up with it for a hundred years. It gets old real fast. If I have to endure another century without combustion, I'll probably die of frustration. At this rate, I might as well interfere with history.
No. That's absurd. I wasn't being serious. I can't do that.
Excuse me, I think I ought to sleep on this.
I roll over and pillow my head against the cold granite floor. Dreams are a long time in coming.
Are you kidding? The sun isn't even up. Hold your Pleistocene proto-horses. I'm going back to bed.
No thanks to you, I wake up six hours later, exhausted and out of sorts. I'm just frustrated enough that I decide to do something really rash and probably stupid. I stalk out of the cave, down the hill it leads out onto, and into the surrounding forest where I gather an armload of tinder and two likely sticks. Back to the cave I march, depositing the bundle beside my pseudo-fire. Scraping the leafy branches out of the ring, I begin to build a tepee.
My newfound sense of purpose quickly attracts a couple of bystanders. At least, that's what I'd like to believe. It's altogether more likely that they wander over for the same reason that people stop to listen to crazy street preachers. I remind them that there are weirder things in the world than what they've seen so far.
When I start putting together a bow and drill, one of the monkeys ambles off, satisfied that I must be completely insane. Another one, however, moves closer. He scratches his head as I chafe the sticks together. Glancing over, I realize that he's Moose Hunter. I wave to him.
I'm about to change everything you've ever known.
If you've ever been trapped in prehistory by freak mastodon-induced coincidence or, alternately, been a boy scout, you probably have some idea how hard it is to start a fire this way. You sit there sawing and sawing until it feels like your arms are about to drop off, and then the stick breaks. Or you accidentally gouge your arm. Or you lose your balance and have to start all over again.
I become the first human ever to cuss like a sailor. Moose Hunter watches me patiently and waits for my temper to return.
Eventually, I manage to coax a spark into being. I quicklytap it onto the kindling and flap at it ineffectually with my hands. It goes out, and for a moment I'm convinced that I have to start all over again. I nearly wail. Then, with sinuous grace, a plume of smoke begins to snake up into the air.
Moose Hunter looks at me. I look at him. I can see a glimmer in his eyes like he might be reconsidering whether or not I'm god.
While Moose runs off to try and describe to his band this strange new phenomena, I lean back and wait to see whether I'm about to stop existing. Minutes pass. I don't feel any greener or less real, and if I'm suddenly sporting an extra appendix, it doesn't bother me any. I grin.
You know, that was a good idea. In another hundred thousand years or so, let me buy you a drink sometime. Of course, I still don't know your name.
That's funny. Same as mine.
Yeah. What a coincidence, huh?
… oh my god.