Reversal of Fate by Tina Folsom
1 – Romeo, oh Romeo
Los Angeles, Friday, July 20, 2085
The one-week training at the Institute for Time Travel had come to its end. For seven days, recruits—young men just like Carter Ambrose—had gotten a crash course in life in the year 2025. Historian after historian, all ancient by Carter’s measure, had droned on about details that could lull even an insomniac into a deep sleep. The several hundreds of recruits, ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-five, exhibited varying attention spans. All they wanted was to get on with it. But Professor Henley, the gray-haired man who ran the program, was leaving the best for last: the details about their upcoming voyage through time.
The prospect of time travel was why the professor—with the blessing of the government—had been able to recruit lots of young men willing to risk their lives in service of humankind. What young man wouldn’t leap at the chance of traveling to the past? It was an adventure and the main reason Carter had signed up. His parents were proud of him and his sisters anxious but hopeful that he would come back unharmed, and with his mission completed.
At a tapping sound coming from the loudspeakers in the large amphitheater-style auditorium, the crowd fell silent. Everybody turned their attention to Professor Henley, who stood at a small podium. The wall behind him and the floor beneath his feet were an ever changing screen of graphics used to illustrate the speaker’s points. The walls and floor now turned a vibrant blue, then faded in places until the same word materialized everywhere.
“Romeos. That’s what we’ve decided to call your group,” Professor Henley said in a deep baritone voice.
There were some murmurs, but nobody spoke up or posed a question. They knew better than to waste the professor’s time.
“I’ll explain why later, but let me begin by reiterating how urgent and important your mission is.”
Behind him, charts appeared. Carter barely glanced at them. He’d seen them before and knew what they meant, because his father was one of the men, one of the scientists, who’d been instrumental in alerting the government to the severity of mankind’s predicament.
“The human race survived many calamities in the last century: the climate crisis that devastated our shores and coastal cities with rising ocean levels and caused the great fires that laid waste to the Amazon forest; the wars that had to be fought to rid ourselves of dictators and tyrants; the race riots that pitted neighbor against neighbor. We cured HIV; we eradicated world hunger and poverty, we reversed climate chance and are nursing this planet back to health. But the 2025 pandemic that killed over fifty million people all over the world still haunts us today. We thought we’d escaped its clutches, but it was a mere illusion.”
He let out a mirthless laugh. Nobody in the room breathed.
“When the virus that originated on the South American continent spread across the globe in the fall and winter of 2025, many governments reacted too late to mitigate the spread. We had no idea that this virus was unlike anything the world had ever seen. It embedded itself in the females of our species, in the survivors of the pandemic. There, it remained undetectable for decades, mutating many times over. Even our best scientists were blindsided when it struck us at the core of our existence: procreation. Since the 2050s, birthrates worldwide have been dropping precipitously, yet the true cause wasn’t detected until 2069. Too late. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s female population are now infertile, incapable of creating new life.”
Behind the professor, the graphs and pictures changed. Empty cribs and maternity wards popped up and created an eerie collage.
“This is where you come in. You, the Romeos.” He showed a hint of a smile for having come up with this moniker. “We need you to travel back to before the outbreak of the virus to find those women of childbearing age who according to historical records, died from the disease. We need you to find them, befriend them, romance them—hence Romeos—and bring them to our time, to 2085, before they can get infected and become worthless to us.”
Carter raised an eyebrow. Bad choice of words, Professor. Even Carter, as a twenty-year-old, knew more about women than to call them worthless.
“Questions before I go on?”
Over a hundred hands went up.
Professor Henley pointed to a man in the first row. “You.” He glanced at the nametag. “Joshua Fletcher.”
“Why can we only bring back women who died during that pandemic? Wouldn’t we have a better choice if we widened our criteria? I mean, what if they’re all ugly?”
Several recruits laughed. Others rolled their eyes.
Professor Henley narrowed his eyes. “Because you want to return to the world you left, don’t you? You want to come back to this version of 2085, not another.”
He looked into the crowd, where enough recruits looked confused for the Professor to find it necessary to elaborate. “If you had listened to Mrs. Dorchester who explained quantum physics and the space time continuum to you, you wouldn’t be staring back at me like clueless fish.”
He sighed. “Well then. A refresher. If you were to pluck one random woman out from 2025 and transplant her to 2085, you will have changed the course of history. Imagine this woman was going to have a child, who then went on to make an important discovery in medicine, physics, chemistry, city planning, or even art. The absence of that person, that child and its descendants, would mean that our future, the world we live in right now, would become different. You will have created a new timeline, one in which your loved ones might not exist.”
“You mean like if Albert Einstein’s mother were to come back with one of us before she gave birth to him?” one recruit called out.
“Exactly. We’ve carefully selected from the pool of women who died during the 2025 pandemic, so we won’t have to worry about a disruption in the space time continuum. Only the women destined to die may be brought back to our time. It is the only rule you may never break, no matter the circumstances.” Then he looked at Joshua Fletcher. “No matter how ugly the woman assigned to you is.”
That comment resulted in raucous laughter of the crowd and a beet-red face for Joshua.
Carter drew one side of his mouth up. He’d had the same thought as Joshua, but was smarter: he simply hadn’t voiced it, or he would have been the one with the red face.