Originally published in 2012; reprinted due to popular demand, in honor of Valentine’s Day, and because I’m lazy.
“No! You never fucking get them!” the Pirate screamed, almost throwing the empty whiskey glass directly at the bartender. He held back, as if some unseen force softly touched his arm and coaxed him to lower it.
The force in question, he would later explain, was actually just a moment of clarity, having dealt with the frustration of reaching this point with the bartender no less than seven times in the last hour. At exactly 11:34 he would reach the point of the argument with the bartender, scream and hurl his glass at the bartender’s face, break the glass and two of the bartender’s teeth and immediately be kicked out of the bar, where he would then activate his personal chrono-manipulator and go back ten minutes to when he was in the bathroom, merge with the version of himself sitting on the toilet and try again.
“Don’t jump right back to 1939 and kill Hitler.” That was literally the first instruction on the manual for the chrono-manipulator. Part major design flaw and part enormous failsafe to prevent distorting all of space-time in general, the devices had an inherent limit on how long and far you could jump through time. 1939? Germany? It’d be great, but you’ll explode the moment you end the jump. Your body from the present doesn’t “fit” with the past, so to speak, so unless you come in contact with your correct-time body and establish a connection, you burst into tachyons. It’s disturbing to think of the number of people who set their devices to the year 33 A.D. or so, and managed to only scream “Jesus Christ!” before exploding in front of the actual person.
The other problem is that when your two bodies meet, the tachyons select fifty percent of what’s the correct timeline at random, meaning that whenever your two bodies become one, it instantly has only half the memories that existed between the two points in time. Jumping too far into the future left you acting like you were in a coma. Jumping too far back could ruin your brain as you wondered why you only remembered half the stuff you didn’t do yet.
“Hah! Law of averages beats law of… drunk.” he smiled at the bartender, and settled his glass down on a coaster with seven rings on it. Clearly, unlike the previous six jumps, the half of his memories that survived when merging with his past self finally retained the knowledge of what would happen if he assaulted the bartender. This is one of the big problems with drinking with Time Pirates. You have no way of knowing how much longer they’ve been drinking than you, and unless you’re also a pirate you already start with a notable disadvantage in the field of holding one’s alcohol.
On his end, I’ve drank with him before. Maybe the fact that we’ve had this exchange six times already and I just didn’t know if left some kind of imprint that encouraged me to actually console him. Maybe I thought he was just one of those people who wanted someone to talk to and I was one of those people who were around. Maybe I’m just an idiot. After you make the mistake of being single and alone on Valentine’s Day and thinking the best thing to do is go to a bar, you may as well go all in and entertain the wild-eyed man who said he was a time traveler and would give you a million dollars if you bought him a drink.
“I will buy you a drink if we drink it over there,” I said pointing to the table I felt was mathematically furthest away from the bartender.
“Because you look like you’re going to throw your glass at the bartender’s face and I hate today already. Seriously, what the hell did he say to you anyway?”
“Every time, the same goddamn question. You tell ’em you’re a Time Pirate and it’s a challenge for them. And they all want to know–”
“If you can prove it?” I asked with a smirk.
“No! They want to know about teleporters.”
Time Piracy is the art of jumping just enough into the past or future to steal valuable information, reconnect with your other self and retain the information without forgetting most of it or exploding. It’s a tricky practice, as most practices where exploding is an occupational hazard tend to be, and yet ironically if you are dedicated to it you have all the time in the universe to perfect it. The very best Time Pirates abandon their real-time lives, wives, children and homes for something greater or more adventurous. Then they spend the rest of their days snagging lottery numbers an hour from now and hoping they remember at least four out of six of them. The cleverest ones work in “micro jumps” of only a few seconds at a time–enough to sneak a peek at a foolishly-written-down passcode to the main data vault in an R&D department that you can use later when the building’s shut down. The worst can just forgo the gleaning of the name of the head of R&D’s Calico cat and kill all the guards in the future and then go back to the present assuming that no one will remember the awful deed, least of all themselves. But like the rings on the bar coaster, little bits remain. That’s why if you ever wanted to meet a Time Pirate, your best bet is always a lonely bar on Valentine’s Day.
“You said something about teleporters.”
“You said something about buying me a drink.”
“You said something about giving me a million dollars for one.”
I got a hearty laugh out of that. The best kind of laugh. A pirate laugh.
“I like you, boy. That’s seven I owe you.”
“Drinks. You… ahhh, never mind. Teleporters.”
“Teleporters.” We both have drinks now. “Okay, so everyone asks about the teleporters. I… I’m not sure… how to ask why people ask you that. Without. Well, without, you know, asking about…”
Well, shit, I thought to myself. That’s the look he gave the bartender before he theoretically assaulted him seven times. Instead of raising his glass at me, though, the Pirate started into it. Then at me. Back to his drink.
“There’s no teleporters,” he said, with tears forming in his eyes. “They never make them. Every place, every fucking bar. They always want to ask me about the fucking teleporters. You think I’d have not been there if we had the fucking things?”
He paused to sip his whiskey, and realized that I was looking at his eyes. His face got more serious.
“Havens. Time Pirate havens. Meeting points for the past and future. Where Pirates can meet up… and trade. Past stuff has value in the future, and the other ways. I can get medicines that are years from discovery for a mint condition comic book that was published yesterday. I got one guy; he’s a hundred years from now. He digs up wine bottles I bury somewhere.”
“I feel I should say something here. A lot of that… makes no sense.”
“Shouldn’t make sense at all, boy. But it works. S’probably why we all drink so much. You want a million dollars or what?”
“Fair enough,” I said. “So… is that it? People just want… teleporters?”
“Are they that important? The teleporters I mean.”
“To… some people.”
“What’s so great about them? I mean, okay, yeah, teleporters. Ooooooh, super science teleport shit. But you are a Time Pirate. You can go anywhere already. Right? You can be anywh-”
On “anywhere” he was grabbing my drink hand, tightly. His stare wasn’t like before, like the look he gave the bartender. It was desperate. The look drunks make when they’re about to say something really important.
“Listen, boy. I’m about to say something really important. Don’t ever tell me I can be anywhere. You don’t know a thing about it. I keep trying to get something a little further along. Y’think I haven’t tried? But it doesn’t… I mean… they don’t make anything better. Least not as far as I’ve found.” Tears were starting to well in his eyes again. “A thousand years from now, you get your better phones. Your bigger TVs. Cures for diseases. Some of them, at least.”
On “some of them” he choked.
“But you know what never changes, boy? It’s never easier to be there. We have phones that shoot movies and computers that mimic your movement and invisible signals that talk to satellites and anything you say becomes words that someone on another continent, another planet can instantly read. But it doesn’t matter. Because if you can’t be there… if you can’t be with someone all the time… it doesn’t work. You can’t just be there even when you want to. We never get teleporters.”
We sat there for a solid minute without speaking or moving before he focused on me again.
“They said it was a brain aneurism. It… instantly. I was, I mean when it happened I was loading a calibration machine on a launch platform and she was at a food plant and that’s all they tell me. You can’t be anywhere. I wasn’t there for her.”
A long moment passed before I said anything, and even then I wasn’t sure what to say. I could only go with “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. How long ago was it?”
Much to my surprise, there was that laugh again. That amazing laugh.
“What? How long? My god I love you, boy. I’ve been a Time Pirate for ages now. I forget half the things I do and half the things I didn’t. She died a hundred years from now, a thousand years ago. We were married next month. I’ll meet her in an hour. Who the hell knows? The point was, that was then and I wasn’t there.”
“Okay,” I asked. “I’m going to say something that could be incredibly stupid. Just… okay, just saying it. So… you know, again. Time Pirate. Can’t you just go to her? I mean, when it… can’t you just go and be with her?”
“Boy,” he said sadly, “I forget things whenever I jump. I could try to go to her. See her. Be with her. And one of three things would happen. One: I fuck it all up and explode in front of her, right before she would have exploded in front of me. Two: I show up and look at her, knowing she’s going to die in front of me. Three: I show up and not know that, and have it happen anyway. Now, you tell me, boy, which of those fucking things sound like a good plan to you?”
He sighed and finished his drink. “At first, yeah. Maybe I thought about it. But I was scared back then. And now… now it’s been forever. I don’t know what I’ll remember. I don’t know if I’ll remember her. I don’t know if I just wanted to forget her to begin with.”
When I look back on my life, I imagine there will be a point when I list the dumbest things I’ve done. And I imagine I’ll but near the top of the list “telling a time traveling pirate he is full of shit.”
“You’re full of shit.” I said.
“That is bullshit. Fucking go. And go now.”
“That the plan you’d pick?”
“You know what?” I asked. “I have no fucking idea. I’m not you. I don’t- or maybe didn’t- or won’t- fuck. Drunk. Fuck. Look. Her. I don’t have a her like the her you might have. And you want to be there with her, okay? Even if you know you won’t be with her forever. So who cares if you ‘forget?’ Is that really better than… than this?”
I flailed my arm out to present the bar like a prize on a game show. “This here? A fucking bar on fucking Valentine’s Day? Because you’re scared you might forget? You will never forget her.”
“What makes you so sure of that?”
“Because,” I glared at him. “You’re not angry that people want you to talk about teleporters. Jesus. You’re angry that you’re a god damned time-traveling pirate and as soon as you say that, no one ever wants to hear you talk about your wife when she’s the only thing you would ever want to talk about for a thousand goddamn years.”
We sat there, silently, for what seemed like hours. Until finally, the Time Pirate stood up and uttered a single sentence. It was a tone different than anything he’d said up until then–stern, defiant, and without a single trace of sloppiness or drunkenness or anger at all.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I have to go into the restroom.”
Following the flash of light from under the door, I waited twenty minutes as if I hadn’t figured out what happened already, and told the bartender I was picking up that other guy’s tab.
I never saw the Time Pirate again. At least, I don’t have any recollection of doing so. For all I know he could have visited me thousands of times, jumping back over the same spot with me not knowing. I wouldn’t have minded; in fact, my only regret would have been not knowing for sure if I was able to be some sort of a friend he could talk to. Whatever time he really came from, I guess that’s still the same–we’re looking for someone to be with, and to talk to, and moments we can hold onto as long as we can.
Six years later I was changing a flat tire on the side of the road and when I opened my trunk I discovered there was a cardboard box inside. I never saw it before in my life, despite its dust and water stains clearly presenting years of aging somewhere. Atop a plastic bag inside the box was a photo, also weathered like the cardboard. The woman was beautiful. Long hair; big, bright, sparkling eyes; a beach or a riverbank behind her, peaceful and happy. The damage to the photo hid her true age, as well as the face of the man at her side. I had no idea how old they were or how long ago the photo was taken.
Inside the plastic bag I found seven million dollars in cash, and the back of the photo simply said “thanks for the drinks.”
I looked at box for a moment, and the picture, and my broken car on the side of the road. And I laughed. I laughed a pirate laugh.