The company was called Future Self. In the year 2020, they revealed to the world that they had successfully replicated their hypothesis, based around the concept that an individual's actions were connected along a linear timeline. By use of a machine developed by Horace Werner, a person was able to connect to their own atomic matter, traced ten years along their linear time path into the future. For a short window, this connection allowed the subject in the machine to experience the future, to see it and feel it, to see what they would become ten years later. They began offering a service to the public called Conversations, in which, for $10,000, a person could get ten minutes with their future self, to ask the questions that might help them choose a better path in life.
Alex Martin wasn't concerned with the future. He was quite content to live in the present, and let what will happen, happen. He was happy to live like a shadow beneath the giants that controlled the world, to work his remedial job as a project assistant for Waltech, and to come home each night to his wife Christine, whom he considered to be a flawless example of the human race. They had only been married a year, but their love for one another had not waned, and was still developing, like a complex bottle of wine. As a thirty-three year old, Alex had more than his parents ever had their entire lives, and he considered this a success, if success could be measured by what emerged from planted seeds. The tips of his roots had died, while the blossoms continued to flourish, and new roots branched out further in the ground, making him his own person, free of the past. This was how he preferred to live, with an amnesia of what came before, and a come-what-may attitude.
So, when Waltech gave each of their assistants a certificate to the Conversations Experience Facility, for one free Conversation, Alex was torn. He considered just giving it to someone else, as auctioning it would have been a breach of company policy regarding corporate gifts. Perhaps his brother would like it, or one of his friends. But the more he thought about it, the more it tempted him. Before now, how many chances could one get to see the future? Even though his job had a decent salary, he could never afford to do it himself. Perhaps this chance had been given to him for a reason. He began to wonder if he and Christine had children, and if so, what they might look like. He wondered what technology would be like in ten years, if cell-bands were replaced with something else, much like they had replaced the cell phone. He wondered if gasoline cars would be obsolete yet, and if the Middle East had been rebuilt from the war. These were questions he would have never worried about before, but that certificate in his desk drawer had opened a crack in the dam of his mind. On several occasions he nearly ripped it to pieces and flushed it down the toilet, but the possibilities of what he might see kept him from it, and he would curse himself, hands shaking as he put it back.
Eventually, it was Christine that convinced him to call and make the appointment.
"Why don't you do it? I'll never get to go, and you can come back and tell me how happy we are, and how many kids we have."
"I'm not sure it'll be like that. What if I find out something horrible, like we aren't together any more, or the world is overrun by some deadly disease?"
"Well, if the world was in trouble, surely someone would have said something by now. As for us, nothing can happen to us. And if you find out something you want to change, I thought that was the whole point?"
"Maybe it is ..."
"It is. You should call them."
He called them the next day.
Alex felt that twinge of nervousness in his guts that only comes with preparation for a new experience, like the way one feels before boarding a roller coaster for the first time. The office of the Conversations Experience Facility was an exercise in sterility. Everything was white, from the walls, to the quality of the lighting, down to the floors, and the uniforms of the workers. The only hints of color were the letters painted over doorways, which were a bright red, and the eyes of the employees, all of which seemed to be an unnatural blue.
After she had verified the legitimacy of his certificate, the receptionist clerk set a clipboard on the counter before him.
"I need you to read through these and sign in the appropriate sections. Before you begin, I need to get a sample of your blood, and you need to sign this form. This is to test and see if you are eligible for the jump. By reading this and signing this form, you are saying that you understand our program is based on the plausibility of your life extending at least ten years. Our program can only project exactly ten years into the future. If you are ineligible for the jump, you understand that Future Self cannot be held responsible for the knowledge that you are being given, as to the longevity of your life. Do you understand?"
"You mean, people have found out they have less than ten years to live, and tried to sue you?"
"This knowledge has been known to have unpredictable effects."
"Meaning it can drive you mad."
"As I said, unpredictable effects."
"Okay, sure, whatever."
Alex signed the form and stuck his hand out when the receptionist requested it. She used a polished steel cylinder, with a translucent end that pulsated with orange light, slightly larger than an ink pen. She pressed it to the meaty section of his palm. There was a quiet hiss, and a quick pinprick of pain, as the device collected a sample of blood. Then she smiled and slid the cylinder into a collection tube by the desk, which also hissed with a vacuum-like suction, and rattled as the injection pen traveled down the pipe.
Alex rubbed his palm where the needle had jabbed it, although there was no blood, and he walked away with the clipboard. Over the intercom an emotionless voice said, "Client 47, you are ready to travel. Client 47." A bald man, who looked to be at least fifty years old, stood from his white cushioned chair, and strolled past, to a door that was opening on the left of the counter. Alex couldn't believe someone that old still cared about the future, or would be willing to risk the test. Maybe by that age it didn't matter, because death seemed so inevitable. He wondered why they wanted to go. He sat down and started filling out the forms, which were labeled Client 49 at the top. Beneath the usual question sheet about his health insurance, his health history, and his personal information, which made him feel like he was at a doctor's office, there was a list of rules for the journey that was two pages long. Among the rules, most seeming to be about profiting from the future, were a few that struck him as unusual: DON'T ask about the death of loved ones. You DON'T want to know this. DON'T ask for specific dates of any kind, especially concerning deaths, you DON'T want to know. DON'T ask about mistakes in life.
This was confusing to Alex. The ads on television and the literature about the CEF all lead him to believe learning about mistakes was a key element of the experience. If he couldn't learn what mistakes he had made, how was he supposed to "choose a better path in life." Frowning, he signed the forms and waited for his number to be called. It wasn't long, and the voice announced his number over the intercom. "Client 49, you are ready to travel. Client 49."
He walked to the door and handed over the clipboard to the technician, who was dressed in a white lab coat. The tech looked over the forms. He was a man of undeterminable age, as his skin had a smooth quality to it, and his eyes were covered with odd glasses that hooked into metallic covers over his ears. There were blue LED lights flickering up and down the ear pieces. Alex wondered briefly if this man could be some sort of robot. This company had invented time travel. Who's to say they hadn't perfected other technologies as well? But the tech just smiled and said, "Right this way, sir."
They walked down a long white corridor, with doors on either side. Their footsteps seemed to echo for miles off the polished tile floor. As they walked the technician reread the rules to him. When he reached the last rule, Alex stopped him.
"Yes, yes, I have a question about that rule."
"I thought the whole point of this experience was to be able to learn your mistakes, and to try and change them. If that isn't it, then what exactly is the point of this?"
"The point is different for every journey, sir. It's hard for us here to make that assumption for you. However, we have learned from our own mistakes, about travelers who wish to prevent mistakes in life, and those travelers tend to be too obsessive, because they forget the nature of the future, and they end up destroying their lives instead of fixing them. So, we tell all travelers to avoid such topics."
"And what is the nature of the future?"
"Ever-changing. You could do this every day, and every day, something would be different."
"Yes, it is. Here we are, sir. Enjoy your time."
The technician opened a door. Above it was a red number 49. There were three people waiting for him inside, two women and a man, all dressed like the technician who lead him down the hall. They were standing around a chair that looked like a cross between a dentist's and one that would be found in an old hair salon, the device attached to the top of it looking similar to the half-dome-shaped hair dryers that would be lowered onto women's heads covered with curlers.
"Welcome, Mr. Martin. Just step this way, and have a seat in the chair," the one on the far left said, motioning with his arm toward the chair, while the other two smiled and stepped aside to make more room.
The walls seemed to be completely lined on all sides with computer circuitry, and wires, lights blinking off and on at odd intervals. The room smelled like new electrical components, a sterile plastic scent, with a hint of warm capacitors. Along the tops of the walls there was some sort of LED screen, which showed a numerical pattern that continuously tracked around the room, along with lower cased letters and computations, as if in an endless mathematical equation. Alex took all this in as he stepped forward, and turned to situate himself in the chair. He noticed that wires connected to the walls ran from three of them across the floor and converged at the chair's base, running up and into the odd dome-shaped helmet.
As he sat down, two of the technicians pulled back his shirt sleeves and began attaching wires that ended in sticky pads to his wrists and forearms. The one who had initially spoken to him continued speaking.
"Mr. Martin, we are pleased that you are choosing this opportunity. We are certain that you will find it is unlike anything you have ever experienced. Once your connection has been made with your future self, your ten minutes will start. It is important for you to realize that you are not physically going anywhere. Your body is staying here with us. Every word that is spoken, your body here will speak out loud, and the conversation will be recorded for your later enjoyment."
"Wait a minute. So, this is just a hallucination? I'm not really time traveling? Isn't that false advertisement?" Alex could feel his cheeks flushing. He didn't pay for this service, but he did not like to be swindled.
"Rest assured, sir, this is time travel, just not in the way traditionally perceived. Your consciousness will temporarily incorporate the body of your future self. It will be as though you are there, experiencing and feeling the future, but you don't have to leave the comfort of your own year."
"So, how do I talk to myself then? Will the future self even know I am there? What, do we have mental dialogue or something over imaginary tea?"
"I was just coming to that. For the conversation piece, you will need to find a mirror. Any mirror will suffice. A public restroom. An office mirror. It doesn't matter. As soon as you see the reflection, the future self will become aware of the past self. You will see each other in the mirror, and be able to communicate as though you are in the same room. Our time traveler pioneers figured this out on the second jump. It is a thrilling phenomenon of the experience."
"So, for ten minutes, wherever I end up at, I will look like an insane person. How do you even know this isn't all just imagination?"
The technician laughed and shook his head.
"We understand your apprehensions. Not to worry. All those will fade when the experience starts. There have been numerous tests as to the validity of this science. I assure you, if anything, the price we charge is a bargain."
"All the coordinates are set, sir. The traveler is ready for final countdown," said one of the women. They had finished affixing the wires to his skin, the last two going on his temples, and then they had each gone to a wall and started keying things into a control panel. Alex saw on one screen what appeared to be a translucent image of his skull, with all the neural pathways of his brain magnified, which then magnified again and again, until there were images of brain cells pulsating with electrical energy.
"Okay, Mr. Martin, just lean back into the chair."
He did as he was asked, although he could feel himself getting more and more tense. His heart hammered in his chest and felt like it was filling with helium. He swallowed and felt a dry click in his throat.
"Just enjoy the ride," the tech said, as the odd-shaped helmet lowered and covered his eyes.
Before him, inside the helmet, was a black screen, that blipped repeatedly with a single white line, before flashing solid white, as if the screen was a black sky with a small crack in it, and he was repeatedly teleporting into the crack, only to find another black sky, on the other side, like a perpetual wormhole of the digital age. As he watched, the speed of the pattern seemed to increase, annoying at first to his senses, but then becoming hypnotic. He began to feel as though the chair beneath him was melting away. He was vaguely aware of someone counting down from what he thought was ten. Then, he blinked ...
... and his eyes opened as he was walking down a sidewalk crowded with people, a bright blue sky above him. For a moment the sensation was disorienting, and his head swam so that he had to stop and steady himself against a wall. It was unexplainable, the feeling of being one place, and then suddenly being in another, with no time lapsing between. His hands fumbled to his face, feeling the frames of sunglasses, the coarse hair of a beard. He studied his hands for a moment, all other details of his surroundings lost in this moment of self-discovery. His hands were filthy, callused, dark lines of grime clinging to the undersides of his overgrown nails. He checked the ground beside him, the shoes on his feet, which were dilapidated and covered with scratches and stains. His left pant leg had a long hole in it from the knee to his shin, and there was a dark scab on his kneecap. The feeling of disorientation only grew instead of fading.
"What ... I don't understand ..." the words fell out of his mouth like alien vowels. He shifted so that his back was against the wall, seeing the passersby on the sidewalk, and how they purposefully seemed to ignore his presence. He looked for signs of being in a different time, and saw none. He was in the downtown area of a city, but he couldn't say which one. The dark silhouettes of the tops of tall buildings seemed to lean inward over the street. Vehicles, some familiar and some not, drove back and forth, and he noticed a taxi that had holographic ads affixed to its top and side. The ad he saw was for alcohol, a hand pouring a bottle's contents out onto the curb. He checked his wrist for a cell band, but wasn't wearing one. There was a guitar case leaned against the wall beside him which looked vaguely familiar, with a sign cut from a piece of cardboard taped to it : WILL PLAY REQUESTS FOR A DOLLAR.
I have to find a mirror, he thought, stumbling away from the wall. He brushed against a man in a business suit, who grunted wordlessly, and continued on. The man seemed to be talking to himself, but had his cell band glasses on, so Alex knew better. He shuffled down the street, meandering between the people in his path on the walk, the potpourri of different colognes and perfumes mingling with car exhaust and sewer fumes, not to mention his own foul stench, which kept hitting him in odd waves. The first door he found on his right, he entered.
It was some kind of office building, a lobby. There was a desk, monitored by a security officer. The officer was already standing at the sight of him, a defensive look on his face. The room appeared to be some sort of waiting area; there was a hologram table to the left of him, with several chairs along the walls. Projecting from the table was an advertisement about booking a "Space Odyssey." Alex wondered what that might be. But before he could wait to find out, the guard was yelling at him.
"Excuse me, sir, you're not allowed in here. You're going to need to go back outside."
"I just need to use the restroom," even his own voice seemed different to his ears. Rougher. Weathered.
"Okay, well make it quick. The restrooms are just there, to the right."
Alex saw where the guard was pointing, and noticed his left hand was resting on a device in his belt, that was probably some sort of revision of the prod-stick he knew from his own time. He nodded at the guard and strode to the hallway to the right side of the desk, and pushed the door marked with the apparently timeless symbol for men.
Ten years had not altered the look or feel of a public restroom. To his right there was a row of sinks, with mirrors over them affixed to the wall. To his left there were urinals of white porcelain, and past them a few stalls. The room was empty, much to his relief, except for the drips and ambience of sounds bouncing off tile and glass. He took a few steps and stood in front of a sink, seeing himself fully for the first time. It was like being punched in the heart.
He looked like a crazy person. His hair was matted, long, stringy and gray, patches of it missing toward his front hairline. There were dried chunks of unknown debris in it, sticking to the side of his face. He thought it might be vomit, as more chunks of it were in his beard, a thick, frazzled mass of gray and black hair that looked like it hadn't been trimmed in years. It hung from his chin past the cleft of where his collar bones met at the base of his neck. He reached up with shaking hands and removed the sunglasses. His eyes were bloodshot, the edges crusted with dried tears or mucus, the color a faded blue that glinted with madness, a lighter hue than he ever remembered his eyes being. He rubbed a hand across them. And his future self spoke for the first time.
"I wondered if you would ever show up. How did you afford it?"
"What do you mean? You should have my memories."
"I don't think I do."
"Yes, it is."
The two different voices coming from one set of vocal cords was an odd phenomenon, but each consciousness residing in the body didn't notice, as they saw the other self in the mirror.
"I got a certificate from work."
"Oh, you're still there then? Must still be married, too. I remember what that was like."
Alex noticed for the first time that his wedding band was gone. He rubbed the ring finger listlessly, not sure what to say.
"What do you want to know? How did we come to this?"
"I'm not sure if I should know. There are rules."
"Rules? Fuck rules. Life doesn't have rules."
"Yes it does. There are consequences for breaking them."
"Let me tell you about rules. Humans try to enforce their need for structure by making rules, but in the end, random chaos makes of mockery of our attempt at rules. In the end, it doesn't matter what we do, chaos wins. Order is temporary."
"I don't understand."
"You're not meant to. No one is. We are all fucked. The end. How long does this last? I need a drink."
"Ten minutes. I don't know how long I've been here."
"Too long already."
"No. Tell me something. Help me understand."
"Understand what? I don't know anything more than you. I am you."
"Yes, but you've seen more than me."
"I've seen less."
"You're confusing me."
"Good. Stay that way. It's better to be confused. That way nothing sinks in. Everything feels like a dream. One long dream."
"This isn't a dream."
"You got that right. It's a fucking nightmare."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Then, what is the point?"
They stood for a moment, regarding each other with a painful disdain, a detached resentment.
"Okay, look, tell me what happened. Going back now, not knowing would be worse."
"I'll tell you, but you can't stop it. Don't even try. The universe will not let you."
"How do you know that?"
"It doesn't matter. Christine dies."
"What?! How? Why? When?!"
"It doesn't matter. Do you listen to me? There's a storm. It was lightning. How are you going to run from the sky?"
"But nothing. The universe won't let you save her. The universe doesn't give a shit about your happiness."
"Just tell me when!"
"You know I can't do that."
"You've damned yourself."
Alex screamed and struck the mirror, splitting it in a single crack right down the middle. The glass cut his knuckle, and a bead of blood welled up, dripping a bright red splotch onto the white porcelain of the sink. He slammed his hands down onto the edge of the sink and pushed his face against the glass, still letting the sound of his scream echo off the walls, pushing his eyes next to the reflection of his eyes, trying to merge with his reflection, trying to climb through the looking glass. He shut his eyes and pushed harder
and opened them back in the comfort of the CEF, breathing heavily, his hands hooked into claws around the ends of the armrests, the helmet lifting from his face with a motorized whirring sound.
"NO!" he shouted, trying to scramble forward and pull the helmet back down, "send me back! I haven't learned enough! He hasn't told me! He hasn't told me!"
"Mr. Martin! Calm down! You're back! There's nothing to do about it!"
One of the techs was shouting at him, but Alex wasn't listening. He pushed himself up from the chair, the sticky pads tearing roughly from his skin as the wires ran out of slack, frantically looking at all the controls of the room, the chair, trying to deduce how the thing worked in those few seconds.
"Security!" someone shouted.
Alex grabbed the male tech, pulled him to within inches of his face, holding him by the collars of his lab coat. A clipboard went skittering across the tiles.
"You've gotta put me back in there. I have to know more."
"We can't do it, Mr. Martin."
"God damn it, you can and you will! This is my life we're talking about!"
"It's one possible life. You have the power to change it, sir!"
"He told me I can't change it. But I could if he told me when."
"It's impossible, sir. Let me go."
"No, not until you do as I ask. Tell these people to reset the machine. I have to ..."
He never saw the second tech. She hit him with the prod-stick, set to full charge. In an instant, his limbs went numb, his eyes rolled in the back of his head, and he was falling to the floor, collapsed in a heap. Urine spread out from his body in a pool.
The tech who had been grabbed straightened his coat, regaining his composure.
"Someone call his wife," he said.
On the car ride home, Alex sat with his head leaned against the glass of the passenger window, feeling humiliated and helpless. Crumpled in his hand was the notice of being restricted from the property of the CEF, a legal restraining order that would keep him from returning to the service for two years. An electronic copy would be kept on file there, and was sent to the city police. He would be unable to go back, to try and learn more from his future self, for at least that amount of time, even if he somehow was able to raise the money. He doubted they would ever let him back anyway. Unpredictable effects indeed. They wouldn't even let him have a copy of the transcription.
Christine drove in silence, her jaw clenched. He could tell she was confused, maybe even frightened. The LED glow of the digital readouts of the car illuminated her face in blue and green lights, setting her eyes and the lines of her cheeks in deep shadows. Alex didn't like her car. He could never get used to the fact that it didn't have a steering wheel.
That night, lying in bed, they lay not facing each other, back to back, an odd veil of quiet draped between them. Before even lying down, Alex knew he would not sleep that night. His brain was a tumultuous whirlwind of questions and possibilities. Christine's probably was as well. As far as Alex was concerned, that was her own fault. If not for her, he never would have gone. But now, he was the one who had to live with the knowledge he had been given. She was simply the Pandora of his will, the one who pushed the button that allowed him to open the box of evil secrets, the box that would destroy him if he allowed it. As they said at the CEF, it was only one possible life. He had the power to change it. He just had to figure out how.
Some hours later, they both still lay awake, each staring at an opposing wall. Christine spoke without facing him.
"Are you going to tell me what you saw? What happened in there?"
Alex took a deep, unsettled sigh.
"Why can't you tell me? What can be so bad? Is it about me?"
"What is it then? Tell me something. I'm your wife. I deserve to know. There can't be secrets between us. They'll drive us apart."
"Christine, trust me, you don't want to know. Some things you're better not knowing. Some things you're not meant to see. I wish I could forget it."
"Just tell me."
"It was the end of the world. Okay? The end of everything."
She didn't say anything then. He wondered if she knew he was lying. He realized it didn't matter. In less than ten years, she would be dead. Unless he found a way to change it. By the next morning, he had realized what he must do.
"Are you sure you want to work today?"
Christine had a look of concern on her face, dark circles under her eyes from the night of sleeplessness. She was speaking to him with her car window rolled down, as he had already exited, and was standing near the front of his own, in the parking lot of the CEF. They had not towed it, and it was early yet in the morning, so there were very few other vehicles in the lot, and it was easy to find. The purplish hues of sunrise were just starting to brighten the eastern skies.
"Yes, I'm fine. It'll be okay."
"All right, as long as you're sure. I love you, honey."
"I love you, too."
He leaned into the window and kissed her on the mouth, lingering for a moment to take in her scent. He hoped he would smell it again some day. He backed away and waved, as she smiled wanly at him, the glass gliding back up in the grooves of the car door. The motor revved and the car pulled away, tires making gritty sounds on the pavement. Alex turned to his own car and let the sensor read his thumbprint so the door would unlock. He pulled the door open and sat in the driver seat, but he didn't start the engine. He had no intention of going anywhere. He watched the lights of the front of the building and waited for the CEF to come to life.
It was three hours later when he strolled through the automatic doors of the Conversations Experience Facility, and walked up to the front desk. The receptionist didn't notice him at first, and when she looked up, the smile on her face died instantly, the word "hello" dying midway in her throat, so that she only said, "Hell."
"Yes, I'm here to make another appointment, one for today, one for right now. And if you bother alerting anyone that I am here, I'll blow your fucking head off."
Her eyes, seeming to almost glow in that unnatural blue aura, jerked oddly from his face to the dark barrel of the gun he had pointed directly at her face. It was an old gun, one his father had given him years before, but it still worked like a gun should. It would blow holes in things when the trigger was pulled. Sneaking it out of the closet had been easy enough while Christine was in the shower, and it had been tucked into the back of his pants for the duration of the morning, probably leaving a nice bruise in the top of his buttock.
"Okay, Mr. Martin. Whatever you want. But you understand, I still have to make sure you can make the jump. I still have to take your blood sample and submit it."
Her voice quavered a bit, on the edge of breaking, and her eyes were filling with tears.
"What are you talking about? I just did that yesterday, just take me to the machine."
"It doesn't matter, sir. I-I-I told you yesterday, the jump is exactly ten years into the future. This is a new jump, so it requires a new test."
"Yeah, yeah, get on with it."
He held out his left palm to her. She jabbed it with the metallic pen, slid it into the slot. The tension between them manifested itself in tiny beads of sweat that started popping out on her brow, her lower lip trembling as if an electrical current coursed through it. The muffled sound of a siren made Alex nervous and he looked around.
"I told you not to alert anyone!"
"I didn't I swear! But every inch of this place is on camera. Someone might have seen what's happening."
"Let's hope they didn't. I don't want to kill anyone. I just have to go back one more time. I just need to find out something. Something important."
There was a buzzing sound suddenly from the counter, and a red light blinked on top of the desk. The receptionist started and then began keying something into the touchscreen control panel.
"What is that? What are you doing?"
"The results of your screen came back."
"Yeah, and? Let's get this show on the road. Take me to the machine. Move it."
"What? What do you mean, you can't? Did you forget about the gun in your face?"
"No, I mean I CAN'T. I'm sorry, but your test came back negative. Your timeline has ended."
"What the hell are you talking about? That's not possible."
"You can see for yourself, sir. Your jump probability is zero percent."
"But that would mean ..."
Alex let the information sink in. It meant ten years from this day, he would be dead. His wife would not live that long. In ten years, everything he had known or loved would mean nothing to the world, because he wouldn't be in it. He didn't know what could have happened. It could have been anything. He could've been hit by a car, mugged by another homeless man more desperate than himself, he could've gotten drunk and fallen from a bridge. He could have killed himself. This was all too much to think about. Alex, paced for a moment in front of the desk, unsure of how to proceed. The hand that held the gun threatened to cramp up, exerting extra force to keep the handle from slipping in his sweaty palm. He had already broken the law. Things were spinning out of control. Suddenly, an idea occurred to him. He turned back to the receptionist, who sat, still as a statue, her eyes wide as a trapped animal's.
"Have you ever sent someone back in time?"
"You heard me, god damn it. Has this place sent anyone the other direction? If you can go forward, that means you should be able to go backward. It's only logical."
"Um, that, that, that is classified information. I'm not allowed to talk about ..."
Alex thrust the gun across the counter until the barrel was right between her eyes.
"Does this look like I give a shit about your confidentiality?"
"Okay, Mr. Martin, that's enough of that. Why don't you just come with me," said the technician from the day before, now standing in the open doorway to the left of the desk. There were two other technicians with him, all watching him with emotionless eyes, but none of them were armed. The blue lights on the ear pieces of their glasses blinked in rhythmic unison.
"I'm not going anywhere, until I know I'm getting what I want."
"Are you so sure you can get what you want? If I just delayed long enough, a police sniper would probably take you out of this equation, and end this whole passion play you've sloppily written."
"The police haven't even been called yet."
"Surely you're not that stupid."
Alex looked behind him nervously. There were no police that he could see. But that didn't mean anything. A sniper could be set up anywhere. If what this technician was telling him was true, he was a sitting duck out here in the open, standing in a room of a building whose entire front was made of glass.
"Okay. Let's go. But you all stay in front of me. Remember who has the gun."
They started down the white hallway. Near the ceiling there were red lights that flashed erratically. Alex guessed some sort of silent alarm had been tripped. Whatever happened, this was not going to end well for him. He wished he had never heard of this place.
"So, Mr. Martin, what is it exactly that you hope to achieve here?"
"I'm going to change something. I'm going to forget this ever happened."
"And how do you intend on doing that?"
"You're going to send me to the past. I'll tell myself to never time travel. Problem solved."
The technician laughed. Alex couldn't see his face, and felt a pang of unease, his stomach rolling in knots as though he had swallowed a handful of flies.
"You think it's that easy do you? There are many reasons we only offer one way time travel, chief of which is the danger of changing the past. What one might think is an insignificant moment in time, could have huge implications on the future. We simply can't risk it."
"Well, this time you will. What I want to change -- only affects me."
"If you say so, Mr. Martin."
They reached one of the time rooms and entered. The number 11 was written above the door. Two technicians were busy at control panels, while another was doing something to the chair. The walls were alive with electrical pulsations. The equations continued their endless path around the tops of the walls. The three who had lead him into the room stopped and turned to face him. They looked eerily like clones.
"It's okay, sir, you can put the gun down. We are giving you what you want. It's already decided. We don't want anyone to get hurt."
Uncertain, Alex lowered the gun, but he kept his grip on it tight, in case anyone rushed him. He watched with unwavering attentiveness as the technicians readied his journey, the one at the chair unplugging cables and rewiring them. He looked up and nodded at the one in charge.
"Go ahead and take your seat. Your coordinates are almost set."
Alex did as he was asked. The leather of the chair squeaked against the fabric of his clothes. Technicians affixed the sticky pads with wires to his skin, at the specified points on his arms, chest, and face.
"The coordinates are set. The traveler is ready for the final countdown," someone said behind him.
"Are you sure you want to do this? This is your last chance to change your mind," the technician looked at him, something in his eyes that Alex could not place, maybe it was fear.
"What's your name?"
"My name is Murphy."
"Well, Murphy, what would you do if you found out your current path lead to the death of everything you loved?"
"I don't know. I would do anything to stop that from happening."
"So, you understand."
"But that power for change doesn't just reside in the past."
"It does for me."
Murphy nodded. He signaled for the helmet to lower, its motorized hum bringing it down. Another tech initiated the travel sequence. Cooling fans and the sounds of electricity thrummed in the walls. Alex looked across the way and saw the neurons of his brain on the screen, flickering with green and white currents, like spiky jellyfish. And then the helmet covered his eyes.
"Enjoy your time, Mr. Martin."
The black screen blipped with its white line inside, increasing in its hypnotic speed. Someone started counting back from ten. The chair started to melt away from beneath him, the gun in his hand seeming to become weightless. And then, there was nothing.
In the time room, Murphy and the other technicians watched solemnly as the body of Alex Martin dematerialized before them. The gun that was in his hand clattered loudly as it fell to the tiled floor. The wires that were attached to his body fell limply to the chair and the ground like lifeless albino snakes, as the leather of the chair decompressed from the absence of his weight. Some sparks flew out of the back of the chair, and the air filled with a scent of burning electrical components. Someone stepped forward with a fire extinguisher and doused it with white powder. Everyone looked at each other, uncertain of what they had just witnessed.
"Where did he go?" one of them asked Murphy.
"Exactly where he wanted. To the past."
"So, where is his body?"
"Who knows. But it's not here. That's the thing about changing the past. It completely alters the future. The moment he appeared to himself, he changed everything that would ever happen to him. There's no coming back from it. We've lost every single person we've sent that way. Some of them die before they could ever reach this place."
"But he was here. There is his gun." The technician pointed at the pistol still lying by the chair.
"Do you remember his face?"
The technician frowned. He started to speak and stopped.
"It's okay. I don't either."
"So that's why you let him do it. You knew this would happen."
"Time travel is like a bed of nails. The more you do it, the fewer nails you give yourself to lie on. Did you know that the professor who invented this technology doesn't exist? No one knows who really invented it. The original scientist vanished on the third day of experiment. The name attributed to its invention is fictitious. Just like the name of this man. Do you remember it?"
"No. I don't."
"That is because he never came here, but everything that we experienced still happened. It's the great paradox."
"I don't understand."
"If you remove a thimble of water from the ocean, does the ocean notice?"
"I suppose not. But the ocean, it's not sentient."
"Right. And neither is time. It continues, with us or without us."
"But isn't time a man-made concept?"
Murphy picked the pistol up from the floor, turning it back and forth in his hand, watching the play of light along the barrel.