Author : David Atos

The man was sitting at Donald Thompson’s kitchen table when he got home, reading a file.

“Right on time, Mister Thompson.”

Donald jumped back against the wall in alarm.

“Who are you, and how the hell did you get into my apartment?” he shouted.

“I suppose the short answer is that I am a Time Agent, and I got here by time travel.”

“Time travel?”

“Technically, we’re supposed to call it the Quantum Entanglement C-P-T Modulation Transfer, but that’s quite a mouthful. Time travel.”

Donald let out a single barking laugh. “And I suppose you’re here because I’m going to become a horrible serial killer, and you’re going to stop me before I can claim my first victim?”

“Oh, no, Mister Thompson. Donald. Don, if I may? Quite the opposite. You’ve lived a life that is, overall, full of kindness. You’re not a criminal. And even if you were, I couldn’t come back here to kill you.” He shook his head, “No, Don, I’m here because you’re about to die.”


“That’s right, Don.” The man consulted the file and his watch. “In twelve minutes’ time, a small aneurysm in the motor cortex of your brain will rupture. Your downstairs neighbour will hear you fall and come up to investigate. The ambulance will take you to the hospital, but the doctors won’t be able to help you. You’ll persist in a vegetative state for five hundred twenty three days, sixteen hours, and thirty two minutes, then pass away. It’s all here in your file.” He slid the folder across the table towards Donald.

Donald snatched at the file. The front page was a cranial MRI. His name on it, and a date two days from now. In the middle of the image was an ugly solid white stain. Donald sat heavily down on the chair opposite the intruder.

“So, are you here to save me, then?”

The man in the white coat smiled ruefully. “I am truly sorry, Don. I’m not here for that either. Time is . . . not robust. It cannot heal changes. The ripples, the perturbations, they expand exponentially. We cannot kill those who deserve to die, nor can we save those who deserve to live.”

“You can’t kill people, you can’t save people. Why are you even here?”

The Time Agent stood up, and began pacing. “All that we can do, Don, is offer . . . small mercies. An extra styrette of morphine for the soldier bleeding out on the battlefield. A few words of love carried from a husband to his dying wife. We help — where we can. For you, we can offer . . . oblivion.” He reached into the pocket of his lab coat and pulled out a single clear capsule, filled with tiny red and white balls.

“Oblivion?” asked Donald, confusion in his voice.

“Yes, Don. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. The ruptured aneurysm destroys your motor cortex, but the rest of your brain remains completely undamaged. You remain fully aware for all five hundred twenty three days, sixteen hours, and thirty two minutes. And, again, I’m sorry, in significant pain the entire time.”

“But . . . but, you said you can’t kill me either.”

“No, Don. We can’t. This pill,” he holds up the capsule, “is nothing more than a measured dose of Aspirin. A blood thinner. If you take this pill, the bleeding in your brain will be ever so slightly worse. Not only will your motor cortex be destroyed, there will also be irreparable damage to your cerebrum. Your body will continue to live, but your consciousness, your sense of self, that will be gone the instant you drop to the floor in,” he glances again at his watch, “seven and one-half minutes.”

“So, that’s the choice you’re giving me? Take this pill, and instead of a year and a half of agony, I just pop straight off to Heaven?”

The man in the white coat laughed. “Oh, Don! If only we could answer that question for you. For all of our advances, we still don’t know what happens to the consciousness, to the soul, after death. A dozen dozen religions argue just as passionately about that in the future as they do now. I can’t offer you any assurances, Don. I can only offer you a chance to avoid suffering.”

Donald slammed the file sitting in front of him and stood up, pointing an accusatory finger at the stranger. “Why should I believe you at all? Huh? You’re just some guy who got into my apartment somehow!”

“Well, it’s a bit like Pascal’s wager, isn’t it?” replied the stranger. “If I’m lying, all you’ve done is taken some painkillers. But if I’m telling the truth . . . Look, I’ll even make it simpler. If you don’t trust this pill,” he placed the capsule on the table, “you need to take two extra strength Aspirins. But you’ll have to hurry. You are running out of time.”

Donald slumped down into the chair at his kitchen table again. He stared mutely at the file in front of him. Slowly, he reached out and picked up the capsule.

The stranger walked around the table and sat next to Donald, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I can’t promise you much, Don. But I can promise you this: You won’t die alone.”

Donald lifted the capsule for a closer look, and inspected the tiny printing on the side. Two words, in simple, black lettering:

small mercies

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