â€œThis place is a dump,â€ Headley muttered, for what must have been the thousandth time. Foxworth rolled her eyes.
â€œOf course itâ€™s a dump. Itâ€™s our job. If it wasnâ€™t a dump, we wouldnâ€™t be here.â€
â€œYeah, I know,â€ Headley replied, â€œBut look at this place. I mean, really look at it. One guy canâ€™t make buildings rot like that, even if he is a zapper.â€
Foxworthâ€™s eyes took in the crumbling foundations, the sagging walls, the rust, the dirt, the mess. Her hand drifted to the triple-cycling proton gun in her side holster. It was there for her protection, but how could she protect herself against time?
â€œWell, this is a class 15 if I ever saw one. Definitely uninhabitable. No clue where anybody could be hiding in all this mess, though. Even zappers gotta eat.â€
Foxworth nodded her silent agreement. Sometimes a mutant like this would turn tail and run off after it had killed so many people, attacked by some parody of conscience. Theyâ€™d have to file a pink form, and while Foxworth hated that, it was better than sticking around this dump any longer.
â€œAll right,â€ she said at last, turning towards Headley. â€œLetâ€™s pack up and get out ofâ€”â€
â€œWhat are you doing here?â€
Both partners turned towards the new voice, wide-eyed. Foxworthâ€™s hand went immediately to her gun, though she noticed that Headleyâ€™s did not. He frowned instead, kneeling down to speak to the boy, no more than seven or eight, who faced them solemnly from the rubble.
â€œWeâ€™re here to help,â€ Headley assured him. â€œAre you hurt? Did you lose your parents?â€
A cat meowed and Foxworth jumped back, her hand clenching around her gun before she registered the source of the noise. The animal drifted out from behind the pile of debris, making it only the second living thing theyâ€™d seen today, and rubbed against the boyâ€™s legs. He picked it up, still frowning at the two government workers.
â€œYou shouldnâ€™t be here. Go away.â€
â€œWe just want to make sure youâ€™re okay,â€ Headley told the boy in that maddeningly reasonable tone, the one that adults used on children and men used on women when they were feeling particularly superior.
â€œGo away,â€ the boy repeated, holding the cat close to his chest.
â€œLook, kid, youâ€™re gonna have to come with us.â€ Hadley was frowning now. He didnâ€™t like being contradicted or disobeyed.
â€œI said go away!â€ The childâ€™s face contorted at the same instant that the cat hissed, flattening its ears back against the top of its head. The veins in Headleyâ€™s forehead exploded like overripe grapes, spattering blood everywhere, just like the rest of the corpses theyâ€™d seen in this wreckage. He barely had time for a yell of pain before he collapsed, lifeless.
Foxworth was frozen solid. She knew she should be drawing her gun, yelling, crying, running away, doing anything but standing dumbly in the rubble, but she couldnâ€™t bring herself to move.
â€œCome on, Bugaboo.â€ The child held out his arms and the cat, after a last look at Foxworth, ambled back and jumped into them. The child frowned at her. â€œGo away,â€ he repeated. â€œDonâ€™t ever come back here again.â€ Then he turned away.
The catâ€™s green eyes were mesmerizing, and Foxworth caught her breath. For one irrational moment she thought she could get lost in those eyes, like a labyrinth, and never come out.
Foolishly, my people thought the alien ships were asteroids on a collision course. We launched our most deadly weapons into the sky, which exploded harmlessly off the liquid hull of the invaders, raining poison onto our world. Dust flakes on my head as I walked to the sacred ground.
During the ceremony, my younger siblings held me underwater in the pool of our temple, that blue chalice just big enough to immerse my adolescent body. I was arrogant in my new development, confident that I was ready to become an adult. Then, as I let out the last of my held breath, I began to panic; nothing had happened, no painful change, no sudden epiphany, no realization of adulthood, I wasnâ€™t ready, I was going to drown.
There, in the water, hands pressing down on my head my head and flailing limbs, I met death for the first time. I was a frightened child, drinking and choking on water, weakened, desperate, ashamed, tearing and helpless. Hope lost, I stopped, just stopped, and let myself die, lay still, peaceful under the web of my brothersâ€™ hands. It was then I felt the closed slits in my side softly open and I became the water, not breathing with my mouth but with my body, my whole self suffused. I looked up through the shining pool to my siblings, and they were crying, dropping tears of worry and hope into the water, and each droplet spread on the surface, a rippling miracle.
Two days later, the little insectoid robots came, crawled into my home and sawed through the flesh of my family. My uncle, who slept at the doorway, was already dead when I woke up, his vocal cords severed. My father, though, screamed and thrashed, filling his bed with blood as my mother tried to tear the silver bugs off his skin, her fingers severed by their tiny metal blades.
In the pool, gazing up through the water, the faces of my siblings became like stars against the open sky, and in that moment I believed in everything. I lay there, in wonder, my body water, my eyes the open night.
Four days later the stink of blood and dust had us all covering our heads with wet scarves, debris slashing our eyes, the water toxic, the air polluted. Our schools were piles of rubble, mass graves for dead children. My mother held her surviving children in the remains of her bleeding fingers and told us that our lives were coming to an end. We fled, like ants on a hill, scurrying from our homes and schools, but nowhere was safe, and nowhere we could go was better than where they were.
Later, we were blamed for our resistance. If we had just waited, listened calmly while strange shaped ships plummeted from the sky spewing garbled language of conquest. If we had just laid down in the streets, if we had never picked up anything that could have been interpreted to the invaders as a weapon, then the metal bugs would not have crawled into them and tore them apart from the inside. If my people had not built such strange schools, they would not have been mistaken for military barracks, if we had not fought wars amidst ourselves, we would not need to be ruled.
Since the day my siblings lifted me out of the pool, I have never again felt trust so complete. Do not ask again, why I go armed to speak to you. Do not tell me that my people should surrender. Do not accuse me of being irrational till all your own family lay dead, and till your culture is beaten, erased, and chained.
Do not question me, for I know death well, and I will send him to you.
The yard sale was one of those haphazard affairs, full of the kind of junk that no one in their right mind would actually take, damaged or torn or merely out of the realms of taste altogether. This is a powerful camouflage for the good stuff, and any experienced bargain hunter will tell you that the larger a morass of hand-me-downs and chipped Formica, the better a prize underneath.
I once found an a James Deakin and Sons egg timer amongst some horribly tarnished flatware; it clocked in at three minutes and forty five seconds, which says something about how long it took to boil an egg in 1903. Another such garage sale earned me a Railroad-approved BW Rageon pocket watch, which only took a bit of polish to look the same way it did in 1927. So when I unearthed the device from under a seriously disturbing collection of polyester sweaters, I knew it was something to treasure. I just didn’t know what.
“It’s a time machine.” A portly fellow in dark socks and sandals noticed me handling the thing, careful not to nudge the knobs. “It requires six ‘D’ batteries.”
“Pull the other one,” I said. It didn’t look like a time machine, but it didn’t look like anything else, either.
“No, seriously. It’s a time machine. I built it. Used it, even.”
“Oh? Whatâ€™s the future like?”
The man laughed and regarded me like a retarded child. “You can’t go into the future! It hasn’t happened yet! Just the past. But you can go in the past all you want.”
“Hold up. You can go in the past with this? Change what’s happened? Isn’t that, I dunno, dangerous? Kill a butterfly, change the world, that sort of thing?”
The man huffed. “Nonsense. The universe is not so poorly designed. If you go back in time with the intention of changing things, one of two things is going to happen. One, you’ll be totally ineffectual, and people won’t notice you or heed you, and it won’t make a damn bit of difference whether you were there or not.”
“What’s the other?”
The man’s eyes and voice suddenly went cold. “People do notice you. And you end up being the cause of the very thing you were trying to prevent. You end up destroying the one you meant to save.” He was quiet, and reached out to touch the device in my hand, but thought better of it. “I’ve failed too many times. It doesn’t make any difference. This cost me thousands of dollars and years of my life, but I’ll give it to you for five bucks if you if you just take it away and never bring it back.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
He looked up at me, his face flushed. He motioned blindly to his yard, strewn with trivial remnants from a life, someone’s life, priced at a bargain. “I’m selling everything else that reminds me of her. They never belonged to me, anyway. I shouldn’t keep what isn’t mine. The universe won’t let me. Five dollars on that there time machine, my final offer.”
I took it, as well as 1951 “Cort” model Seth Thomas with an alarm that still worked. On the drive home, I thought about the man’s words when I asked him one more time whether or not you could use his machine to change events.
“The present is unavoidable,” he said. “It’s best not to think about it.”
There was nothing special about Ming, nothing unique. She had no exceptional talents, no carefully-kept secrets, no inventive thoughts, no special intelligence. She liked to go to parties and shop for clothes and wanted to be a good mother someday. Her face was pretty, her hair and skin smooth and well-kept. She was generic, shaped just like a high school girl was supposed to be, completely normal.
The other kids sneered at her in the hallways, looking down their noses at the girl who was so average she didnâ€™t even have a zit. They whispered about her behind her back, how her parents were Old World, backwards, people who didnâ€™t believe in gene-picking and liked to let nature take its course. It was like theyâ€™d never left planetside. Ming hid her face behind her books, burying herself in her carefully-done hair and manicured nails, shrinking away from the crowds of unique faces, people who didnâ€™t look like the perfect model of a human being.
At night Ming would kneel by the side of her bed and clasp her palms together, eyes squeezed tight shut, praying that God would break her nose so that it would be bent like Terriâ€™s; or give her birthmark like Shelindaâ€™s, that looked like a crescent moon; or stunt the growth of her arm like Bellineâ€™s; or even just make her eyes glow in the dark like Marieâ€™s. She knew better than to ask for a lisp or to shrink her height overnight or for her fingers to suddenly start bending the wrong way on command. God didnâ€™t like people who were greedy.
Ming prayed with all her might, but every morning she would wake up to a perfectly symmetrical face in her mirror and cry. She would always be normal, always look just like the generic pictures in the history books, the perfect human standard of beauty. She would never be different like everyone else.
In the lunchroom Ming hid in a corner, eating silently off of her tray, afraid to get up and throw her trash away because the other girls liked to trip her and make her spill. She didnâ€™t notice Eleanor until she heard a whispered â€œheyâ€ and looked up, to find the most popular girl in school sitting across from her. Eleanorâ€™s left cheek was sunken in, the skin over it smooth and taut like a scar, never tanning or moving. Ming looked down at her plate, knowing she would never have something beautiful like that. She didnâ€™t speak.
â€œHey,â€ Eleanor repeated, â€œhey, look at me.â€ Eleanor was looking at her with fascination, almost reverence, entirely different from the rest of the girls in school. Ming frowned.
â€œI heard youâ€™re normal.â€
Ming swallowed and nodded, feeling lower than dirt. She felt her heart sink into the pit of her stomach.
Eleanor didnâ€™t sneer, though, or scoff like the rest of the girls. She just looked at Ming, wide-eyed, her half-smile unable to reach the sunken side of her face, but trying. â€œThatâ€™s so cool.â€ The smooth, beautiful skin of Eleanorâ€™s left side pulled against one eye, making it seem sad even though it was shining with wonder. â€œI wish I was normal,â€ Eleanor whispered. â€œIâ€™m so tired of being just like everyone else.â€
Talia looked out over the cacophonous melee of engineers in the warehouse. Each of them bustled about; porcupines of fused wiring and welding tools. It made her so proud. A rapid metallic pounding announced the arrival of a messenger.
“Take it easy, Dobs. What ya got for me?” Talia brushed her fingers back through curly white hair, curiously awaiting his news.
“Tex says thereâ€™s been another breach. Some knucklehead dropped an X33 flyer on the Italy. Accounts say it was witnessed by a whole village.” Dobs made no effort to conceal his stare. It wasnâ€™t necessary. Taliaâ€™s eyes became unfocused and eventually closed. Dobs had heard of this before but had never actually seen the progenitor at work.
Slowly one hand made its way to her abdomen. After a few seconds her body snapped to attention. Her eyes opened and Dobs noticed for the first time that they were the precise green of new leaves in springtime.
“I got an idea.â€ She said, incandescent with excitement. â€œHave Fells and Watson make up an architect mold, have this one be a genius, draw with one hand, write with the other at the same time sort-of-thing.â€ Dobs turned to carry out her order. â€œBut we need to have him be subtle.” She turned and watched the engineers working, piecing together life-like models of individuals from all manner of places and times.
“Call it DaVinci. He’ll be a jack-of-all-trades. But for God’s sake make sure his work is programmed to invent the X33 flier. Some crude form of it.” Dobsâ€™ face showed his amazement. Standing up he wiped off his greasy hands and regained his professional composure. “I don’t know how you do it, Tal. Government asks us to fix problems left and right and you just keep coming up with ideas. Ancient Rome, Middle Ages, hell, even 20th century. How?”
Her glance up at the dome roof, the way it curved and rounded out, gave her away. “We’re Patchers, Dobs. When they make a mistake, no matter what time or era, it’s my job to ensure we don’t mess it all up. Now, get the message to Tex.” Dobs nodded and began to trek back down to the main floor.
“Oh, and Dobs? Give it to Leon for inspection before we ship it out. Have him give it a first name.”
“You got it, Tal.” Dobs saluted and went on his way.
“Yesterday,” Jason said, “I killed Marilyn Monroe.”
“No, I mean it. I really did.”
“I believe you,” Thomas said, in a noncommittal tone. It worked like this: Jason was lying, or Jason was not lying. Lying /= not lying. He hadn’t been in the complex for long enough to understand the inadequacy of the equation.
“She’s better than in pictures,” he continued. “â€Not like you’d think, though. She has roots, dark brown ones. And she’s a little chunky. There was something about her, though. Something right.”
Something right, two things wrong. One minus two equals negative one thing right. Regardless, Thomas nodded. There was inadequate information. Jason = sane or insane. Until the first equation could be solved, its postulates were irrelevant.
Thomas had been born on a math farm. In some way, he understood this. His brain didn’t work in the same way that Jason’s brain worked. But Jason’s brain must have been altered, since he was in the complex. If he was randomly, uselessly broken, he would have been euthanized at birth.
“I didn’t want to do it,” Jason said. “but somebody had to.”
Thomas said nothing. Jason sat down on his foam mattress and began rocking.
“Do you ever wake up and know that something has to be a certain way? Like, if it’s not that way, the universe is out of order? History’s like that, for me. Someone has to make it right.”
“Chaos equals unpredictability. All things are predictable with numbers.”
Jason smiled thinly. “You’re a strange one, aren’t you?” He stood up and slipped his feet into the government issue blue slippers before heading to the door.
“Where are you going?”
“Seclusion. Oswald needs a little prodding.”
“Oswald?” Thomas asked. “Who’s Oswald?”