Time, 101

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

“Paxton – Porterhaus – Pratt.” The name was enunciated with venomous care, as though each word were an expletive of a most unpleasant nature.  The professor spoke across a desk cluttered with piles of documents, large texts and time keeping and measuring devices, to the youth lounging lazily in the chair opposite him. “I fear you have run afoul one too many times of this institution, Pratt, and this time you’ve gone too far. Beyond disrupting my classroom, you have stained my reputation, and this” he paused to push his glasses up the crooked bridge of his nose “this I will not tolerate.”

The youth shifted only slightly in his chair, gazing smugly through a sea of clocks and whirling planetary models at his agitated teacher. He made a show of straightening his tie, a striped affair with the backside facing, the fat end terminating at his breast pocket, while the tail hung between his legs.

“It was bad enough your turning in a summary of text so obviously penned by another, and someone that had either himself never laid eyes upon the assigned text, or harbors you no amount of goodwill.” The professor paused a moment, moving carefully aside the student record labeled ‘Pratt, Paxton P., III’, the cover of which sporting an equally disheveled version of the student now before him, similarly smug, and gazing idly from side to side inside the holo’d cover. He lifted a textbook from beneath it, and turning it towards his student poked angrily at it. “That was bad enough, but you, you had the unmitigated audacity to accuse me of ‘gross and libelous conduct’ and ‘harboring a clear prejudice against you’ for my failing grade.” At this, he leaned forward, rising slightly out of his chair. “I had to actually defend myself to the Dean Construct against your charge that I ‘clearly did not understand the author’s theories or proofs sufficiently to grade your exceptional paper’. Mr. Pratt, read for me the author of the text I’m holding.” He held the book as far as his reach would allow, and glared past it as the reluctant Paxton Pratt eyed the title without speaking. “You’ll notice, Mr. Pratt, that is my name on the cover.”  At this, Paxton shifted uncomfortably in his chair, his smug look softening ever so slightly.

The professor dropped the textbook loudly in the middle of his desk, and slumped back into his chair, a tense silence taking hold as various units of measurement ticked on the various time keeping devices around the room. Somewhere, something clicked audibly, the noise setting the professor back in motion.

“Mr. Pratt. I would have expelled you at once, however your father assured me that were I to make you his burden again, his generous funding for the ‘Pratt Faculty of Time Studies’ would immediately, and with great prejudice run dry.” The professor picked up Paxton’s file from his desk and tossed at the student, who caught it in surprise. “Keep that, will you. I shan’t be needing it in a moment. You see, if you had listened in any of my classes, you’d know that manipulating the past is strictly prohibited. However, if you had bothered to read the textbook you were assigned, you may have taken an interest in the appendices, specifically the one titled ‘Exceptions to the Timeline Rule’. You see, Mr. Pratt, arranging for a house to drop on your head as a child, while enormously gratifying, would constitute a gross variation in the Timeline, and as such is prohibited. It would seem, however, that your parents, as your father was so kind to enlighten me, never wanted another child. You were apparently an accident brought about by a failed vasectomy, and as you were already so very close to not existing, a subtle manipulation to the Timeline where you are concerned is perfectly acceptable.”

At this, the professor paused a moment to straighten several piles of documents on his desk before speaking pointedly at the shrinking and confused looking youth now almost cowering in his chair.

“Mr Pratt – I’ve taken the liberty of scheduling a tubal ligation after the birth of your older brother Weston.  In a moment, the Continuum will refresh, and the displeasure of your existence…” he paused for a brief moment “…will have been all mine.” These last five words he spoke to an empty chair.

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Undoing Schrödinger

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

The sign over the cathouse door reads simply “Preacher’s”. There will be liquor up front, and women for sale out back. Pulling a stool up to the empty bar, I know I’m here for neither.

“What’ll it be?” She studies the lines on my face, waiting for a reply.

“Whisky, rocks” I pull out a crumpled pack of Marlboro’s, shake two free and offer one. “Smoke?”

“No thanks”, she answers, placing my drink on the bar. “Five bucks, run a tab?”

“Sure.” I speak around the cigarette clenched between my teeth.

“You look familiar.” There’s a glimmer of recognition, and she reconsiders the cigarette, helping herself. “Do I know you?” Retreating to the back bar, she searches my face quizzically while lighting the cigarette.

“Not exactly, but there’s an interesting story there.”

“Shoot.” Her reply is indifferent as she hoists herself up on the back bar, boots beneath wide denim cuffs bracing her against the cooler between us.

“You ever hear of a guy named Schrödinger?” She raises an eyebrow and shakes her head. “No? Well – pretty famous physicist in his day, he took issue with some quantum mechanics theories.” I pause for a quick slug of whisky. “He came up with this experiment where he’d stick a cat in a box, with some random killing mechanism, one where he could be sure of the cat’s inevitable demise. At any given moment there’s an even chance that the cat’s either alive or dead, but he suggests, based on the theory of the day, that at any given moment the cat is simultaneously alive and dead.” I pause here for moment, to see if she’s still with me, and continue.

“So, having had way too much time to think about this, I start to wonder, not about the cat being dead or alive so much as the future of each particular cat. See, if the cat is both dead and alive, then each cat has its own future, one where it lives, and one ‘sans le chat’. Schrödinger’s poor cat, being both alive and dead, finds itself existing in two possible futures.”

“It made me think about my own life.” I stop to drain my glass, spinning the ice around a few times before sliding it across the bar. “In eighty-seven, my Peugeot and I fought with a cement truck. I came out ok, but what if I didn’t? What if I lived and died? Then again in ninety, I took a bullet from some prick robbing a Sunoco. Same thing – what if I lived and died then? The more I thought about these possible forks in my past, more stood out. In ninety-five, there was one of me whose girlfriend slept with my best friend, and one of me whose girlfriend didn’t. I beat my best friend to death with a three wood, but again, one of me didn’t. There was one of me that married my faithful girlfriend, and one of me that skipped town. In ninety seven, after the married me saw his wife drive her car into a bridge abutment, one of me quit drinking, found God and moved down here to Nevada. That’s pretty obviously not the me you’re talking to now though.” I grin, which if it fazes her, doesn’t register on her freckled face. “While one of me was being born again, one of me was arrested for manslaughter. It was during my incarceration that I really tuned in to all the fragments of me, spread across all the parts of my fractured timeline.”

I stop here, motion to the empty glass, and light another cigarette. I’m looking to her now for some reaction, but she’s a blank slate. Maybe she’s heard shit like this every night her entire life and just puts up politely hoping for a good tip, or maybe this doesn’t sound that far out after all. I can’t tell, she just fills the glass and helps herself to another of my cigarettes.

“Anyways – it all pretty much came into focus then. I’d felt for a long time like I’d been spread too thin, like I wasn’t ever really all in one place. It took a while, but knowing where and when else I was, I started cleaning up, consolidating myself. There’s only two of me left now, which is what brings me here.”

“Up those stairs is the man that I remind you of, the Preacher that owns this place.” This wasn’t a question. “He’s the me that quit everything, the me that found God and never beat his best friend to death.” I smile now as I push the stool back, stand, and lean forward placing both palms on the bar. “How about you go up there and ask him to come down here. Probably best if you don’t stick around after that. When we’re done, there’ll just be one of me that lives, and one of me that doesn’t. Funny we wound up here though… I guess the universe really does have a sense of humor. Go on now, I’m likely to be expecting me.”

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The Damage Done

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Cyrus curled in the corner, hugging his aching legs to his chest as though they might crawl off without him were he to let them go. White hot grains of sand glassified in his retinas, and beads of sweat scraped down his flesh, each one making it’s presence felt with excruciating persistence. It may only have been a few hours, but it felt like days since he’d last had a shot. Time had ceased to be a relevant commodity, as he couldn’t trade it for a fix. He felt his stomach heave, but the sensation never left the empty pit of his gut.

“Commander, you seem to be poorly” the words ground their way through the haze as a face loomed in his field of vision, the image slightly out of sync with the noise coming from it as words. Double lids twitched over glistening emerald eyes, startling in their clarity, in sharp contrast to the shifting chitin and dancing shadows beyond.

“Please…” the sound of his own voice made him wince “please, I know you have some, help me.”

“Commander Cyrus,” the eyes slipped backwards into the darkness, the voice booming all around him now “surely you appreciate that these recreational pharmaceuticals you’re asking for, these require currency that you simply do not have”

“I’ve got other things, we can trade, I know things.” Pain shot like lancets up his spine to burst as cannon fire deep within his skull. Never had he suffered withdrawal this exquisitely painful before.

“Trade? Knowledge? Interesting.” There was an elongated pause, as the voice considered his offer “Perhaps you can help me with…” the was a pause again as the next words were carefully chosen “a freight difficulty.’ The face loomed once more in his peripheral vision, but he couldn’t bring himself to turn and look at it. “If one were to want to move cargo through the Earth shield, without interference, would you know how that could be accomplished? Could you help me with that?”. The articulation of each word made Cyrus flinch.

“If I help you, you’ll hook me up? No tricks?” There was a level of desperate excitement in his voice, one that brought what may have passed for a smile to the face of the towering creature.

“Yes, if you help me with my… transportation issue… I promise you will not suffer like this again”

“There was a mining portal on the dark side of the moon, beneath the old InterStar hangers” the words came surprisingly freely through the drumming pain in his skull “it’s been closed for decades, but the power station still works, and the portal’s still stable.” He burrowed his chin into his knees, his brain screaming with anticipation of relief.

“Thank you, Commander, you’ve been most helpful.” The great green face slipped out of the periphery to stare at Cyrus, face to face. “You and your people have taught us so much.”

“Taught? We haven’t taught you anything…” he waited anxiously, one arm relaxing it’s grip on his shins to expose his hypocite to the promise of an injector.

“Oh, we have learned much from your race my dear Commander Cyrus. You have no idea. We watched your people everywhere trading currency and flesh for chemical joy. We never could have conceived of a negotiating tool as powerful as addiction, or a lever as effective as your narcotics. Who would have thought the secrets of your civilization’s safe keeping, entrusted to military men like yourself, could be so freely liberated in exchange for something as trivial as a moment of manufactured ecstasy. But most of all, we’d forgotten how much more expedient violent conquest was when compared to traditional diplomatic relations. Oh yes, you humans have taken us back to our roots, and you’ve catapulted us far into our own futures.’ A vice like grip suddenly had Cyrus’ forearm, pulling it straight and holding it motionless. ‘Now, Commander, I do believe we had a deal, and I think you’ll find this generous enough to alleviate your conscience.’

The warm flood rippled up the Commanders arm, rolling in waves to his toes and up and over his head. For a moment, the room became strikingly clear, he saw the giant chitin plated alien that had first offered him a fix in a bar off base, coached him through his first purchase, and had always been around to hook him up when he needed a fresh hit. What was that on his chest, a military insignia? Was he a soldier? Pounding waves flooded through his head, and he was only momentarily aware of the feed, still jutting skyward from his forearm, as it relieved him of all responsibility.

60 Seconds

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Levon regarded the timepiece in his hand carefully, balanced on an open palm as if weighing it, he frowned, then spoke. “Sixty seconds,” his words brought nods and murmurs of agreement from the small crowd gathered around him, the sounds rolling away to be swallowed by the blackness of the parking garage where they’d chosen to gather on this night.

He carefully wound the outer ring of the watch face one complete turn, feeling rather than hearing it click through the seconds. He paused a moment, letting the tension in the crowd steep, feeling the weight of their gaze upon him. With a practiced motion he depressed the crown and rolled it forward slowly, deliberately, until it could be wound no more. He could feel the energy of the tightly compressed spring, quivering with anticipation within the case in his hand.  “Ready?” it was unclear if the question was directed at the crowd, or himself, but there were a few more hurried exchanges, then a nod from Charlie and two thumbs up.

It was time.

Levon made sure the watch’s tether was wrapped tightly around his wrist, then plunged both hands into the kangaroo pocket of his hoodie. His eyes clenched tightly shut, he tugged the crown back into position, setting the works of the timepiece into motion.  He could feel the energy flow through him as the tight coil began to unwind. He reeled for only a moment with the dizzying nausea that always accompanied the ticking of this particular clock. He knew better than to open his eyes, he’d made that mistake only once, and had waking nightmares for months after. The human mind was not meant to see some things.

The momentary yaw and pitch ceased, and new sounds and sensations leaked into his consciousness, begging him to open his eyes. Disoriented, he felt his feet sink slightly into wet sand, and then the air was suddenly alive with staccato snapping as it blistered and split all around him.  He froze as men in uniforms sprinted past him up a beach, only to stagger back and fall in a relentless hailstorm of bullets.  A sudden impact from behind knocked him to the ground, and winded he could barely hear the voice screaming as a figure clambered over him “Get your bloody head down, or you’ll get it shot…” the remainder of the warning was torn violently away in a barrage of gunfire.

Levon curled up on the ground, trying to disappear into the blood slick sand. ’55, 54, 53…’ A boy, no older than he fell backwards to land upside down and face to face with him, his eyes filled with the terror that comes with one’s last seconds ’50, 49, 48…’ The stench of immediate death burned his nose, the screams of the dying assailed his ears mercilessly. All around the frantic yelling of men trying hopelessly to stay alive. Levon squeezed his eyes shut tight, but could do nothing to block out the image of this dying boys eyes, bright, blue, vacant. His ears offered no protection against the deafening audible horror all around. ’40, 39, 38…’ He was sure that he was going to die here, on a beach he had no reason to see, in a time in which he didn’t belong, and for what? A couple of hundred dollars and a brief rush of adrenaline? ’25, 24, 23…’ This was pure insanity, every other time had been fields of flowers, landscapes painted in snow. He’d never seen a soul before. ’18, 17, 16…’ Levon opened his eyes, the boy still staring, lifeless, the color in his eyes having run out. The dirt coated face and the bloodied lips etched themselves into Levon’s mind, forming a caricature of a life blown apart, and those eyes… ’13, 12, 11…’ Reflexively he squeezed his own eyes shut again, ‘5, 4, 3…’ this boy just one of many that had died so Levon could have the freedoms he’d enjoyed his whole life. And this was the best he could do, using stolen tools and mocking these sacrifices for beer money?

He did his best to compose himself as he snapped back into the crowded parking space. Half hearted praise, the sounds of money begrudgingly changing hands, these things leaked in muted tones into his consciousness. These noises were meant for another Levon, the Levon he’d left on a beach in some other time. He knew there were things the human mind was not meant to see, for once seen one could never look at the world in the same way again.

“Double or nothing,”  Charlie’s voice slipped in through the haze, “double or nothing?”.

“No,” his voice came from somewhere else too, “no, I’m done, I’m all out of time.”

Made in Korea

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

“Man – this is awesome!” John was in a state of constant verbal barrage, his voice unnaturally loud above the diner chatter as he overcompensated for the music playing in his head. “I’m telling you, these Koreans know how to make implants.”

Scott sat across the table, sucking absently at a milkshake and visibly not sharing his friend’s enthusiasm. Lenny was still in line at the counter, which left Scott as the unwilling sole recipient of John’s manic discourse.

“I’m listening to the new Chilies – it’s not even out here, and I’ve just downloaded it right into my head” John was still in the honeymoon phase with his new cerebral implant, a Korean unit he’d bought from a friend of a friend and had implanted that morning. He hadn’t shut up about it since. “Hang on – I’m going to message Josie and see if she wants to meet us. She was on the mmorpg a few minutes ago – I’m sure she’s still online. This is so cool – I’m mmorpging, messaging and jackin’ tunes all at the same time. Your AmCo. ‘plant’s got nothing on this.”

Scott hit the bottom of his shake with a sudden noisy suck of air, which he continued for a moment for it’s sheer irritation factor. When it was obvious it wasn’t having the desired effect, he gave up and pushed it aside. Leaning across the table, he tried to penetrate his friend’s state of distracted euphoria.

“Listen buddy – would you stop yelling – I can hear you – I’m right here. The whole freakin’ diner can hear you, and honestly, you’re not that interesting.”

John continued to wave absently at windows in his field of vision that only he could see, while Scott resisted the urge to slap him, instead slumping back into his seat. “Don’t you think it might have been a good idea to get that thing tested before you had it installed? I mean you can barely hear me – isn’t it a little loud in there?”

John’s waving became more frantic, and his eyes were starting to become unfocused. “Damn – goad_theRedRocket keeps trying to chat with me. I can’t make him stop.”

“Just jam him on your filter list.” Scott was the king of stating the obvious.

“I can’t – the screens are all in Korean. Oh, crap – I opened one – crap, crap, crap – I can’t see – he’s popup bombing me… I’m getting flooded with pink pocket monsters. Not cool at all.” Johns arms flailed wildly about the space in front of his face, his elbows coming dangerously close to upsetting his Coke and fries, which Scott quickly moved to safety. “Now the audio’s screwed – it’s all static – these stupid popups must’ve overrun the buffer… I can’t see a thing, there’s too many windows open – and I can’t get the stupid avatar to switch to English. How the hell am I supposed to…” John’s eyes abruptly glazed over, his face going slack and his arms falling limp first onto the table, and then coming to rest on the bench at his sides.

Lenny picked this as the perfect moment to arrive, slamming his shake on the table and dropping heavily onto the bench beside Scott.

“What’s up with him?” Lenny jerked a thumb towards their limp friend.

“Korean implant. Probably still in beta, he got spammed and it wigged out. He’s in total head crash.” Scott retrieved the now abandoned Coke and began drinking it. “It should reboot in a bit, hopefully. He won’t be too happy if we’ve got to EMP the thing to unfreeze his head.”

“Bummer… that’s why I always buy domestic. Hey, are you going to eat his fries?”