The second piece of fiction based on a time-jumping sci-fi thing I dreamed up a few months ago.
They first began to be worried when Tref told them, for the third time, that he’d stay behind to check on some things.
It wasn’t as though they hadn’t noticed the first time, when he’d come back from a hastily stretched and barely authorized snap-back, looking shaky and red-eyed and terribly lost. But it hadn’t yet been six months since Ashley’s death, so they cut him some slack and quietly rearranged the report amongst themselves. At the debrief conference, Tref presented their findings with not even the slightest of tremors and explained how he’d spent the extra time to smooth out the aftershocks, although he still looked tired.
The second time, Lisa had actually caught him crying in an alcove just off the inactive jump room, curled in on himself in one long exhalation of grief. They’d jumped to last fall, just before Ashley had been told about the cancer coming back; Lisa held him for a long time, wondering how much pain his wiry body was capable of holding before it snapped altogether.
And then there was the third time.
“I’m still worried about the effectiveness of this,” said Tref, during the Geneva convention. “The US isn’t likely to increase relief troops when they’re already mired in two different wars. Future stats we’re getting back from the team aren’t all that encouraging and the trend mightn’t continue. I might as well stay back an extra week and do a – ”
“No, you won’t,” John snapped, more out of concern for Tref, they knew, than at his annoyance that the snap-backs had to be recalculated. “We’re barely even meant to be here – we’re not the fixers, for God’s sake, this is a last ditch attempt. And I hate Swiss food,” he added, trying desperately to lighten the sudden depression on Tref’s face.
“I’ll stay with him,” said Lisa suddenly. “We can both talk to the ambassador, do the carrot-stick thing. Tref’s gonna have fun, pushing him around.” Tref’s smile was almost pathetically grateful. She wondered if John was wincing as much internally as she was.
So they both stayed behind for two days, fighting the feeling of wrongness, psychological and physical, as the chronological strain increased. Tref was sarcastic and nervy, Lisa tried being earnest and knew she was only hitting desperate. Finally she told Tref that she was going to take a break, and wandered out in search of a cafe.
Lisa liked walking, and she eventually found herself in the outskirts of the city, where there was a smattering of tourist shops and the more secluded hotels. She thought she caught Tref’s jet black hair out of the corner of her eyes, so she moved to wave at him and call him over – but then she stopped. He wasn’t wearing the sober brown pinstripe suit of today morning, but a pair of summer slacks and his favorite blue pullover. He was walking away from a bookshop – he was mad for second hand bookshops – and, in fact, was walking away from Ashley.
Several things fused together, slowly, in Lisa’s mind: the fact that Tref and Ashley had gone to Switzerland to celebrate the cancer remission; the fact that Tref had asked to join an active group, never mind that they jumped only four times a year, max; the fact that he was rigidly responsible but had been very much in love with his dead wife.
For a few more seconds Lisa sat, frozen, feeling time coalesce around her, wondering if she should (at the least) send a holomail to the backdated accounts. It felt like an eternity before she could make herself turn around to look for (her) Tref – and there he was, one cafe away, staring hungrily across the street.
A real jolt of fear shook her, a sudden realization that she’d almost expected this all along, and the intensity of Tref’s gaze, even from his profile, looking at Ashley’s figure bent over a pile of books. Don’t do it, she thought, trembling, don’t meet her, don’t talk to her, don’t take her away, don’t even touch her.
But he wouldn’t, of course he wouldn’t. He knew how dangerous this was. Some of the pain in his face had to be from the proximity of his two selves.
So she watched him watch her – the utter rigidity of his expression, the curious looks of the passersby, the rapidly cooling cup of coffee on his table. Ashley’s thin frame, held up only by excitement and the the old books, her face alight as she thumbed through them carefully, laying aside some to talk about with Tref, later. She could see his face contort as he recognized a few, mouthing the titles or biting his lip. He had no time for grief, she realized, watching his dry, intense face. He was memorizing her, desperately saving her hair (a wig, really, but it suited her extraordinarily well), her nose, her prominent cheekbones that had pushed themselves out through the nausea and chemo.
Later, Lisa found that it had only been fifteen minutes, and that the proprietor had politely informed her twice that if she chose to sit at his shop she had to buy something. Ashley’s Tref had returned to triumphantly announce that he’d found another bookshop further down. Tref’s face spasmed, and he rose after fumbling for a bit with the money. She found him in a small street, sitting on a bench, breathing through the aftershocks of the pain. The tears were beginning to come.
“I only wanted,” was all he managed before he broke down entirely. Lisa hugged him, and they sat for a while.
The snap-back room was, as always, in an abandoned shack, somewhere the transport vehicles probably wouldn’t be found. Tref traced a circle in the dirt as Lisa fumbled with the straps.
“It’s going to cost you that promotion,” he volunteered, when neither of them had spoken for ten minutes. Lisa was almost done with physical prep and was reaching for the console.
She paused, and sighed. “Tref – I don’t give a damn. If I can’t bring you back then I have to leave you here, but you know what’s going to happen. I’ve left you my share of the painkillers and the emergency supplies too. Tref, look, are you serious about this?”
He met her gaze squarely, so that she had to look away first. And then it was time, and she had to leave.
If he put his hand out, thought Tref, and traced through the air, surely some thin glass pane would crack and this world would end and he’d perhaps – mercifully, mercilessly – die.
His days were simple – he’d get up, try to think through the pain that emerged after a drugged, sleepless night. Rack his brains to remember what he and Ashley had done, three years before this, in this very same time and place. Try discreetly to track them, although he’d discovered there was a limit (and it was getting lower and lower every day) to how close he could be before he began tearing up with the pain. Morphine and the sunglasses helped until someone pointed him out to Ashley’s Tref and he had to leave.
A memory arose in his mind that night, one he couldn’t ever recall hoarding and replaying – of him teasing Ashley about her secret admirer, Ashley retorting that Tref could’ve been the target, Tref joking that the man looked almost familiar, Ashley giggling that he was Tref’s evil twin, Tref giving her the mysterious face, whispering (lips that far apart, he could almost feel her breath) that perhaps they were both caught up in a web of intrigue and that spies were stalking them, Ashley shutting him up with a kiss –
Pain – physical, and then that bone-deep twisting pain that meant Ashley wasn’t with him; and then sometimes, if he caught up to them, the translucence of her skin against the impossible Geneva summer, which sent a bolt of sheer joy through him and eclipsed everything else. A hazy kaleidoscope of emotion, which danced along his nerves like water beads on a taut string and kept him awake and weeping for months.
The last of the available morphine shots coincided with Ashley’s final hospitalization, which Tref took to be the universe’s middle finger at him. In a few perverse moments of comfort, he watched Ashley’s drug-addled eyes and began to sympathize with her unresponsiveness, crouched behind the grimy wall of pain between her (him) and the world.
The day before her death, Tref watched his younger self sit slumped in the chair, staring helplessly out at the hospital grounds. Echoes of his grief – past, future, present – found crevices in the pain that cramped his joints and left him curled in around himself. He felt the weight of what he’d done.
The next day he cried – through the pain of Ashley’s monotone heart monitors, through the screaming pain in his own body – in the hallway. When he went back to his motel room, fresh guilt racked him, that Ashley’s death hadn’t hurt more than the lack of morphine. That there was nothing he could have done, for either her or for his other self, that the past three years had been an exercise in futile self-torture.
He made a new mail account, taking fifteen minutes because his fingers shook too badly, and sent himself a note. Then he sat in the couch in the motel room and waited.
ChronIn has fifteen levels of clearance. The final of secrecy is, in fact, the first – L1, as it’s called. L1 clearance cards you and analyzes your blood through a DNA database, and then allows ponderous doors to open into a room filled with a legion of servers, standing like sentinels in a room awash with florescent light.
In its entirety, the room contains – in broad outlines, organized by geopolitical region, religion, race, chronology, technology, and anything else anyone could think up – a history of the world, as recorded at Zero Time.
When ChronIn was formed, the aim was to track down chronological anomalies (now, of course, they did what the Board of Global Controllers called tragedy-prevention). But an anomaly was something that wasn’t the norm – and the normal was whatever someone decided it was going to be. Time had to be frozen, locked in a time-static room, so that present history could be compared to the normal history. If the divergences in world history began to mount, an incredibly annoying alarm shut down ChronIn’s normal operations so that a special crack team of coldjumpers could go back to adjust things.
For reasons of company security (some took this to mean “covering ChronIn’s butt”) a special section of the servers also contained a personal history of each employee, clinically detailed enough to be severely embarrassing.
At nine fifteen am, as Lisa Ackerman (certified coldjumper, tragedy prevention) opened a holomail that looked far too bizarre to be spam, a server containing the personal history of one Tref Walsaq began ratcheting up history divergences.
“I don’t even know who the hell this guy is,” growled John, three hours later. His bulky frame had squashed itself into an overstuffed armchair next to Lisa.
Josef, coldjump VP, blinked a little and tried to smile reassuringly. It wasn’t particularly useful on someone who’d just been told that his team had violated one of the basic laws of time-travel.
“John, the point isn’t whether you know the guy or not – ”
“I know that, it was a rhetorical statement born of desperation, okay?”
“ – but we’ve just pulled him in for a little questioning. I mean, this is serious, you all know that – it’s a time paradox, we can’t have those. Now, let me just introduce people quickly – this is Alicia, head technician, Jonathan and Lee, both of them assistant head techs in the coldjump department. Alicia has been loaned out to us from R&D, actually. Now, if we’re all fairly settled… go ahead, please.”
Alicia granted them all a tight smile and twiddled the controls to focus the holographic projection. There was a single ominous thread running through it, and the holograph filled with lines and dates and labels as she began to speak.
“Sir, what’s happened is a classic loose-thread paradox. Look at this – Walsaq splits his timeline when he jumps the first time. This is his future-self, right?” There was a sharp blue arrow pointing to eight months in the future. “Now he’s way in the past, which is even before Now.” This time the yellow arrow pointed to two months earlier from the present. “And what he wants is to erase the incident Now which leads to his jumping in the future – that blue arrow. Current history is all right, because the critical event hasn’t happened yet.”
Alicia paused. “Basically, if your team decides to accept Tref into the jump group, there won’t be a paradox, but the future might regress infinitely. If his actions are fairly consistent, we’re going to face this situation over and over again – meaning, Tref jumps, whatever actions that drove him are still his driving forces, and he sends us this holomail asking to not be accepted. It’s like looking into two mirrors facing each other. This might not even be the first time we’ve met to discuss the situation, actually. Except, of course, we wouldn’t know.”
She flipped grimly to another slide. “If you decide to do as he asks in the holomail and reject him… We’re not entirely sure what’s going to happen to the timeline. The future might collapse and leave us untouched here, or Walsaq might suffer for it – we’re not sure how that would work, either. We know roughly about physical problems to do with timeline proximities, but I don’t know how a paradox snap like that would hurt him.”
Josef’s smile looked far more like a grimace now. “You said there might be an alternative.”
“It’s not an alternative,” said Alicia flatly. “It’s a last-ditch attempt. We – eliminate the hanging thread. Meaning this uncertain future Walsaq.”
It took a moment for the meaning of that to sink in, and then Lisa found herself jumping out of her seat. “We’re not going to kill him!”
“Then give me an actual alternative,” said Josef, with a quiet intensity that Lisa quailed under.
And in a basement seventeen floors below them, the history divergence readout on an obscure server began to slip.
They first began to be worried when Tref told them, for the second time, that he’d stay behind to check on some things. Lisa volunteered, despite her time-strain, to go back again to reassure John he wasn’t doing anything idiotic. Which was when they discovered that what Tref was doing was checking on Ashley.
John looked at the wet patch on Lisa’s shoulder from where Tref had broken down, and drew all the right conclusions.
“I’m still worried about the effectiveness of this,” said Tref, during the Geneva convention. “The US isn’t going to increase relief troops when they’re already stuck in two different wars. Future stats we’re getting back from the team aren’t that encouraging and the trend probably won’t continue. I could stay back an extra week and do a – ”
“No, Tref,” said John, so quietly that Tref stared at him for a while. “Don’t do it.”
Tref looked at Lisa, sitting with one anxious fist to her mouth and with sad knowing eyes, and suddenly something – fight, desperation, hope – went out of him.
“All right,” he said softly. “Let’s go home.”