Copyright is held by the author.
Part One: Time’s Arrow
I NOTICED the old man’s stink as soon as he entered the chamber. He reeked as if his insides had already died, the decay eating its way outward. He was barely more than a stooped-over skeleton loosely covered by pale, ashen skin. He was by far the weakest client I had seen during my 23 years of working for the foundation. How in the world is this rickety piece of human remains going to survive translation? I thought. I checked his vitals on my tablet. Surprisingly, the sensors showed that his heart rate and blood pressure fell within acceptable limits. His heart rate fluctuated between 65 and 80 beats per minute, while his blood pressure hovered around 130 over 70. Looks do deceive, I silently admitted. I quickly rechecked his profile: Mr. Samuel J. Clemons, 94 years old, widower, with an estimated net worth of more than $2 billion. Okay, now I understood. In order for the foundation to accept a man this old and frail, Clemons must have given the foundation’s board a major grant — millions beyond the cost of sending his carcass back into time.
Clemons climbed onto the platform and rested against its warm metal surface. He sighed as if the heat brought relief from the pain living brings. I offered him a glass of water, but he waved me off. His eyes stared upward, directly into the harsh lighting illuminating the chamber. Unlike most clients, his nakedness didn’t bother him. He was too lost in thought, probably preoccupied and immersed in a moment in his past — a moment he could neither cherish nor suppress. I leaned over him and gently touched his wrist. His skin was cold and moist. Thick, dark veins articulated themselves across the length of his limbs. Black and blue blotches the size of half dollars riddled his chest and stomach. Despite his steady vitals, I doubted that he would survive translation. I’ve seen healthier and younger men die on my table. I forced a smile. “So, Mr. Clemons, we’re taking a little holiday from the present. I envy you, sir. This is a privilege few enjoy.”
The old man turned his head toward me. As if I were a bother, he cast me a look of disdain. He then closed his eyes. “This is not a pleasure cruise,” he said. “I’ve come to erase a memory.”
Another one, I thought. Great. I let go of his wrist and began applying the straps: first the ankles, then the lower legs, next the thighs, then across his waist, below his chest, his arms, his wrist, and finally his forehead. In a few minutes we were going to insert 12 large, uncompromising needles into him, a formidable test of pain endurance for a man 60 years his junior. I kept the straps loose, allowing him movement so he wouldn’t panic. During translation, the straps would bind him, coil around his limbs for his own protection. Despite being given a thorough outline of translation procedures, each client acts as if this part of the process is a surprise. They look at me as if I were their personal torturer. “Erase a memory, sir? Did I hear you correctly?”
“Yes,” he said, “are you deaf?”
“I’m sorry, sir. There appears to be a misunderstanding regarding the limitations concerning your visit to your past,” I said, almost absently. I must have addressed these facts hundreds of times in my career. I am amazed at the number of clients who seem to have forgotten or ignored the information the foundation gives them during the enrolment and preparation process. “Sir, let me refresh your memory about the limits of time travel. They are simple. First, you cannot erase a memory, nor can you change your past…”
“Yes, yes,” the old man said, “my lawyers and I have read all the required documents. Do you think a man like me would endeavour in any operation such as this without being fully prepared? I didn’t get here by leading a life of incompetence.”
By “here” I assumed he meant his esteemed and pampered place in our society. Clemons’ worth placed him near the top of the richest men or women in the Northern Territories — the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, Montana, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and “here” as in the secured, basement translation labs of the foundation. The labs are dug more than 50 feet deep beneath the main structure. Before the foundation purchased the facility, the 200-year-old brick building housed a variety of institutions: at one time a community college, a prison, a shopping centre and a drug research centre. Before the collapse, when America’s debt finally crushed the economy and America “reorganized” into economic factions, the building held premium shopping stores, such as Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, and Apple. During the recovery it also housed a major meth lab. “I’m sorry, Mr. Clemons. I didn’t mean to imply anything negative.”
“I’m sure,” he said, looking at me as if “the help” had once again not met his standards.
I check his vitals again. His heart rate had risen to 115, most likely due to anticipatory anxiety and from being strapped down like Jesus before the crucifixion. “So, this memory, sir, you’ve lived with for how long? Thirty years? Fifteen years? And now, we’ve have just reached the tipping point where you can no longer bear the burden? Mr. Clemons, you’re 94 years old. Why now? Why the sudden urgency? Why not 10 years ago? Twenty years ago?”
The old man’s eyes briefly lifted toward me. A tiny smile emerged from his thin, bloodless lips. “It appears that despite my best efforts I’m not going to live forever.”
His blood pressure spiked to 180 over 90. Mercy, I thought, we’re going to lose him before we even begin. Still, his ignorance of the facts or refusal to believe them came to me as pure arrogance. “Look, Mr. Clemons, I know the foundation briefed you and your lawyers on the limitations of time travel, and I know you are man of abilities, but you can’t ignore the basic truths. Let me refresh you…”
“Don’t bother,” the old man cut in as he strained his ragged frame against the straps.
“Neither you nor the foundation are certain of these ‘truths’ of yours.”
He wasn’t mistaken. The truths or accepted postulates have long been cause for skepticism by many, including those within the foundation’s research team, but these skeptics have not brought forth any evidence to contradict time travel’s given knowns. “Perhaps, sir, but what we do know is this: You can’t go back and break bread with Jesus or share a bed with your favourite movie actress. You can only go back along your timeline, your lifetime, and you can’t, I repeat, you can’t change or alter your past. You can go back and murder your parents and your grandparents, both sets, and you will still be here when you return. Anything you do during the approximately one hour you have will not, as we like to say, ‘stick.’ Once you return from your foray into your past, nothing you have done will be permanent. You will retain the memory, but anyone else you have contacted during your stay will not remember nor be changed by your actions. You want to erase a memory, go get a lobotomy. Seek drug therapy. Stay permanently drunk. Better yet, just forget about it the best you can. It’s less dangerous and less expensive.”
“It’s not my memory,” the old man said. “It’s my wife’s.”
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s your wife’s, your son’s or your dog’s: Nothing will change. We’ve been doing this for 55 years. We know. We’ve tried.”
“Nothing is for certain,” Clemons said and twisted toward me, again straining the limits of the straps. His grey eyes narrowed. “The universe is built on uncertainty: It’s built into the fabric of existence, which includes time travel, and your goddamned foundation knows this.”
I exhaled a sigh of frustration. “Yet, our timeline remains unchanged, and for most people this is comforting. Who wants to live in a world or reality subject to the whim of researchers, or politicians, or anyone? Think of the insanity of living in a world when anyone with the right amount of cash can go back and tinker with reality. We are stuck with this world. Accept it.”
“I can’t,” Clemons said. “I won’t. I owe it to her.”
“Very well,” I said.
Dr. Jennifer Fields’ voice came forth in my ear plant. “His vitals are all over the place, Henry, a bloody roller-coaster. Keep him calm or we may lose him. Talk to him, but don’t argue with the man. Calm him down. We can’t send him out in his current condition. Quit antagonizing him. He’s a powerful client, which means he is filthy rich and he can get people fired.”
Not if he dies, I thought, but Jennifer was right. I took a seat next to Clemons. “We are in a bit of a delay, Mr. Clemons. Tell me about this memory you want to erase. What happened with your wife?”
“Can you loosen my straps?” he asked.
I shook my head no. “We have to keep the body stable during translation. Just take a deep breath and do your best to relax. We have a few minutes. This delay is not unusual.” I glanced up at the loft where Dr. Fields sat along with three more technicians, two from India and one from the Samoan Islands, each with advance degrees — doctorates in physics or high-end mathematics. There were very few history majors working as technicians at the foundation. Besides myself, there was one other, an undergraduate researcher — an intern. The historians at the foundation rarely interact with the clients. Unless a client has access to a key historical figure during his or her lifetime, the historians don’t care whether rich Aunt Martha went back in time to see her beloved cat or screw the paperboy. The foundation only cares whether history can be altered, and that debate rages on and on.
Clemons breathed deeply. He paused and licked his lips. “Twenty-two years ago my wife died from cancer. I refused to believe she could die so cruelly in this age of ‘smart science.’ We have the technology to send goddamn robots the size of atoms into our blood and body to kill diseases, to fix bones, organs, and tissues. If you have the money, lasers will reconstruct your face or cut away the fat. We have drugs so you can fuck until you’re a hundred, but we still die of cancer — the devil’s disease. Cheryl was beautiful — a natural beauty without a speck of work done on her lovely face and figure. Five-foot-seven and 128 pounds of lovely curves, white skin, and at the end she looked, hell, worse than me. She must have weighed 80 pounds, maybe less.”
Clemons paused to gather another breath. His chest heaved as if his sorrow could no longer be harboured. “She had come home to die after the last round of treatments failed. No more experiments, no more procedures, only prayer and hope remained, and these we know are worthless.”
“Good, very good. Keep him talking,” Dr. Fields said. “His vitals are stabilizing.”
“She was on her deathbed,” Clemons said. “I held her hand as she laid there, her eyes staring up at me. I didn’t know whether she could understand anything I had said that morning. She went in and out of consciousness. One moment she appeared lucid, understanding my ramblings about business or current events. The next she seemed far away, probably lost in the past.” Clemons smiled.
“Then, as her breathing became even more laboured, she asked whether I had cheated on her during our marriage. This question shocked me. Here she was on her deathbed, in our home, in the house we had shared for the past 20-odd years, near her end and she asked me whether I had screwed around on her.” His voice trailed to a whisper. “What could I say? It was clear she had waited until the end, too afraid to pose the question during our marriage, to ask me this triviality. In her last hour or last minutes, she needed to know. She needed the truth. Was I wrong?”
Jesus, I thought. The fool went and told her the truth. No. She didn’t want honesty. She wanted reassurance. She feared her whole life was a lie. She wanted to die with her heart whole. If Clemons loved her, or knew her, he would have known this or if he wasn’t a narcissistic, self-involved douche bag, he would have known what to say.
“I admitted to my discretion,” Clemons said, “and I could see the hurt crush her, press the last breath of life out of her. Moments later she passed away. I didn’t want her dying knowing the truth.”
“Yes, this is a sad story, Mr. Clemons, but if you walked out this chamber and looked down the hall, you’d see 16 more chambers of sad stories. I don’t understand why you must go back and fix your past. This is an opportunity to relive a wonderful moment in your marriage. Go back and enjoy your finest hour. Just sit and talk with her. Tell her you love her. Going back in time should be an experience to cherish, not to relive a broken heart.”
“I can’t live with memory of her dying knowing of my affairs,” Clemons said. “I must eradicate this mistake I made. I can’t undo the affairs, nor do I want to. This moment, I can, however, fix.”
“Henry,” Dr. Fields said harshly, “don’t argue.”
“I will,” Clemons said.
“Very well, it’s your money, sir,” I said. “It’s your fortune, and you can spend it as you will. I suggest, however, that you don’t waste your time on negativity. You can’t bury or change the past. It stays with us, and clings to us like a barnacle. We have made our world; we must live with it. That’s the truth.”
“That’s your truth,” Clemons said.
“I’m coming down,” Dr. Fields said. “Before you make things worse, let’s send him off.”
The Control Loft’s door slid open and Dr. Fields’ slender form descended the stairs. She kept her face impassive. She rarely spoke to the clients. She liked to remain aloof and disconnected in case the worst happened.
We inserted the needles. Clemons didn’t flinch once during the process. When finished, he looked like an exotic, aged sea creature, all tentacles and basted with sweat and ready to be served up to the universe on a platter. Sending humans back along Time’s Arrow is a disconcerting experience. They break down cell by cell until nothing is left but a stain on the table. On occasion (3.4 percent of the time), they don’t break down, but break apart — their own personal Big Bang. Only this isn’t their beginning but their end. Then I get to clean up the mess and inform the relatives of the loved one’s spectacular demise. Each translation event sends a shiver through me. My stomach drops as if I am in free fall. Fortunately, for the sake of my employment, I have managed to hide my anxiety. The foundation doesn’t need twitchy technicians. The clients have enough of their own anxiety.
After Dr. Fields returned to the loft, I leaned close to Clemons. The pain from the drugs twisted his face into a fist. “I wish you the best, sir. It is not too late to reconsider your journey. Perhaps, you could visit a less painful moment in your life?”
The old man sighed, exhaling as if everything about the present were a toxin. “Please shut up. Just shut up. I’m tired of talking to the help. Press the buttons, monkey. Send me the hell out of here.”
“It’s your dime,” I said, recalling dialogue from an old vintage movie from the 1930s.
“Initiating sequence,” Dr. Fields said. “Step back.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I replied. I felt my own heart rate soaring. Within seconds a clear curtain of smart glass assembled from the floor to the ceiling, entombing the old bastard in a clear coffin. The air pressure inside began to build, not unlike a submersible descending deep into the sea. As his straps tightened, Clemons’ eyes danced in fear. Each cell had begun breaking down, clear past the molecular level and into the subatomic realm. The pain is terrible. I moved off to the side of the glass tomb where Clemons could see me. I waved and said, “Bye, bye, Mr. Clemons. Enjoy the ride.”
I turned my back and headed up the stairs to join the doctor. I knew she’d be pissed. I knew I had stepped out of bounds. I didn’t care. I had grown tired of the wealthy and the elite’s arrogance. Through the glass, I heard Clemons scream. For the next five minutes, Clemons would hate for being born. He would cry. He would pray. He would soil the table. Time travel is not for the weak. The universe exacts a stiff price for violating its natural laws.
This I knew with certainty to be true.
This story is running as a week-long five-part series. Part Two will be posted tomorrow.