Transmitted by Jocelyn Cole
Note: The following account was pieced together as a narrative, based on multiple notes signed TG that were found in the time portal. Although experts have matched the signature, paper chemistry, and writing style to a high degree of confidence, it is unclear whether all the notes are from the same timeline. Keeping in mind that this is merely a plausible re-creation of events, readers should proceed with skepticism.
* * *
The richest man in the world was not giving interviews.
Therese Green, financial reporter at the Sun, wished that were not the case, because she had a slew of questions to ask him.
How was he, Edward Buckminster Jr, doing in the wake of his father’s death?
Was he planning on making any major changes to his company, World Custodian?
Why had he appeared wandering in the street outside his penthouse, gibbering about the number 26?
Was he, as some suggested, completely crazy?
And if he was crazy, did his craziness result from time travel?
The last question was the most important. Nothing had more potential to destroy the world markets than the suggestion that time travel wasn’t as safe as World Custodian (stock symbol WC) claimed.
The discovery of time travel—time shipment, really—had changed the world. The first probing attempts were completed by academics. They had begun cautiously, with politely worded missives to the future: Please return package to sender if possible, etc., etc. They’d insert an atomically precise date for the return. The researchers used a hoard of languages: Chinese, English, Arabic, Hindi, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, Japanese. They included various computer language instructions with the atomic data and the return command, just to be sure.
The process never worked. The package just sat there.
But not because the idea was bunk.
One scientist by the name of Bergersen made an intuitive leap and changed a single parameter.
When he did that, the package vanished into the future. And that changed everything.
Time travel was real. Those first heady days were magical ones, pure science and pure excitement.
The catch, Bergersen explained, was that you couldn’t simply pick any point in the future. There was a window of acceptable time. As long as you calibrated it correctly, time shipment worked like a charm. A very expensive charm.
One lingering issue with Bergersen’s workaround was that no matter what, nothing ever came back.
Disappointing? Yes. It limited the experimental possibilities. But the process worked, and that was the important part. Items sent into the future did not reappear, and that was something. However, the cost to run a whole system was shockingly prohibitive. So it was with some relief that the academics sold the proof of concept and the patents pending and trade secrets and such to the massive garbage company World Custodian, who could afford to buy it all, and who were not particularly concerned with the silence from the future.
The federal government made no significant moves to claim the technology for the public interest, an outcome that in no way was related to the massive campaign donations WC offered to support the noble souls pursuing public office.
There were howls from the left, naturally, when it became clear that the time travel process would be privately controlled. Time travel belonged to the scientific community, it was unpatentable, the corporation was prohibiting exploration, yadda, yadda, yadda. But World Custodian said “trade secret”, and the Supreme Court found for World Custodian. There were some benefits to having headquarters in the corporate-friendly United States. So that was that.
And everyday people were fine with the result. Who could complain? Therese didn’t complain. The world was beautiful now. Gone the landfills, the toxic waste, the dumps, the ugliness. World Custodian took it all away and sent it to another time, where it was not (would not be?) a problem. To the far, far distant future, when civilization had learned (will have already learned?) to dispose of such trash safely and humanely. What was (or may be?) a little more from a former time? Really, Therese thought, getting the tenses right was the most contentious part of the process.
It was all there in the company slogan: A Cleaner World, Today(tm). The world was scrubbed clean, bright and new and ready for a better future. We did not have to worry.
But how had World Custodian surmounted the energy obstacle? It was a matter of public knowledge that it was quite energy intensive to send objects to the future, and the further into the future that you sent it, the more energy was required. Mr. Edward Buckminster Sr, the acclaimed CEO, shook his head and said merely “trade secret”. A few of the original scientists who hadn’t accepted positions with World Custodian tried to make a fuss. One mathematician had calculated that it would require more oil than the Earth had in total mass to send the annual haul of garbage as far into the future as World Custodian claimed it did.
“Oil is last millennium’s fuel,” Buckminster said when asked about it a few years back. Nuclear power––now truly safe and clean, thanks to World Custodian––was vastly more efficient and plentiful than fossil fuels. No, he could not add more. Trade secret applied. But he had smiled and said, “Let’s not worry about the flawed calculations of a rogue scientist, who—and I hate to mention this sad but relevant fact—has a history of psychiatric problems. World Custodian is a conservative company, not one to take risks. We care about the Earth…the whole Earth.”
He reminded the public that it was World Custodian who cleaned up after the devastating monsoons that destroyed Southeast Asia the previous year. It was World Custodian who disposed of the highly dangerous radioactive fallout in Afghanistan so recently, allowing the people to focus on rebuilding their beautiful, daunting countryside without fear of contamination after the last war. World Custodian’s contribution was like a fresh start. And it was all due to the visionary Edward Buckminster Sr.
* * *
But Buckminster Sr was dead. And his party-boy son Edward Buckminster Jr (JR to the world), now the richest man on the planet, didn’t inspire the same sort of confidence that his father had, especially when he appeared drunk and raving in public. The last time he’d been seen at all was two weeks ago, which had been three weeks after his father’s funeral. Therese knew there was a story there, which was why she was now in a posh office in WC’s HQ. The richest man in the world was not giving interviews. But someone slightly less rich was.
“What the hell are you doing, young lady?” A laugh followed the question. Her interviewee was Mr Marshall Giraud, the chairman of WC’s board.
Therese turned toward the man, flipping her little notebook closed. “I’m going over my preliminary notes.”
“With a literal notebook? Isn’t the whole conversation recorded?”
Therese shrugged. “I know it’s not necessary. But my grandfather said he never felt dressed for work without one in his pocket. I guess the idea stuck.”
“Wait. Green. You’re related to Deandre Green? I didn’t know that.”
She smiled. “Green is a common name. Why should you think there was a connection?”
Giraud put up a hand in mock alarm. “Now that I do know, should I be worried? The scion of one of the most celebrated muckraking journalists in history! Is this going to turn into a hit piece?”
“Certainly not,” Therese assured him. “I am delighted to be here at all.” Her last comment was, sadly, all too true. She needed Giraud far more than he needed her.
The interview proceeded. Therese ran through the questions. She laughed politely at his funny answers, and nodded politely at his thoughtful follow-ups. Giraud was an old pro, and this interview would contain no revelations. Unless…
“A few more questions,” she said. “The board of World Custodian has already made it clear that in the wake of Buckminster’s passing, no great changes are planned. His son’s assumption of the presidency keeps the company in family control. But are you concerned that confidence among the public and investors will be shaken if there are any more reports of JR’s erratic behavior?”
She was frozen out immediately.
Giraud said, “Let us not judge too harshly. He is not just the company president, he is a son who has lost his father and greatest hero. World Custodian is in a time of transition. But the public can rest assured if there’s one thing we know how to handle, it’s time.”
It was a great sign-off line, and they both knew it. Therese hit the record button again, signaling the end of the official interview.
“Thank you,” she said. “I don’t suppose there’s a chance of interviewing JR himself?”
“He has a personal assistant. Contact her.”
“I did. She directed me to you.”
He paused, visibly considering. “When the time comes for that very key interview, we’ll keep you in mind.”
As a promise, it was worthless, but Therese felt flattered anyway.
The flattered feeling lasted until she reached the parking lot.
“Worse than useless!” Therese yelled, once she was safe in her car. Giraud might as well have said straight out: make nice or you’ll never get in the door again.
She looked at one of the first notes she made during the interview. It said, simply Grandpa––Lie. Giraud had been lying about not knowing she was Deandre Green’s granddaughter. But why lie about that?
It wasn’t as if Therese’s family history was a secret, but since moving to the financial beat, Therese found she didn’t want to think about her grandfather much anymore. Aside from the notebook habit, an affectation of a bygone era if ever there was one, there was nothing to hint that she had any journalistic legacy at all. The newspaper business had changed a lot. For one thing, there were hardly any papers anymore. There was also a lot less news.
“Just press releases dressed up like journalism,” she muttered. Grand destiny, Therese. Now go back to the office and type up your notes.
* * *
Back at the office, Therese whipped together the piece well in time to meet deadline. Researched, well crafted, never less than flattering. Three hours after it went live, her office phone rang.
“Therese Green, Sun.”
“Hello?” she asked.
“You wrote today’s story on Custodian. With Giraud.”
“Want a real story?”
Therese grabbed her notebook. “I’m listening.”
“Not on the phone.”
“If you want to talk, we can meet wherever you want. Is this about Custodian, too?”
“Yes. There’s a problem with their figures.”
“How do you know?” she asked.
“I checked the figures.”
“And you want to talk to me about it?”
“Are you nervous? About talking to me?”
“I’m trying to think of a good place to meet,” said the voice.
“Look, mathlete. There’s a game at seven o’clock tonight at Bancronym Stadium. I will be in the mezzanine by the garlic fries place…Jack’s, I think it’s called. I’ll be wearing a Yoshimoto jersey. You can meet me there if you feel comfortable doing so.”
“How will you know that I’m me?”
“Introduce yourself as Mathlete.”
* * *
Therese got her gear on and went to the game, fully expecting the tipster to flake. But there was always the chance that it was a real scoop, which could lead to her becoming a real journalist. And the garlic fries were very good.
She dropped the wrapper into a patented WC trash receptacle just as a dark-haired nebbish wandered up to her.
“Ms. Green?” He was younger than she had expected.
“Yup. But call me Therese.”
“Mathlete.” He paused. “You didn’t say you were black.”
Therese gave him another look, checking for the infinitesimal signs of prejudice. “Do you have a problem with my skin?”
He shook his head. “Nope. I just had to walk by three times before I was sure it was you. There are a lot of Yoshimoto jerseys in this place. What do you know about temporal physics?” Mathlete wasn’t one for small talk.
“Not much more than the average person,” she admitted. “I cover the financial side of the tech businesses.”
He nodded. “Ok, what does the average person know?”
“It’s real. It’s expensive. It’s one way. It’s safe.”
“Custodian’s standard line.”
“You have a different one?” she asked.
“Either the physics is wrong, or they’re lying about some aspect of the process.”
“Do you work for Custodian?”
“Are you a scientist?”
He said nothing for a moment, staring out at the field until the pitch. Ball.
“I was,” he said. “Now I’m a lawyer.”
Therese got angry, fast. “You dragged me out to a baseball game for this? How many different rules are you breaking? What about attorney/client privilege?”
“You think I haven’t thought about that?” he said defensively.
“I don’t know you all that well.”
“A/C privilege doesn’t shelter a client in the midst of criminal activity,” he said. “And I think that what’s going on may be bigger than a simple non-disclosure agreement. My fiduciary duty does not trump the well being of society at large.”
“Why did you call me in particular?” She asked.
“I’ve been following your pieces on Custodian. They have a lot more research than any others. Most reporters steal from your old articles. Did you know?”
“You can’t steal facts.”
“You put in the time,” he said. “They didn’t.”
“You’re interested in time. Can you tell me what’s going on?”
“Are you recording this?”
“Not yet. It’s not an official interview.”
“Hit start. I don’t like repeating myself.”
Therese reached into a pocket and turned on the recorder. “Okay. Go. Want to start with your name?”
He said, “Mathlete works fine for now.”
“If you’re an attorney, why are you checking Custodian’s math? Don’t they have scientists for that?”
“They do. All under NDAs, of course. But before I joined the legal team, I got my PhD in physics.”
“Temporal?” Therese guessed.
“Indeed. My dissertation was well, let’s say…on sustained energy loss in time packet advancements, testing a particular method to see if it could serve as a new way to minimize entropy, beyond the Bergersen limit.”
“I have no idea what you just said.”
“I wanted to see if we could make time travel slightly more fuel-efficient, and thus cheaper.”
“Did you find a way?”
“No,” he said. “But I learned a lot about what is now called advance cost.”
“The energy it takes to send matter forward in time…basically.”
Therese could tell he was simplifying the explanation to the point of being inaccurate, and that he hated it.
“And you think Custodian is wrong about their advance cost?” she asked.
He made a gesture of impatience. “Even if you use nuclear power, the formula breaks down within a hundred years. We’re talking massive energy consumption here. There simply isn’t enough known fuel in the world to do what Custodian says it is doing. I have numbers on this.”
“What do you think, then?”
“My best guess? A new energy source, one we previously thought was just theoretical. Something so powerful it makes the Sun look puny. And they don’t want to share.” He looked nervous, and Therese got the impression that he was actually tamping down his level of paranoia.
“That would be pretty big news,” she said.
“WC has become an indispensable service to nearly every government on earth,” Mathlete said. “Who’s going to stand up to them if push comes to shove? We don’t produce any less garbage since packet advance went commercial. But we sure as hell forgot how much room it takes up if the trash men don’t come. I need help if I’m going to tell people about this. A respected source. A real news service. Something WC doesn’t own.”
Therese looked around the mezzanine. A sixth sense told her something was wrong. One glance too many at her and Mathlete. A body standing too nonchalantly, another person utterly uninterested in the game.
“Anyone besides you know about your idea?” she asked.
“No. Why?” He started to look around, picking up on her sudden alertness.
“Don’t. Turn. Your head,” she said through a fake smile. “Look. I’m willing to listen to you. I’m interested in seeing evidence. But come to my office with it. I want to be around friends.”
Mathlete took a step back. “Maybe. Who are you watching?”
“No one in specific,” she said. “I just got the creeps.”
“Good enough for me,” he said. “I’m gone. Don’t mention this to anyone.”
“Thanks for the advice, genius.”
* * *
The next morning, Therese arrived at the office early, only to find Mathlete waiting outside her closed door.
“Sorry,” he said. “I think my place is being watched.”
She looked him over. “And you couldn’t go anywhere else? Those are the same clothes you wore last night, Stephen.”
He stiffened. “How’d you know my name?”
“I investigated. There aren’t that many published dissertations on advance cost, and even fewer by people who also received law degrees who are licensed to practice in this state. I found one name. Stephen Silverman.”
He looked at her suspiciously, then relaxed. “I guess I asked for that.”
“You kinda did.” She opened the door and let him inside first.
He looked around the tiny office, really more a cubicle with walls that hit the ceiling. “Nice digs.”
“No aristocrats in the fourth estate.”
“Just slaves,” he said. “Oh. Sorry. Was that insensitive?”
“Forget it,” Therese muttered, pushing aside a stack of papers to clear a seat off.
“I’m right though, yeah? Journalism has been dying for the last century.”
“You’re not much on social skills, are you?”
“No.” He held up a small object. A drive. “But I brought my calculations.”
Stephen opened his files and began to explain his theory. Therese watched as he morphed from an awkward, nervous nerd to a fluent teacher of his subject. It was pretty astonishing.
At the moment, he was pointing to a graph on the screen, saying, “See, there’s a limited range we’re talking about here. The names to keep in mind are Bergersen and Darzi.”
“You mentioned the Bergersen Limit before,” she said. “Explain it, using small words.”
He took a breath, thinking. “So you know that space-time is one thing, right?”
“Um…yes?” She caught his expression and hurried on. “I know that space and time affect each other, and that space-time is like a bendy thing—that is, gravity can cause space-time to bend, or warp.” She recalled something from old TV shows. “Is that where the word warp-drive comes from?”
“Sort of,” he said. “But let’s focus on the gravity. Bergersen was one of the great minds in theoretical temporal physics. He proposed that time travel—and more specifically, packet advance—was not without limits. Speed of light may not be the absolute speed limit in the universe, but try to push something beyond it, and there are effects. And of course, the usual rules of E=mc squared apply too.”
“That’s why packet advance is so expensive. The garbage gets heavier the faster it goes?”
He nodded. “Similar to the equation Einstein defined, Bergersen found that mass increases exponentially in relation to the time traveled. So in a way, things get heavier not because they’re going faster, but because they’re going longer.”
“Makes sense. It takes more energy for a long journey than a short one.”
“Yes. Exponentially so. But that’s not what the Bergersen Limit defines. He was talking about the fact that packet advance only functions successfully within a certain range. Try to send something too far out into the future, or not far enough, and it just doesn’t work. Imagine a catapult. You can use it to launch something within a certain range: go too long, and the machine just poops out because you’re pressing it beyond its strength. Go too short, and you fail for the other reason—you’d essentially be firing straight up. The machine has to have some positive distance for the mechanism to work.”
“So time travel, or packet advance, is like using a space-time catapult?” she asked.
Stephen grinned. “Actually, it’s almost nothing like that, but it’s a useful metaphor.”
“Too bad. It was actually making sense.”
“Sorry. But that’s all background. Here’s what I’m working with right now. Some researchers have been running into problems with the lower end of the Bergersen Limit, meaning the minimum amount of time into the future that a package can be successfully moved. There’s an idea that attempts to explain why we can’t send something only a little ways into the future—little on a cosmic scale, by the way. It’s all beyond our lifetimes. And that idea is called the Darzi Hypothesis.”
“No wait,” said Therese. “I thought Darzi was something else. About an arrow?”
“Close. Darzi did a lot of theoretical work on the arrow of time. The Darzi Hypothesis is a working explanation to account both for the arrow of time and the fact that we never see what’s sent to a future time.”
“That’s the arrow part,” she said. “Forward only. Can’t change the past.”
“Right. We can only send matter to future space-time. That’s also—apparently—why we can’t send people or animals, plus the process itself probably kills them. Darzi proposed that the only way to avoid paradox in time travel is if the arrow of time segment ends in, as he put it, an actorless environment.”
“Meaning that if any sentient being is present when the package will have arrived, the universe short circuits the process before it can be completed, so the package won’t leave the present.”
Therese frowned as she considered the theory. “How does the universe, um, know that?”
He sighed. “It doesn’t. It can’t. Darzi’s hypothesis depends on the anthropic principle, which I hate. The universe doesn’t behave differently around people for other processes…say, an atomic bomb. Why should it for time travel?”
“What would Darzi say to that?”
“Who knows? He’s tucked away in an insane asylum in Tehran. By all accounts a nice asylum, but he’s not contributing to the field anymore.”
“Wait, I thought it was Bergersen who went insane.”
“They both did,” said Stephen. “Do you have any idea what the institutionalization rates are for temporal physicists? That’s why I switched careers. I was afraid I was going to lose my mind if I did much past my dissertation.”
“Insanity common among you types?” Therese asked.
“Sure. Confusion about reality. Hallucinations. Delusions. Distrust of one’s senses. Paranoia tends to follow.”
“Does it,” she said, keeping her voice level. Then office phone rang. Therese reached for it. “Therese Green, Sun.”
The caller’s next words surprised her, to say the least.
When Therese signed off, she put the phone down gently. “Huh,” she said.
“Who was that?”
“Giraud. He said that JR will be at a private WC function tonight. I’m invited.”
“And just when he’s the person you want to talk to. You know it’s a trap.”
“You’re going to go anyway?” Stephen asked.
“Sure will. JR seems to be the only one not toeing the party line on WC’s future. If I can get anything out of him, it will be worth it. And I need a second source before I run with a story.”
“You’re assuming Giraud will let you leave the party.”
“What’s he going to do, kill me?”
“Why the hell not?” Mathlete’s paranoia was back. She wished he didn’t sound so reasonable when he said insane things.
Worse, Therese didn’t have a good answer. “Because he’s…genteel.”
“Ok. You’re right, I need a little insurance.”
“Which will be what?”
“Let me talk to my editor.”
Therese’s editor fit most of the stereotypes of editors, in that she practically lived at the office, ate grease and washed it down with foully cheap coffee, and worshipped the First Amendment without actually believing in it anymore.
Sondra listened to Therese’s account of the events involving WC, Giraud, JR, and Mathlete with an expression of slowly deepening skepticism. At the conclusion, she drummed her fingers on the desk. “And you want to go to a party?”
“I think it could be the only opportunity to discover something important.”
Sondra paused. “Morally, logically, I think you’re being stupid, and practically speaking I can’t do a thing to stop you or save you. But I’ve got one idea. Get your source in here.”
When Mathlete arrived, Sondra explained the idea to them both, and everyone agreed that, as crappy a plan as it was, no one could think of anything better.
* * *
During the hours before the party, Therese went over the internal financial documents Mathlete had brought in. Finally, she saw something that made sense to her. “I think your answer is right here,” she said.
He peered over her shoulder. “That’s just the fuel costs per quarter.”
“Precisely. Starting last year, the percentage of operating costs dropped precipitously from the year before.”
“So?” he said. “All companies try to cut costs.”
“Sure, but global fuel prices are rising,” she argued. “This is what I cover, so I know. The ideal outcome for most companies is just to manage the hemorrhaging. But WC cut real costs. That implies a dramatic shift in their fuel use.”
Stephen considered the idea. “They found a shortcut.”
She looked at the date. “And it started right after Buckminster Sr got sick and left the day-to-day management to the board.” A little spark of excitement lit up in her belly. She could sense a story here. Maybe not the one Mathlete thought he had, but a story nonetheless.
“It’s a coincidence,” he protested.
“Listen, you’ve given me a crash course in temporal physics. Now I’m going to tell you a lesson about journalism,” Therese said. “Money and coincidence do not go together.”
That evening, Therese dressed in her best and only cocktail dress. It lacked pockets, which infuriated her, because she actually had to carry a purse. Stephen drove her to the party.
“Be careful. Don’t let Giraud see you if you can help it,” Stephen said when they pulled up at the house. He held up his phone. “Text when you need out.”
Stephen drove off, and she felt abandoned. Walking up the carpeted drive was enough to remind her that she was entering a different world. Who carpets a driveway for a night? Answer: someone who can afford to throw it away in the morning.
It was remarkable how ordinary the rich were, when it came down to it. The clothes were better, the trophy spouses hotter, and the canapés tastier, but really, it was all the same. Therese floated quietly through the nearly all-white crowd. Following Stephen’s advice, she avoided Giraud, which was easy to do, since the man was always at the center of attention.
Her plan was simple: get in, quiz JR, and get gone.
Then she saw him.
JR, the supposed guest of honor, skirted the edge of the room, heading directly for a door on the opposite end. Therese saw him go through and followed, finding herself in a hallway. JR was about thirty feet ahead of her. She called, “JR?”
He spun around, strode back toward her. “Who are you?”
“I’m a reporter with the Sun. Therese Green. Can we talk?”
He smiled, too widely. “Why? You want to know about my awesome dad? How broken up I am? How I can bear to go on? You want to know if I’m dating anyone?”
“Uh, no. I’d actually like to know why Giraud has been keeping you under wraps.”
His eyes flickered to life. “You think Giraud is controlling me?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I want to know why you’re letting him. And I want to know what the number 26 means to you.”
At that, his expression closed. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters! You’re supposedly in charge of the biggest company in the world. But Giraud is running the show. What’s he got that scares you?”
“He isn’t what scares me,” he said, his voice getting lower.
“Than what does?” she pressed. “What’s 26 stand for?”
“26,” he whispered. He looked up and down the hallway, agitated. He took her arm. “Come with me.”
Doubting the wisdom of it, Therese let him take her into a room off the hallway. JR hit a light switch, but the only thing that came on was a crystal lamp sitting on a table, which illuminated not much more than a circle of furniture and a lush, red oriental rug.
“Who told you about 26?” he asked.
“You did, JR. You were screaming about it a few weeks ago. Remember? People saw you on the street. They filmed the rant and put it up on the web within three minutes.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “I did?” Then he laughed. “Hey, yeah. I did do that. Giraud was pissed. I thought, you know, they should know.”
“Who should know? And know what?”
“26,” JR said again. He pulled off his jacket, then rolled up one shirt sleeve, revealing a wristwatch. He looked at it, then sighed.
“Wanna screw?” he asked. “We got time.”
She recoiled. “No.”
He shrugged. “Ok. I’m just trying to live it up while I can. You should too. We’re all going to die anyway.”
“You’re on anti-depressants,” she guessed. Anti-psychotics, too, maybe. She took a step away from JR.
“I’m on a lot of things,” he said candidly. “Well, I was. Marshall did it. To keep me quiet. But I am not going to wait till the end of the world in a fugue state so Marsh can play king. No way.”
“The end of the world?”
“Yeah!” He thrust his watch arm toward her.
Therese flinched instinctively. “Don’t touch me,” she warned him. “I’ll press an assault charge on you before I leave the room.”
He backed up a step, in mocking obedience. “Do it! Why should I care? Do whatever you want! Eat, drink, be merry! We’re all the walking dead, don’t you get it?” His eyes were glassy, his breath agitated.
“You didn’t take your pills this afternoon, did you, JR?”
His giggle was a weird sound. “Marsh thought I did. I’ve been skipping. I talked to you because he didn’t want me to talk to anyone. I wasn’t really invited to this shindig. He let me come because he thought I’d be a rambling incoherent zombie. He wants everyone to think I’m nuts.”
“You’re doing a great job of that yourself,” she said.
“I’m the only sane one here! I know what’s going to happen.” He sneered. “And my Dad, dear old Dad, may he rot forever, knew exactly what he was willing to me. Like a game of musical chairs, and I’m the loser who will be left without a seat!”
“JR. Calm down. What are you talking about? What’s this got to do with 26?”
He twitched, upset. “It’s not my fault. All those people,” he muttered. “All of them. Don’t you get it yet?”
“I’m trying, JR. Help me out.”
His eyes suddenly focused, right on her. “Ok. I’ll help you out.”
JR moved fast. His hands closed around her throat before Therese could get her own arms up in response.
Breathing. Breathing is good.
JR was stronger than she was. And he was crazy. Therese bit him, hard. He jerked but didn’t stop choking her.
Desperately, she stretched her hand out, touched something heavy and solid. She grabbed it and swung.
JR howled and stumbled back, his forehead bloody. He yowled and pulled his arm away just long enough for her to scream. The crystal lamp dropped from Therese’s hand, taking the pool of light to the floor, leaving the room lit like a bad play.
Screaming can really get a girl out of an awkward social situation, especially when the howled words include rape, sue, reporter, and public.
Giraud saw her, of course, but so did twenty other people who rushed into the room. Therese knew better than to linger. She pushed past the security guards who offered to “help” and texted Stephen.
When she got out of the front doors, still trailed by guards, Stephen was there in the car, with the passenger-side door open.
She barreled in. “Drive.”
“No!” She was rubber-kneed, and about to hyperventilate.
“I met JR. He is colossally insane. He attacked me. I brained him with an antique crystal lamp.”
“Oh, good. He’d be offended if you brained him with anything cheaper.”
“Jesus. Now you’re developing a sense of humor?”
“Are you developing a sense of urgency?”
“What happened? Really,” Stephen’s gaze flicked between the road and the rear view mirror.
Therese recounted the whole conversation, ending with, “He was out of control. Scary. But also scared. And I still don’t know anything more than I did going in! Why 26? If JR discovered a packet advance workaround for humans, maybe 26 is how many times they got it wrong? And he’s feeling survivor guilt? I don’t know.”
Stephen thought about it, then shook his head. “Can’t be. Twenty-six people? That’s way too many deaths to hide.”
She forgot that. She was still shaking. “Yeah. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Do you want to go to…I don’t know, a hospital or something? See a doctor?”
“Date,” she said out loud.
“Excuse me?” Stephen asked, his eyes widening.
“Date,” she repeated, her brain finally getting back to normal. “A specific date. 26 is a date. It’s time.”
“Maybe. JR was obsessed with a specific date.”
“When his bank account will run dry?”
“Then he’ll go to the next bank account. No, it’s not about money. He was upset about something happening in the future.”
“You said he was on meds.”
“More like off meds.”
“My point is that he’s not exactly a reliable witness,” said Stephen. “Maybe he hallucinated going into the future and that’s why Giraud wants to shut him up. He’s worried people will believe JR about it being possible for people to time travel.”
Therese and Stephen hashed out a dozen stupid ideas. Therese wasn’t sure if they were getting to a breakthrough, but she was beginning to forget the feel of JR’s hands around her throat.
What did he say, right before he went crazy? It wasn’t my fault. All those people.
But why say that? How did that link with the dropping fuel costs? Follow the money…
“Therese?” Stephen was looking at her in concern. “You ok?”
She’d been staring into space, puzzling it out. The fuel costs, the Bergersen Limit. The financial reports…
Therese groaned. “We’ve been staring at this the whole time. The fuel costs dropped!”
“What?” Stephen asked.
“The 26 is somehow linked to the new lower threshold of your precious Bergersen Limit. The company figured out some workaround for the limit. That’s why fuel costs dropped so much. The shipments are shorter, and therefore cheaper.”
“If the lower limit dropped that much, this is huge. And I can’t believe that’s what happened. We need to test this in a lab.” Stephen suddenly turned the car around. “Let’s go to WC. My passkey works for all doors. Benefit of high clearance.”
“Now? It’s one in the morning.”
“If not now, when?” asked Stephen.
* * *
It was shockingly easy to get into the laboratory wing of WC at one in the morning. Stephen had to sign her in as a guest, but the security guard didn’t even ask for ID.
The lab Stephen took them to was rather like an airplane hangar, large and tall and mostly empty. There were a few islands of work spaces, featuring computers both large and small. Areas of the concrete floor were painted in caution yellow, warning people to stand clear. The place seemed deserted.
“Let’s fire up one of the transporters,” said Stephen. “Wait, this one’s already on.”
“Who are we going to beam up?”
“No human or animal trials,” Stephen said, ignoring the joke. “For testing, we always send ball bearings.”
“Smaller is cheaper, and we’re only seeking to establish the lower threshold of the Bergersen Limit. If we can really do a successful run only 26,000 years long, we’ve got to do some major rethinking of temporal theory.”
While Stephen started to input some parameters, Therese looked around the space. She stepped toward Stephen and her foot hit something. She bent to pick it up.
“I need to calculate about when the limit should be according to JR,” Stephen was saying. “So we know where to start testing.”
“Use 26 years, 122 days, 14 hours, 6 minutes,” said Therese.
“You nuts? That’s like tomorrow.” Then Stephen looked over his shoulder. “That’s also very precise for a random suggestion.”
“It’s not random.” Therese held up the object she picked up off the floor. “I just found JR’s watch. It doesn’t tell the time of day. It’s running down like a stopwatch.”
“How could his watch be here? He was just at the party.”
“So was I.” A creepy feeling ran up Therese’s spine. “Is there any way to check what got sent on the last packet advance?”
“Mass and dimensions, yeah.” Stephen’s face was pale, because he was already thinking the same thing she was. He turned back to the logs, checking to see if the something just sent was about JR’s size.
“Please stop doing that.”
The voice belonged to Giraud. They both turned to find the chairman standing behind them, a gun in his hand.
“Step away from the terminal, if you please,” he continued.
“Where’s JR?” Therese asked, holding up the watch.
“In the future,” Giraud said.
“You killed him.”
“The packet advance killed him,” Giraud corrected.
“And you just hit the button.”
“Someone had to. He was extremely unreliable,” Giraud said. “You got here before I could overwrite the logs, which is too bad. I wanted to limit others’ involvement.”
Stephen was staring at the gun, eyes wide. “What’s happening? You really found a new Bergersen Limit?”
Giraud nodded, relaxing. “We started out sending all the packets at the furthest point we could. That was Buckminster’s vision, and he was president. But it’s expensive, and more recently, after his departure, the board has changed policy. To save per transaction, we started to send some packages to earlier points in the future. Fuel costs have gone up, so we kept cutting the distance. And the assumed limit didn’t kick in. In fact, the limit doesn’t kick in before the 26-year mark. 26 years from now, give or take a month. The precise date seems to fluctuate, a phenomenon that intrigued our scientists.” It was clear that Giraud found the fact dull.
Stephen sure didn’t. “It fluctuates?” he asked excitedly. “How much?”
“A month, several weeks, in one direction or another. Up to six months back in one case. A minor inconvenience, but not enough to scuttle the project.”
“Minor inconvenience?” Stephen nearly shouted. “It means each time someone tested the limit, the potential timeline shifted! That’s important!”
“Is it?” Giraud said indifferently.
Therese raised her hand, like a schoolchild. “Can we get back to the point here? You’re sending all the world’s garbage and crap and radioactive waste only 26 years into the future? Don’t you think that’s a problem?”
Giraud looked at Stephen. “She doesn’t get it?”
“Don’t talk to him. Explain it to me,” Therese snapped.
“The reason we can send anything to a point only 26 years into the future,” Giraud said with exaggerated patience, “is because in slightly less than 26 years into the future, something will have happened that renders our garbage problem non-paradoxical. And as far as we know, there is only one way to render things non-paradoxical, and that is to take the anthropic out of the equation.”
Stephen put a hand on her arm, pushing it down gently. “What he’s saying, Therese, is that we can send stuff into the near future because no one is there.”
“Something is going to happen that will kill us. All of us,” Stephen said, “at least on each timeline they used.”
She looked back at Giraud. “You knew. You knew! And you didn’t tell anyone about this little issue?”
“It’s likely to be unsolvable.” Giraud said. “And we can’t send anyone into the future to research it. Ironic, really.”
“If we don’t try to do something, everyone dies!”
“Look, I don’t feel good about this,” Giraud said, his voice wavering. “You have no idea… To talk to people and know how little time they have left. Children are the worst,” he added, looking at the floor.
“So unburden yourself,” said Therese. “Go public.”
“I can’t,” he said, his voice dull once again. “I have a responsibility to our shareholders to keep this company running profitably for as long as I am able.”
“Are you kidding me?” Therese said. “So rather than give humanity a fighting chance to do something to change our fate in the next two decades, you’re choosing to leave everybody in the dark so that your investors can pad their bank accounts until the day that all the banks explode.”
“My hands are tied,” said Giraud. “It’s easy to be noble when you’re not in charge.”
“Please tell me you’re getting this, Sondra,” Therese said, directing her comment toward the mic on the sousveillance camera she was wearing, the biggest part of the plan hatched in her editor’s office.
Text appeared on her phone screen: 5 by 5.
“What are you doing?” Giraud demanded, confused.
Therese smiled. “Two words: sousveillance.”
Giraud waited, then said, “That’s only one.”
She sighed. “Nobody gets me.”
“I thought it was funny,” said Stephen.
Giraud’s eyes narrowed. “You recorded all this? I don’t believe you.”
“Sondra,” Therese said. “Text Mr Giraud’s mobile.” She rattled off the number.
A few seconds later, a beep sounded from Giraud’s pocket. He looked annoyed, probably because he had to lower the gun to pull out his phone.
“Called 911,” he read out, not comprehending the words.
“Good,” said Therese. “Hopefully we won’t bleed out before the ambulance arrives.”
He looked at the gun, then raised it to his temple.
“Don’t,” Stephen warned, instinctively taking a step forward.
Giraud pulled the trigger. Click.
Therese’s heart thudded, but that was all that happened. Just the click.
“No bullets,” Giraud said, lowering the gun again. “I keep it in my office drawer like this. Figured I could fake it if I had to. Who would ever call me out?”
Outside, the sound of sirens rose.
Within what seemed like seconds, the room was filled with cops and paramedics and first responders.
Giraud was advised—strongly—to drop the gun.
“You haven’t solved anything,” said Giraud, after it clattered to the concrete floor.
“We solved a murder,” Therese said. “You did just kill the richest man in the world.”
Giraud was taken out by the cops, doubtless straight into the loving arms of his law firm on retainer.
Stephen was looking at the transporter. “We can use the packet advance as a gauge,” he said, oblivious to the cops and commotion around him. “We’ll try solutions to jump onto a better timeline, and test them.”
“Who’s we?” Therese asked.
“Us. Scientists. The government. Many governments. People who care. We’ll figure out the nature and extent of the threat and do something. If the limit changes, if it shifts more towards the future, we’ll know we’re on the right track.”
“But as of this moment, we’re all still hurtling towards extinction,” Therese said. “Not exactly a happily ever after.”
“No,” said Stephen. “But we’ve got a little time. Which, when you think about it, is all we ever have.”
She nodded. “Time to get to work, then.”