Cecil Adkins, Writer

 

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One More Time

By Cecil Adkins

Previously published in Allegory, Volume 10/37, Fall 2009

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE

//05.02.2023//

He didn’t know it yet, but Erik Waterson was going to kill quite a few people. The first one was the hardest, and as the guard’s head flipped backwards from the bullet’s force, spraying blood and brain and bone all over steel walls, Erik couldn’t believe he’d actually done it. That it was something that was forced upon him made him feel no better about it. Bypassing the security system had been child’s play, but there was only one way to get past the soldier guarding his time machine.

His time machine. The one that he began designing when he was fifteen years old, thanks to the gift of future knowledge given to him on 28 DVDs by an old man who claimed to be his future self, come back to the past to force the creation of time travel a few decades early. The man claimed that the End of the World had finally come in his time, and the only way to prevent it was to make time travel technology available decades before it had originally been invented. Erik had dismissed the entire encounter as too bizarre to be taken seriously, until he actually looked at the information on the discs. He’d spent all of his high school and college years secretly working through the nearly insurmountable knowledge on those discs, while molding his education into something that could actually help him to use and understand his gift from his future self.

He hated that he had to sell his gift to the great and terrible United States government, but they were the only people who had the funding necessary to actually build and test the thing. A special session of Congress had been convened just to debate whether or not the time machine should be used. Despite the heartache that the time device had caused Erik, he felt a bitter ache at being reduced to a consultant on the project, at being told that, even if the government determined that someone would make the historic first time travel trip with his device, that someone would never be him. His future self – however intelligent and wily he must have been to get his hands on the device and use it for his own ends – must have been insane to not think of bringing back a few billion dollars to go along with the time machine’s design docs. He made a mental note to remember to do that, if he ended up becoming that old man.

Erik ran his fingers over the device, the aluminum cool and smooth to the touch. Mankind’s ultimate technological achievement was a lightweight metal backpack. Inside the pack was a tiny artificial wormhole capable of generating a negative time field. He couldn’t help but stop to admire the finished product, even though he knew alarms must be going off all over the base. He had to hurry – as soon as the guards got here and saw that he had killed the soldier guarding the device, it would be all over for him.

He wasn’t a murderer, despite the current evidence to the contrary. One of the guard’s vibrant green eyes had been replaced with a bullet hole, but the other one seemed to be staring at Erik. Erik felt dizzy, his stomach churning. The only thing that kept him on task was the knowledge that when he was done with his device, the guard that he had killed would never die after all.

He strapped on the backpack and pushed the large button on the strap that wrapped across his chest. A virtual keyboard and screen shimmered into existence in the air in front of him, and he hurriedly typed in the parameters of the time trip, specifically the duration. Then he activated the wormhole. The backpack emitted a slight humming sound, and he knew a green glow had begun pulsing in its middle as the wormhole powered up. Immediately, an invisible field sprang up around him – he could feel it if not see it. Seconds later, fifteen heavily armed MPs burst into the room, but by then he was gone from their perceptions.

***

The shift to negative time threatened to help Erik’s nausea win its war, and he wondered whether or not he’d actually taken the anti-nausea pills he thought he took.

He’d known what to expect, but that didn’t help prepare him for the reality of it. In order to travel backward in time, the field generated by the pack caused the wearer to experience time flowing backwards. The wearer could either stand still and wait until arriving at the proper time point or could move around freely, observing – the field rendered the wearer completely invisible to the outside world. However, no one had found a way to accelerate the negative-time field, so if you wanted to travel backwards in time four days, you actually experienced four days of time. Which meant that you would be treated to four days of people walking backward, of rain falling upward, of the sun setting when it should rise and rising when it should set. Your body would be in a kind of stasis – you’d never get hungry, sleepy, or need to relieve yourself – but you’d always be aware of everything going on around you for however long it took to get to when you were going.

Thankfully, Erik only had to travel backwards to the day before yesterday, but it was still overwhelming at first. After a little while, he got used to it, and he made his way to the place he’d need to be when he came out of the negative-time field – his own apartment. Then, he settled in and waited for the perfect time to prevent the end of his world.

***

//04.30.2023//

Erik’s apartment was sparse. The walls were all painted white, the thin carpet that covered the floors of every room except the bathroom and kitchen a dull gray. He had no decorative pictures, although there was at least one clock on the wall in every room. The furniture was inexpensive, ugly, and efficient. The only thing he had in the entire apartment that didn’t serve a practical purpose was Alexandra’s photo, displayed in a cheap frame on his nightstand.

Alexandra often complained about the lack of decoration, but he just didn’t feel any need for extravagance. He spent nearly every waking hour at work, developing an improved version of the time device. Even when he was home, he spent much of his time hunched over his laptop, obsessing over the problem of speeding up the negative-time field. Looking at his apartment now, with what he’d lost on this day, he was overcome by how empty it looked, and how hollow it felt, and realized that it was very much a reflection of his own life. The symptoms of his sickness – that’s what Alex called it – were around him all along.

The storm outside was picking up, the thunder intensifying. That, even more than his surroundings, brought home to Erik exactly where he was – exactly when. He would hear those peals of thunder in his nightmares for the rest of his life if he didn’t succeed here tonight. He glanced at the clock on the wall above his bed. It was almost 1800 hours. Almost time. He heard a key turn, a door open, footsteps in the living room, heading for the bedroom.

He tensed, watching himself walk into the bedroom. He was surprised at how much his own appearance, viewed from outside himself, disturbed him. His dark hair was disheveled, oily. He had more fat in his middle than he felt like he had, and his pale skin was littered with small red splotches. How could someone like Alexandra even bear to look at him, much less fall in love with him? In his new life, he’d make it a point to take better care of himself.

He had been crouched behind the bed, out of sight. Now, he rose to his feet to face his slightly younger self, his silenced 9mm pointed at his head.

The younger-by-two-days Erik jumped back, attempted to mouth his surprise. No words came out. Erik felt a tingling sensation at the base of his neck as he realized that in causing this divergence he was creating a new timeline, a new universe, and his old one would be forever lost to him. He was surprised at how little he cared about that.

“I guess this does look funny,” Erik said. “And I probably should have shot you in the back or something, so you wouldn’t know who had killed you. But, you know, you are me, and I just had to let you know that even though you’re going to be dead, you won’t really be dead, you know?”

“What?” the other Erik finally managed, over his surprise. He had, after all, already met one of his future selves in the form of an old man, so it stood to reason that meeting another might not incapacitate him for too long. “You can’t kill me – you’ll die, too!”

Erik rolled his eyes. “Don’t try that paradox nonsense with me, Erik. Don’t tell me you don’t believe in the multiple worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Don’t tell me that I’d be so cowardly at my moment of death to resort to lying to get out of it.”

“What possible reason could you have to kill me? To kill yourself?”

“Because you let her go.”

“Who?”

“Alexandra. In ten minutes, she’s going to knock on that door. She’s going to ask you to choose between her and your work, and you’re going to hesitate long enough to give her the impression that the work is more important. She’s going to give you back your engagement ring and walk out of your life. When she pulls away from the curb in her car, she’ll do so without thinking, without looking in her mirror, and a passing truck will hit her. The accident won’t look too bad, but she didn’t buckle her seat belt because she was so upset over you, and she will hit her head just hard enough to end her life.”

The younger Erik thought for a moment and said, “Okay, all right. If all this is true, I swear I won’t hesitate. I’ll tell her I love her – because I do, right? I mean, I can’t give up the work – I’m so close to a breakthrough, but you’d know that, right? But I can stop her from leaving and getting killed.”

Erik shook his head. “That’s not good enough. Telling her you love her isn’t what she wants to hear. And I’m afraid I just don’t have time to argue with you. You know how it is – if you want something done right, do it yourself.”

Seeing his own ice blue eyes pleading with him made him hesitate, despite his mission. He’d known there would be deaths – murders – once he started down this path, but he hadn’t taken the time to imagine what toll it would take on him. He couldn’t get the image of the man he had already killed – the one whose face had one green eye and one gaping red hole – out of his mind. His younger self turned, as if to try to leave the room, and Erik came to his senses, pulling the trigger. The other man – the other Erik – slammed into the wall, his blood spattering the white paint. There was a lot more blood than he’d prepared himself for, and it took him a few moments to take his eyes off the rivulets of red racing down the wall.

Through the sound of the thunder, another sound came – a knock at the door. Erik quickly left the bedroom, closing the door behind him. It wouldn’t do to have Alexandra see his handiwork – she’d be more convinced than ever that he was obsessed with time travel.

With a trembling hand, he opened the door, and was at once rendered breathless by the sight of her. She was very pretty, of course, with green eyes bursting with energy and full, juicy lips. But her beauty alone wasn’t what caught him off guard, his skin sweating. The idea of seeing her alive again – even through the miracle of time travel – was almost too much to bear.

She noticed his nervousness right away. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked.

“I’m just glad to see you, is all,” he said.

She walked into the living room. “Well, that’s what I came to talk to you about. I’m just not sure we can go on seeing each other.”

His first impulse was to skip ahead in the conversation, profess his undying love for her, beg her to stay with him, plead with her to not get in her car in exactly eleven minutes and pull out from the curb. But he knew he had to act out his role, had to play the part of Erik-of-two-days-ago and then change his lines at the right moment.

“What do you mean?” he asked, realizing he wasn’t exactly recreating the moment. The first time around, he’s said this while staring intently at his laptop screen.

“It’s your work,” she said. “I know how important it is to you – and I appreciate that you’re dedicated to a cause you believe in. But I want you to be dedicated to me, too, to the cause of us.”

The cause of us. He’d rolled his eyes when she said that the first time. Now it sounded like poetry, and he realized that everything Alexandra said sounded like poetry. He realized now how he’d always taken her for granted and the lyrical quality of her voice had been just another thing to ignore. After having experienced her death, he felt very lucky to be able to hear that voice again.

“I am,” he said. “I mean, I will be.”

She blinked, obviously surprised. “You’d be willing to give up your work?”

Despite himself, he hesitated. It wasn’t that he wasn’t prepared to give up his work, but the irony that his work was the reason that he was standing here talking to her, that it was the means of her resurrection made him smile and he forgot for a moment what he should be saying.

His momentary hesitation had the same effect it did the first time around. Tears started welling up in her eyes. “I see,” she said. “I guess I already decided what to do before I came over, but I just had to confirm what I meant to you before I did anything drastic.”

Crying now, she slipped the engagement ring off her finger and handed it to him.

“Please, don’t do this,” he said as she turned to leave. “I love you, I really do, and I’ll give up all my work. I’ll get a job flipping burgers or something if it’ll make you happy. Please, just don’t do this.”

She wiped at her face with her hand and half-turned towards him. She said, “I’m sorry, Erik. You’ve said you’d change before and you were a liar every time. You can’t stay away from your work. Even when you try, they always call you when they have some kink they can’t work out, and every time you’re right back in the thick of things. You can’t help it, I know that, but I can’t help the fact that I’ve got to start living my life. Goodbye.”

And with that, she was out the door. Erik glanced at the clock on the otherwise bare wall with hope. The numbers on the clock’s holoscreen – bright red, the same color as his own blood, which he imagined must be soaking into his bedroom carpet – told him he’d at least delayed her leaving by two minutes, which meant that she wouldn’t die pulling out from the curb. He might have a chance to win her back, now that she would live.

But a moment later, he heard the terrible sound of tires screeching, of metal twisting, of glass breaking, and he knew that, despite the incredible feat of adding two minutes to Alexandra’s life, he had failed after all.

***

Erik had long been convinced that emotions weren’t worth the damage they could cause. Every example of a romantic relationship he had ever seen had been an exercise in futility. His parents had been separated more than together during their union, and they’d only finally divorced after his father had a heart attack that he was convinced was brought on by the stress of his marriage. His sister had found a nice enough husband after a long line of abusive boyfriends, but then lost him soon after the wedding when he fell off the forklift at the warehouse where he worked. Erik’s maternal grandparents supposedly had a long and nurturing marriage, but they were both dead before Erik was born, and he considered their love story to be the family myth.

He met Alexandra after his first news conference where the world learned about his time device. She was covering the story for the newspaper, and unlike so many others she took his ideas seriously. She asked him to have dinner with her so she could ask him some questions, and it didn’t take long for him to begin falling for her. It wasn’t just that she took his ideas seriously – she took him seriously, which was something very few people had ever done. He soon came to the realization that she was the half that could make him whole for the first time in his life, and every alarm inside his carefully guarded heart went off. He became two people, one trying desperately to shut down whatever faulty mechanism that was allowing his emotions free reign over his intellect, and the other trying to make him believe it was okay to feel what he was feeling.

The cold, emotions-fearing Erik won out over his other self, and it had done more than just cost Erik love and companionship. It had cost Alexandra her life.

Erik didn’t realize any of this until it was over, until Alexandra was lying cold and lifeless as the mortician prepared her body for burial. He had thought about waiting until after the funeral to begin his rescue mission, but decided against that. If he didn’t see her lying in her coffin, then she wasn’t really dead after all. Because if he thought about her being dead, he couldn’t contain his emotions anymore, and he knew he’d be worthless then. He had to convince himself that she was still alive, that she was merely waiting back there, back then, waiting on him to come and find her.

Continue to PART TWO

 

 

Content © 2011 Cecil Adkins. All inquiries to ceciladkins@yahoo.com

Special thanks to my wife, Tiffany Adkins, and my friend Vox Anon, for their advice while writing this story. Visit Vox Anon's website only if you're prepared for awesome poetic verse and apocalyptic visions.

 

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