Michael Kerrow stopped walking. Somebody had just spoken his name. He looked around the busy street that he had been walking along, but no one was looking at him. A couple of people caught his gaze as he tried to find the source of the voice that he had just heard, but no one gave any signs of acknowledgement or admission.
But he had heard it so clearly.
Shrugging it off, Michael carried on his way. He reasoned that he may have overheard somebody talking on their phone as they walked past him, and that they had just happened to be talking to someone called Michael.
Could happen, he thought.
‘I said hello, Michael.’
This time, Michael stopped walking with such suddenness that a woman walked into him by accident. She grunted a half-hearted apology and eyed Michael with no small amount of annoyance as she walked around him, but Michael wasn’t paying attention to her. He was scanning the street for who had just spoken. The street was thick with people; cars and vans were speeding by in each direction, and yet the voice had rang so clear that it felt as if somebody had spoken directly into his ear.
No, not into his ear: his mind.
Michael almost laughed at the thought, but once it was there it didn’t go away easily. Turning around on the spot where he stood, now getting in the way of many more busy people, Michael couldn’t see anyone who might have spoken his name. People were passing him in close proximity, but to have heard the voice as clearly as he did on a street this busy, they would have had to have practically bear-hugged him and pressed their lips to his ear. That definitely hadn’t happened, so Michael began to feel a squirm of unease somewhere in the pit of his stomach.
Looking about him, Michael carried on walking down the street, his eyes darting quizzically to everyone he passed. He felt it possible that he could have imagined the voice, but why would he address himself in this way, even in his thoughts?
Michael rounded a corner and nearly jumped out of his skin when a man holding a charity collection tin rattled it hopefully in his direction. Michael performed the guilty charade of checking his pockets for change, even though he knew that he didn’t have any. Realising that he wasn’t going to get any donations from Michael, the man sought others on the street to drop a coin or two in his tin.
Feeling a little ashamed at not giving to the charity, the suspect voice was pushed a little further to the back of Michael’s mind. His reprieve was short-lived.
‘Are you going to answer me or not, Michael?’
Michael spun around on the spot again, his eyes wide; his body suddenly tense. He expected to see someone standing behind him, mocking him with whatever silly game they were playing. There was nobody there, though. A man was at least a dozen yards further down the road, but it would have been impossible for him to speak so clearly to Michael and be that far away from him by the time Michael turned to face him. Michael ran a hand through his hair and felt the prickle of sweat creep across his forehead. He took a second to steady his breathing, which, he realised, was shallow and rapid.
What was going on, Michael wondered, as he looked nervously up and down the street. He cast his eyes downward and noticed that he was chewing on his thumbnail, something that he only did when he was anxious. He pulled his hand away from his mouth and stuck it in his trouser pocket.
Then the voice sighed.
‘Michael Kerrow,’ it said, wearily. ‘I’m speaking to Michael Kerrow. Can you hear me?’
Michael spun around a third time, whipping his head in all directions to try and catch a glimpse of who might be talking to him. The threatening prickle had become the promise of sweat and Michael suddenly felt trapped and uncomfortable in his clothes. His mouth felt dry, and his insides felt like they were being put through a mangle.
What was that voice?
Michael could hear other sounds that surrounded him: normal, everyday sounds, but with them came the appropriate volume and distance. He could hear trains in the far distance, quiet but recognisable. He could hear the steady hum of traffic all around him, but the voice that was trying to speak to him sounded as if it was coming from inside his own head.
‘H…h…hello?’ he said, uncertainly. He instantly felt stupid for entertaining the notion that he was going to get an answer. He must have been working too hard lately, that was all.
But that wasn’t all.
‘Finally!’ said the voice again. Michael clapped his hand over his mouth and backed clumsily against the wall of a building. It sounded as if he had a pair of headphones on and someone was speaking directly into his brain. ‘Took you long enough to answer.’
Michael could feel his mouth spreading into a grimace of fright as his hand was clamped across it. A few more people walked by him, some of them looking at him curiously. Michael fought to stand away from the wall and look a little more normal, but his knees felt weak. He blinked and felt the slight sting that told him he had been staring wide-eyed for too long. His eyes had started to dry out and now that he had blinked they watered slightly.
Michael reached up with one hand to wipe the excess moisture from his eyes, and once he did that, his hand moved automatically to his mouth. He started unconsciously chewing his thumbnail again, but this time, when he noticed what he was doing, he didn’t try and stop himself. Whatever was going on had startled him enough to allow a little indulgence of this particular nervous tic.
‘Tell you what,’ said the voice, calm and confident as before. ‘If it’ll make you feel better, get your phone out of your pocket and talk to me as if I’m on the other end of the line.’ As soon as the voice started talking, Michael bit down painfully into his thumbnail. He pulled his hand away from his mouth and took a hissing intake of breath, waving his stinging thumb back and forth in front of him. When the pain subsided, Michael reached up and wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. He felt the slimy slickness of fresh sweat on his skin, and as he looked he saw that some of the hairs on the back of his hand were now matted and wet. He was still leaning against the wall and when he tried to stand he found that his legs still felt wobbly. Looking across the road, he saw an empty bench. Taking a deep breath, he pushed himself off of the wall and lurched into an unsteady walk. He wondered what he must look like, shambling across the road like a drunkard, but he didn’t care. He needed to sit down.
Michael reached the bench and practically collapsed on to it. A woman who was also approaching the bench carried on walking, seemingly deciding at the last minute that Michael didn’t look like the kind of person whom she wanted to sit next to. Michael leant back and felt the wooden slats press against his body. He could feel the dampness of his shirt sticking unpleasantly to his skin. He’d been sweating more than he realised. He’d take a shower as soon as he got home.
‘Any better?’ asked the voice. ‘Can we talk now?’
Michael stiffened as the voice sounded again. He looked up and down the street with quick, darting eyes. He tried to steady his breathing as his heart seemed to hammer louder and louder in his chest. He fingered the opening of the inside pocket of his jacket where his phone was, debating whether to indulge this psychotic episode, or whatever it was.
‘I’m not going to go away, you know, so you might as well talk to me.’
Michael closed his eyes tight and for a second wished that he was somewhere else; that he was someone else. He gripped the edge of the bench with one hand and with the other he pulled his phone out of his pocket. He held the phone up to his ear, and, feeling ridiculous and scared, he spoke.
‘At last!’ said the voice. ‘So, can you talk now?’
‘I…I guess so,’ said Michael weakly into his phone. He had a momentary thought of someone trying to call him while he was pretending to use his phone. He pulled the phone away from his ear and turned it off. He didn’t much feel like talking to anyone while something this strange was happening to him. No one else, at least, and he was still arguing with his own mind as to whether he was actually talking to anyone now.
‘Good,’ said the voice. ‘Sorry if I gave you a bit of a scare, but this is all a bit new to me.’
‘Erm, what is?’
‘Talking to myself.’
Michael frowned in confusion.
‘I beg your pardon,’ he said.
‘Talking to myself,’ repeated the voice. ‘You do realise who this is, don’t you?’
‘I’ve got no idea,’ said Michael. ‘I’m not actually sure that I’m talking to anybody, to be honest.’ Michael felt strange standing up for himself against what could have been a figment of his imagination, but this strangeness didn’t come without a small degree of pride. He wasn’t going to be pushed around, not even by his subconscious.
‘Oh, you’re talking to someone, alright,’ said the voice. ‘That I can guarantee you.’
‘Then who are you?’
‘Michael, I’m you.’
* * *
Michael sat frozen for a moment, unable to comprehend what he had just been told. He could feel his body grow tense: his back was starting to hurt a little from him sitting so upright. As he took stock of his physical form, Michael realised that he was tensed up in every way. His free hand gripped the bench with such force that his knuckles looked stony and white, and now that he was paying attention he could feel his phone digging into the palm of his hand.
This has to be some sort of joke, he thought. Someone’s having a laugh at my expense. Michael wanted this to be true, desperately so. It was bad enough that he had started hearing voices with no prior warnings or symptoms, but for this voice to have claimed to be him. It was all too much.
‘You still there?’ asked the voice.
Michael bit his lower lip and closed his eyes. He didn’t want to face the possibility that he was losing his mind, but however he looked at it, hearing voices was never a good thing.
‘I…I’m still here,’ he said, quietly.
‘Good,’ said the voice, sounding just as unaware as before of the torment that it was putting Michael through. ‘I imagine this is all a bit weird for you, eh?’
‘Just a bit,’ said Michael, still struggling mentally with the concept of engaging in an active conversation with this voice in his head.
‘Well that makes two of us.’
‘What do you want?’ asked Michael, keen to try and make some sense out of what was happening. ‘Why are you here?’
‘I’m not here, or there. Not really.’
‘What do you mean? Am I going mad?’
The voice laughed.
‘No more than the rest of us.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Michael resented the idea that he was being made fun of, even if it was by a voice in his head.
‘Before I get into all that: are you alone, Michael?’
Michael looked around the street and realised that he’d never felt as alone as he did in that moment.
‘Yes. I’m alone.’
‘But are you somewhere private?’
‘I’m sat on a public bench, if you must know,’ said Michael, getting a little angry. ‘Why? What do you want from me?’
‘First thing’s first, get yourself home.’
‘Trust me, Michael, I’ve got a lot to tell you, and you’ll deal with it a lot better when there’s no-one else around.’
‘What is this? Are you playing some sort of joke? Because if you are it’s not bloody funny!’
The voice sighed.
‘Believe me, Michael, I wish I was joking. You live alone, so home is the best place for us to really talk. Please, Michael. This is important.’
‘Wait. How do you know I live alone? Who are you?’
‘I told you, Michael. I’m you.’
‘But that’s not possible. I’m me!’
‘Listen,’ said the voice, its tone sounding a little impatient now. ‘I know you didn’t wake up this morning with the intention of talking to yourself in this way, but we’ve no other choice.’
‘We? Who’s we?’ Michael felt as if the conversation was spiralling out of control and he was failing to keep up.
There was a pause and then voice returned; this time sounding panicked.
‘I’ve got to go. Please, Michael. I know it’s asking a lot but I swear to you that I’m telling the truth. I’m you and you have to trust me. Get yourself home and I’ll contact you again in an hour.’
‘This is insane!’ said Michael, running his hand through his hair.
‘You don’t know the half of it,’ said the voice. ‘I promise I’ll tell you everything when you’re back home, but for now know this: your future; our future depends on you now.’
The voice was gone.
Michael sat with his phone to his ear for a few moments more, waiting for the voice to sound again.
There was no answer.
Michael took his phone away from his ear and looked at it, dumbfounded. He absentmindedly wiped the sweat marks off of the screen that his ear and face had left and then slipped the phone back into his pocket. Thoughts and questions tumbled and broiled in his mind, all demanding attention. A gust of wind blew and Michael felt a chill. He had stopped sweating now, but his clothes were damp and growing cold. He felt dirty and uncomfortable. He looked at his watch and wondered whether to entertain the voice and return home. He felt inside his jacket and made a face as he touched the underarm of his shirt. Even if he wasn’t going to go home and wait to be contacted by the voice, he did need a shower and a change of clothes.
Michael stood up; made sure his legs would support him, and made his way home.
* * *
Michael was in a daze the entire journey back to his house. He realised this as he absentmindedly pulled his keys out of his pocket as he reached his front door. He only had a vague memory of getting home: his thoughts had all been about the bizarre conversation that he had sat through on the bench in town. Praying that it was some kind of mental episode, Michael let himself into his house and closed the door.
Standing in the bathroom, facing the cabinet mirror, Michael looked at his reflection and sighed. If this is what going mad feels like, he thought, I don’t like it. His clothes were balled up in his laundry hamper, sweaty and unpleasant, and he stood in a towel, contemplating the number of possibilities that could have led to him hearing voices. Again and again he kept coming back to the assumption, and hope, that it was sample as him working too hard. The life of a financial investor was a busy one, but he didn’t realise that he could have been pushing himself so hard as to start hearing voices. Michael decided that it might be time to take a holiday, as he hung his towel up and stepped into the shower.
Feeling refreshed, Michael switched off the shower after cleansing himself of the dried sweat that had been clinging to seemingly every part of his body when he had arrived home. He looked at the clock on his bedroom wall as he dried himself and saw that it was a little over an hour since the voice had last spoken to him. It had said that it would contact him again in an hour. Michael hoped that it wouldn’t and that he would be able to put the episode in the past forever.
Then the voice spoke again.
Michael closed his eyes and tried to steady his breathing.
Please go away.
‘I know you’re there, Michael,’ said the voice, sounding a little annoyed. ‘The connection only works when the other person is awake or conscious.’
Michael frowned in confusion and spoke before he could stop himself.
‘What connection? What are you talking about?’
‘Are you home?’ asked the voice.
‘Yes. Why? What’s so important that you couldn’t tell me earlier?’
Michael took another moment to wonder at the state of his mind, as he engaged with the voice sounding in his head.
‘Get yourself a drink, Michael. I have a very strange tale to tell.’
Michael frowned again. This was not only scaring him, but it was also starting to get on his nerves. The strange mixture of fear and annoyance swirled within him, fighting for supremacy.
‘Look, I don’t know who or what you are or what’s going on, but I’m not getting anything until you start making sense! Why am I hearing voices in my head?’
‘Voices? You’ve heard more than one?’ The voice in Michael’s head sounded worried.
‘No, just you, but one’s enough, don’t you think?’
‘Believe me, Michael. I wouldn’t be doing this at all if it weren’t necessary.’
‘So why are you doing it? Tell me what’s going on!’
‘Sit down, Michael. Please.’
Michael sat at the foot of his bed, still frowning.
‘Okay, I’m sat. Now talk.’
‘Right, well, as I said to you before. I’m you.’
‘Bullshit!’ spat Michael, angrily.
The voice sighed.
‘Do you want me to explain this to you, or not?’
Michael went quiet for a moment.
‘I’m sorry, but this is really weird, and to be honest, a little scary.’
‘We’re all scared, Michael; those of us who are left, anyway.’
‘What? What does that mean?’
‘Let me tell my story and all will become clear.’
‘It’d better,’ said Michael, still annoyed.
The voice continued.
‘So, as I was saying, I’m you, but a you from fifteen years into the future.’
‘That’s impossible!’ said Michael, interrupting.
‘Until about five years ago, my time, you’d be right, but if there’s one thing the last decade and a half has taught me, it’s that nothing is impossible.’
Michael continued to frown in anger and confusion. He was having a hard enough time accepting the fact that he was hearing a voice in his head at all, without also having to comprehend it being a future version of him.
‘So you’re saying that in ten years people will be able to travel through time?’ Michael felt as if he were spouting lines from some cheesy science-fiction film.
‘Well, yes and no,’ said the voice.
‘What do you mean?’
‘We can’t physically travel through time; that one could well be impossible, and of course we can’t communicate with the future.’
‘But isn’t that what I’m doing now?’ asked Michael. ‘If you are who you say you are, doesn’t that mean I’m communicating with the future?’
‘Yes, but you’re not the one who set up the connection; I am. If I tried to contact someone in the future from my timeline it wouldn’t work.’
‘Because the future for us hasn’t happened yet.’
‘But my future hasn’t happened yet, either,’ said Michael.
‘For me it has, because I’m living it.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I can make a connection with you because, to me, you’re in the past, but you wouldn’t be able to make a connection with me because, to you, your future hasn’t happened yet.’
Michael felt as if he was trying to read a book and someone else was turning the pages for him, and they were turning them too quickly.
‘So, you couldn’t make a connection with someone further on in the future from where you are because of the same principle?’ Michael spoke slowly, as if he were using words that were unfamiliar to him.
‘Yes, you’ve got it,’ said the voice, sounding pleased. ‘I’m glad you’re catching on. Not everyone did.’
‘I’ll get there, Michael, I promise.’
‘Hmm, okay.’ Michael felt as if the voice was being deliberately sketchy with the details, and that irritated him.
‘So anyway, this form of time travel isn’t available to just anybody, as you can imagine.’
‘Michael, can you imagine the chaos that could and would be caused if anybody could form a connection with people in the past. The results as to causality would be immense.’
‘So why have you made a connection with me? What makes me so special?’
‘I’m getting to that.’
‘I know this is frustrating, Michael, I really do. Believe me; it’s not easy for me either. Remember, I’m you so I’ve got to try and remember what I was like back in…it’ll be 2015 your time, right?’
‘Yes,’ said Michael, almost automatically. ‘So, you’re talking to me from 2030?’
‘This is crazy!’
‘It gets crazier.’
There was something in the voice’s tone that Michael found a little unnerving.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, time travel, such as it is, isn’t the only innovation to come about in the fifteen years between your time and mine. Lots of things have happened.’
‘Like what, flying cars?’ Michael allowed himself a little petty amusement at making light of the situation, but the feeling was short-lived. The confusion, fear and annoyance that clouded the situation soon returned.
‘This is serious, Michael,’ said the voice. ‘I didn’t contact you to have a laugh and a joke.’
‘I’m sorry. Please, go on.’
‘Okay, so, as it was in your time, all sorts of new ideas, gadgets and gizmos came on to the market; some good, some bad. The reason I’ve had to contact you is because of the worst.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘If you look around the world you’ll see that people are always trying to invent new ways to make life easier; more efficient, right?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘There’s no suppose about it, Michael, they are. Whether it’s faster computers; home appliances that can do it all; or health and well-being products designed to make you look and feel better and better.’
‘What’s your point?’
‘One of these so-called innovations went wrong.’
‘How so? In what way?’
‘Twelve years from your time, so 2027, a new wonder-drug will hit the shelves. It’ll be called MindSet, and it’ll be hailed as the only medication anyone will ever need. It’ll be cheap, easy to produce and boast the properties of being the closest thing to a true panacea the human race has ever devised.’
‘Sounds like a fantasy to me,’ said Michael, with no small amount of incredulity in his voice.
‘That’s what many thought at first, until they saw the results.’
Michael stood up and moved over to his chest of drawers to retrieve a t-shirt and some jogging bottoms. He had been sat on the bed with nothing on for several minutes and was starting to get cold.
‘At first MindSet did everything it said it would. It cured disease; it eased and even eradicated mental disorders; everything.’
‘So what was the problem?’ asked Michael as he pulled on the t-shirt.
‘What was it?’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘It literally drove people mad?’
‘Not at first. Or at least, you couldn’t tell at first, but MindSet was such an instant success that people were taking it across the world in record amounts. It didn’t even seem possible to overdose on it.’
‘So what happened?’
‘After a while people started to notice changes in behaviour in those around them. Little things at first: changes in mood, uncharacteristic decision-making, that kind of thing. But after the first year people started to notice more.’
‘Violence. People started attacking one another for no reason. At first it went unnoticed, blending in with the normal level of violence any modern society has to contend with. However, after a while it became clear that this was different.’
‘I’ll give you a couple of examples. A man in a crowded lift in Munich, Germany, went berserk one morning and slaughtered everyone in the lift with him. No provocation; no history of violence; nothing.’
‘When the lift doors opened he was gouging the corpses’ eyes out and laughing to himself.’
Michael felt his stomach give an unpleasant lurch.
‘No more than a week later, an elderly lady in a retirement home in Sarasota, Florida, set fire to the home with all staff and residents locked inside.’
‘Jesus Christ!’ Michael looked down and realised he was biting his thumbnail again. He didn’t try to stop himself.
‘The police found her driving back and forth on the front lawn in her electric wheelchair. She too was laughing to herself.’
Michael didn’t say anything. He had no words he could say.
‘Want me to go on?’ asked the voice.
‘No. I’ve heard enough.’ Michael went into the bathroom and took a few gulps of cold water from the tap. If any of this was true, he wasn’t much looking forward to his future.
‘Wait a minute,’ asked Michael. ‘What has any of this got to do with me? If what you’re saying is true it sounds tragic, I’ll grant you, but what do you expect me to do about it?’
‘Michael, we need you to stop it.’
‘Me? Why me?’
‘Because, right now, you’re the only one who can.’
Michael stood in his bathroom, gazing, open-mouthed at his reflection. He didn’t say anything for a couple of seconds, and then he swallowed hard. Even though he had just taken a drink, his throat felt dry and constricted. He took another sip of water from the tap and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before speaking again.
‘I…I…don’t understand.’ The thoughts were coming at Michael thick and fast. He tried to grab on to anything that could help him to make sense of the situation, but nothing worked. Every possible explanation as to why this was happening to him seemed to slip through his mental fingers like so much sand.
The voice continued.
‘I know you don’t understand, Michael, and if we were to let the course of time run normally you wouldn’t understand until it was too late. That’s why I’ve had to contact you this way. It’s the only way we can stop what’s happening here and what will happen in your timeline.’
‘But I don’t get it,’ said Michael, almost wailing. ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘You need to stop MindSet from ever being invented.’
‘What? How? I wouldn’t even know where to begin!’
‘I’ll help you,’ said the voice, calmly.
‘But why me? Why have I got to do this?’
‘Because every other attempt to stop it has failed.’
‘What do you mean “every other attempt”?’ Michael returned to the bedroom and sat down on the bed with a thump. He didn’t like the thought of something with this much responsibility being laid at his feet.
‘You’re not the first person we’ve tried to contact over this, Michael.’
‘No, you’re not.’
‘I still don’t understand. If you can get in touch with others about this MindSet thing, why not get them to do something about it? I’m a financial investor, not a chemist! I don’t know the first thing about making drugs and stuff like that.’
‘But you do know about setting people up with capital to get new projects off the ground, don’t you, Michael?’
‘I…well…I guess so.’
‘Don’t be modest, Michael,’ said the voice, with a hint of irritation. ‘I remember enough of that time to know that you, that we, were damn good at the job.’
‘So, what are you saying?’
‘I’m saying, Michael, that you got the deal done that led to the eventual manufacture of MindSet.’
Michael went silent for a moment.
‘So…you’re saying it’s my fault? The insanity? The killings? You’re blaming me?’
‘No, of course not,’ said the voice, almost snapping. ‘If this whole mess was your fault do you think I’d be talking to you now? Don’t forget, I’m you. If this was our fault they’d have strung me up for it long before now.’
‘So, what am I expected to do?’
‘A week from tomorrow you’ll have an appointment with a Dr Raymond Baker.’
‘I will?’ The name didn’t sound familiar to Michael.
‘Yes, you will. He’s the man behind MindSet.’
‘And he’ll want financing for the project?’
‘Exactly.’ The voice sounded pleased that Michael was catching on.
‘Well then that’s easy. I’ll just turn him down. If he can’t get the money he can’t make MindSet, right?’
‘Wrong,’ said the voice, with no small amount of weight to its tone. ‘If only it were that simple.’
‘What do you mean?’ Michael felt as if the light that had maybe appeared at the end of the tunnel could now turn out to be an oncoming train.
‘If you turn him down for financing he’ll just go somewhere else. He can’t be allowed to get the money he needs to move the MindSet project forward. He just can’t.’
‘So what am I supposed to do?’
The voice didn’t say anything.
‘Hello?’ Michael felt uncomfortable in the silence.
The voice sighed.
‘Michael, get yourself a drink.’
‘I’ve had one.’
‘I mean a real drink.’
‘Please, just do it.’
Puzzled, and slightly afraid, Michael rose from the bed and made his way downstairs. He went into the kitchen and located the bottle of whiskey that he had gotten for Christmas from his brother that year. He didn’t drink much, and he wasn’t really a whiskey man, but he could never bring himself to tell his brother that he was lousy at buying presents.
Michael opened another cupboard, took a tumbler down from one of the shelves and poured himself a measure.
‘Right, I have my drink.’
‘Whiskey?’ asked the voice.
‘How did you…’ said Michael. He was about to ask how the voice knew he had a glass of whiskey in his hand, but this…thing…whatever it was, was meant to be him.
Michael took a sip of the whiskey and felt the fire coat the inside of his throat.
‘Okay, so how do I stop MindSet from being made?’
‘Michael, we need you to kill Dr Baker.’
A woman walking past Michael’s house heard what she thought was glass breaking. She slowed her steps for a second and then carried on her way.
* * *
‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ shouted Michael, as he backed away from the broken glass of the tumbler that had, seconds before, slipped out of his hands and shattered on the kitchen floor.
‘Michael, calm down.’
‘No I will not calm down!’ Michael was still shouting. He was angry and scared and confused all at once, and all of his senses were on edge. He looked at the fragments of glass sitting in the pool of liquid on the floor with utter disgust.
Michael ran his fingers through his hair irritably and paced back and forth, keeping away from the glistening shards with his bare and vulnerable feet.
‘Look, whoever, or whatever, you are, I’ve had just about enough of this! You invade my thoughts somehow, string me some bullshit story about being from the future, and now you want me to kill someone? Either I’ve gone completely crazy or you have. Which is it?’
The voice didn’t reply.
‘Well?’ Michael was furious. How dare the voice ignore him now? How dare it!
‘Michael, I’m sorry that I’ve had to come to you with this.’
Michael snorted in derision.
‘But I promise you, I wouldn’t have done so if it weren’t the only way to stop what’s happened. What will happen for you if we don’t stop this.’
The voice sounded cracked, as if it were holding back tears. Michael noticed but he didn’t care. He was too angry.
‘I’m not killing anyone, do you hear me?’
‘I’m afraid it’s the only way.’
‘But you’re talking about murder! I won’t be a part of that!’
‘And I don’t blame you for feeling this way, but think about it. We’re talking about one life weighed up against countless others. MindSet is ripping our world apart. People are either going insane or falling victim to the insane. Please, Michael. I know it’s asking a lot…’
‘A lot? You’re asking me to commit murder, for Christ’s sake! Forgetting, for a second, that we’re talking about ending another human being’s life, I could spend the rest of my life in prison because of this. I’m sorry, but that’s not what I had planned for my future!’
The voice said nothing for a moment. When it spoke again Michael could clearly hear tears choking the words.
‘Please, Michael,’ it begged. ‘If not for us, do it for her.’
‘Her? Who are you talking about?’
‘My wife, Michael. Our wife.’
‘I don’t have a wife!’
Michael said nothing. He swallowed, hard, and ran his fingers through his hair.
‘We…we get married?’
‘Yes.’ The voice sounded despondent now.
‘I can’t give you too many details, I’m afraid. I’ve already told you more than I should, but her name is…was Kathryn.’
‘Was? You mean she’s…’
The word hung in the air like a lead weight, pressing down on Michael. His mind did an instant roll-call of all the women he knew, and there were no Kathryns.
‘What happened to her? Can you tell me anything?’
‘MindSet. She was one of its victims.’
‘How…how did she…’
‘I don’t want to talk about that,’ said the voice. ‘All you need know is that she’ll make you happier than you ever thought possible, and losing her…’
The voice faltered.
‘I’m sorry.’ Michael felt wretched for losing his temper with the voice.
‘This is why we need you; to save her, to save us, to save everyone that MindSet will touch.’
‘Okay,’ said Michael. He took a deep breath. ‘I’ll do it.’
‘But you need to help me. Killing someone isn’t exactly something I’m used to.’
‘I know,’ said the voice, relief audible in his words. ‘I’ll help you as much as I can.’
‘So, this Dr Baker will be making an appointment with me a week from tomorrow, right?’
‘How do I do it? I don’t much fancy going to prison for murder.’
‘You won’t,’ said the voice, firmly. ‘Not if you do exactly what I tell you.’
‘Do I need to do anything before I see Baker?’
‘Yes. We need to go shopping.’
‘Okay, just tell me what I need to do.’
* * *
Michael dressed in fresh clothes as the voice continued to speak to him. He stopped with his trousers half way up his legs as the voice began discussing the method with which Michael was to kill Dr Baker.
‘You want me to what?’ said Michael, frozen in mid-dress.
‘You’re going to need to poison Dr Baker if there’s any chance of us walking away from this blame-free.’
‘But how? I wouldn’t even know where to begin.’
‘Don’t worry, Michael. I’ve got a list here with me that I have on good authority will concoct just what we need.’
‘Good authority? Whose? Do I make a habit of befriending killers in the future?’
‘Whose authority doesn’t matter, Michael. All I can say is that everyone involved at my end is as keen for this to work as I am.’
‘Please, Michael. This isn’t going to be easy, and we need to get you moving if you’re going to get everything you need in time.’
‘But, you said Baker won’t be coming to see me for a week. Don’t I have plenty of time?’
‘Frankly, no. What you’re going to cook up takes time, and there’s every possibility you’ll mess it up a few times before you get it right.’
Michael felt like he should take offence at this remark, but he quickly realised that he didn’t want to be a good killer. He didn’t want to be a killer at all. However, taking one life to save countless others, including his apparent future wife was hard to argue with.
‘Okay, I’m dressed,’ said Michael, as he zipped up his jacket. ‘Where do you need me to go?’
‘A few places,’ said the voice. ‘We don’t want you arousing suspicion by buying everything you need in one place.’
Michael felt a little chill as he contemplated how much that made sense. He really didn’t want to start thinking like a killer.
‘How should I pay?’ asked Michael, as a thought struck him.
‘Is it going to matter if I use my debit card, or would you advise I use cash?’
‘Good thinking, Michael. Cash would be better. No paper trail.’
Again Michael felt a pang at how easy it appeared to be to think like a criminal. He didn’t enjoy the feeling, but the fact that he was thinking ahead to keep himself out of suspicion for after the deed was done was an odd sensation. The moral side of him felt like he should get caught; that murder was wrong no matter how you spun it, but each time he started thinking this way the words of the voice would echo in his mind.
All those people.
All that senseless killing.
He could stop it with this one action.
It made Michael’s insides lurch, but he didn’t think he could live with the deaths of thousands of people on his conscience, especially if one of them was his future wife.
Michael tried his best to push the thought that however noble his actions might seem, he was still embarking on a plot to kill another human being.
He had to take a moment to steady his breathing before he entered the first shop and begin buying what the voice told him he needed.
* * *
It took the rest of the afternoon, but Michael finally returned home with everything he apparently needed to mix up the poison that was meant to kill Dr Baker. Michael found that he had a very hard time looking the various shop assistants in the eye as he made his purchases; knowing, as he did, what he would be using them for.
‘So, you’ve got everything?’ asked the voice, when Michael had laid his shopping bags down on his kitchen table.
‘I think so.’ Michael was worn out, both physically and emotionally.
‘Let’s do a double check to make sure.’ The voice ran through the list for what felt to Michael like the tenth time that day, but he had succeeded in getting everything on it.
‘What’s going to happen?’ asked Michael.
‘What do you mean?’
‘If I succeed.’
‘When you succeed,’ said the voice, insistently. ‘We can’t afford to fail. Not now.’
‘Okay, when I succeed. What will happen?’
‘I’m not really sure. I assume that the death of Dr Baker occurring before he has a chance to put MindSet into manufacture will erase the timeline that I now occupy.’
‘So, you’ll just disappear?’ Michael didn’t like the thought of erasing an entire timeline, even if it was one where so much horror was happening.
‘I think so, yes.’
‘I won’t be dead though,’ said the voice, reassuringly. ‘Killing Dr Baker will erase this timeline and destroy all the effects MindSet ever had on the world, because it won’t have ever been made.’
‘So what will happen instead?’
‘Anything’s got to be better than what’s happening here now,’ said the voice, bitterness etched into every word.
Michael didn’t say anything for a moment, so the voice continued.
‘I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but what I do know is that your life will be unaffected from your point of view. Life for you in 2015 will continue as it always has, minus my little verbal contributions, of course.’
‘How will I know if it’s worked?’
‘When it works, Michael, I’ll stop talking to you, because the link will be gone. This future that I occupy will cease to be and, God willing, a new and better future will happen in its stead.’
‘Will you be able to contact me to let me know if it’s worked?’
‘Of course not,’ said the voice, chuckling slightly. ‘When you do what needs to be done I won’t have lived the timeline that would result in me needing to contact you at all. It’ll be like it never happened.’
‘So will I remember any of this?’
Michael felt strange. He had gotten so used to hearing the voice in his head, even though it had only been with him for a matter of hours, that an odd mix of emotions hit him at the thought of not remembering the exchanges. He didn’t think he was sad, but the feeling had an unpleasantness to it all the same. He tried to put it out of his mind.
‘Anyway,’ said the voice, snapping Michael back to the present. ‘Nothing’s going to happen at all if we don’t get to work.’
‘Okay, what do I do first?’
‘Follow my instructions to the letter.’
‘Okay, let’s do it.’
* * *
Mixing the poison turned out to be a lot harder than Michael expected, although, when he analysed his thoughts on this, he had to admit that he didn’t really know what to expect. He went to work as usual and tried to keep his mind on his job, but that was no easy task. Knowing that each evening he would be returning home to carry on working on a murderous concoction that he’d be giving to another human being in order to end their life was not a thought easily shaken. Fortunately, Michael was good at his job, and this afforded him a certain degree of autonomy around the office. This meant that no one really saw how distracted he was during that week.
The weekend came, and Michael had to cancel some plans with friends to put the finishing touches on the poison. Dr Baker would be coming to see him on the Monday, and he had to be ready.
As he worked a thought struck him that instantly had him worried.
‘How quickly is this going to kill Dr Baker?’ He felt cold and callous for asking such a question, but he felt he had to. ‘I mean, I know you’ve said this stuff will be untraceable, but if he dies in my office I’m going to be involved in the investigation, aren’t I?’
‘Providing you mix the elements just right,’ said the voice. ‘It should kill him in a matter of seconds.’
‘What?’ Michael was suddenly gripped by panic. ‘How am I supposed to explain a man dropping dead in my office right after I hand him a drink? Don’t you think that’s going to look a touch suspicious?’
‘It won’t matter,’ said the voice.
‘How?’ Michael could feel doubt over the whole plan seeping into his mind.
‘Because when Dr Baker dies in your timeline, he won’t exist in the future to put MindSet into manufacture. That will effectively erase what I call the present and your timeline will snap back to before I contacted you.’
‘Will I remember anything about this?’
‘You won’t be able to,’ said the voice. ‘Because it won’t have happened.’
‘But what if you’re wrong? I could go to prison for the rest of my life for murder!’
‘It won’t go wrong, Michael.’ The voice was reassuring but firm. ‘I know what I’m doing, and the information I have in my timeline means that, as long as you do what I tell you, this will work.’
‘I hope you’re right,’ said Michael.
* * *
Monday came, and the mixture was finally ready. Michael felt what had become an all too familiar squirm of guilt and tension in his stomach as he poured the clear, odourless liquid into a flask.
‘Strange,’ he said, almost to himself.
‘What is?’ asked the voice.
‘This stuff looks so harmless, but knowing what it’s going to do… it’s a strange duality.’
‘That’s how I feel about MindSet. A simple innocent pill that boasted so much promise: all the while hiding a terrible secret, one that we wouldn’t know about it until it was too late.’
Both Michael and the voice were silent for a moment.
‘But that’s all about to change,’ said the voice, perking up. ‘Just make sure that Dr Baker takes a drink. He has to take the poison.’
‘I’ll do my best.’
‘You have to, Michael. For all our sakes.’
* * *
As Michael made his way to work, he found that he couldn’t meet people’s gazes as he passed them. It was a similar feeling to when he was buying the various ingredients for the concoction that was stored in the flask in his bag. He knew what he was up to, and he was terrified that the guilt and fear that seemed to pulsate through him would somehow become noticeable to others. He worried about being found out, but at the same time he worried, perhaps more, about taking another’s life. He tried his best to concentrate on the lives that he would be saving by doing this, and eventually he made it to his office.
‘All set?’ asked the voice, as Michael closed the door to his office.
‘I’ve just got in,’ said Michael.
A thought began nagging at Michael. It somehow made itself heard amongst the jumble of worried and tangled thoughts that were barraging his mind that morning.
‘What if Dr Baker says he’s not thirsty?’
‘He has to take a drink, Michael. Whatever it takes, he has to.’
‘I’ll try, but I can’t force him.’
The voice didn’t say anything for a minute or two. This worried Michael.
‘Go to the vending machine,’ said the voice at last. ‘Buy a packet of cheese and onion crisps and pour them into a bowl. Put the bowl on your desk where Baker will see them.’
Michael frowned at the oddly specific instructions.
‘Why?’ he asked.
‘Just do it!’
In the absence of any other ideas on how to ensure Dr Baker took a drink, Michael left his office and trotted quickly down the corridor. He fumbled nervously in his pockets for some change and bought the packet of crisps. He avoided making small talk with another employee at the machine; his stomach in knots. Michael took the crisps to the staff kitchen, took a cereal bowl out of one of the cupboards and emptied the crisps into the bowl. Returning to his office, he still felt nervous.
‘Will this work?’
‘Yes. Our intelligence has confirmed that Baker loves cheese and onion crisps. He’ll eat the whole bowl, if you let him.’
‘Michael. Let him.’
Michael placed the bowl of crisps on the desk and then went over to his bag. He pulled out the small flask and placed it in one of his desk drawers, out of sight. He then tried to busy himself until his appointment with Baker, but he was far too distracted to get any work done. He chewed his thumbnail and repeatedly glanced at the clock on the wall. The minutes seemed to drag by with excruciating slowness, and as they did the gravity of what he was doing pressed down on him like a suffocating blanket.
When his office phone rang, Michael nearly jumped out of his chair.
Shakily, he picked up the receiver.
‘Michael Kerrow speaking,’ he said, trying to sound calm and professional.
It was Rebecca on Reception.
‘Mister Kerrow, there is a Dr Raymond Baker here to see you.’
Michael swallowed hard. His throat felt dry and unpleasant.
This was it.
‘Thank you, Rebecca. Please show him up.’
If the wait for the appointment had been torturous, it was nothing compared to the time in between Michael asking Baker to be shown to his office and him arriving. It seemed to take forever. Michael’s mind was racing. He contemplated running out of the building and not going through with it. He thought of trying to warn Baker instead. He attempted to steady himself by placing a hand on the edge of his desk and gripping hard. He focussed on his breathing and thought of the people who were going to die if Baker was allowed to move forward with the idea that he would be bringing to Michael in mere moments.
Lives he could save.
There was a knock at the door.
Rising on legs that felt like they were made of lead, Michael walked to the door and opened it. Before him stood a short man with thinning hair and glasses; a benign smile on his face.
It was Dr Baker.
‘Michael Kerrow?’ asked Dr Baker.
‘Yes.’ Michael’s mouth felt heavy and stupid; as if it were full of mud.
‘I’m Raymond Baker. I have an appointment.’
‘Please, come in.’
Michael could feel that he was sweating now. Dr Baker walked into the office and took a seat. Michael made his way back to his desk and sat down. Those few steps seemed to take an age.
‘Can I get you anything?’ asked Michael, his insides writhing horribly.
‘No, thank you.’
‘So, how can I help you?’ Michael felt almost ridiculous putting on this façade of normalcy and professionalism when he knew what he was about to do. On the outside he was doing everything he could to maintain the impression of the normal Michael Kerrow, but on the inside he was screaming at himself.
Michael shifted position in his chair and tried to maintain focus.
‘I’ve come to discuss the possibility for funding for a pharmaceutical project that I’m involved with,’ said Dr Baker; all enthusiasm and promise.
‘Oh? Can you tell me about this project, please?’
Dr Baker reached to the floor and brought up the leather portfolio that he had with him. He placed it on the desk; Michael watching him like a hawk. As he unzipped the portfolio, Michael thought he saw Baker’s eyes dart quickly to the bowl of crisps on the desk.
Go on, he thought. Take one.
But he didn’t.
Baker’s presentation on what would eventually become MindSet sailed right over Michael’s head. He tried to pay attention, but his mind was thrumming with tension. He continued to watch Dr Baker as he spoke, and as the presentation wore on he definitely saw Baker eyeing the crisps from time to time.
It was his only chance.
Michael waited for Dr Baker to finish speaking before reaching over and taking one of the crisps and popping it into his mouth. It tasted bland and dry in his mouth as he crunched, but in taking a crisp he had drawn more of Baker’s attention to the bowl. Dr Baker looked up and caught Michael’s gaze.
‘Please, help yourself,’ said Michael, indicating the bowl.
‘Thank you, don’t mind if I do.’ Dr Baker took a crisp from the bowl and began eating it.
‘Hmmm, cheese and onion,’ said Baker happily. ‘My favourite.’
‘Mine too,’ lied Michael.
The conversation continued, with Baker growing more and more passionate about the potential for his project, and Michael doing his best to keep the doctor talking so the topic of a drink could be brought up again. Luckily, the voice’s intelligence had been right. After Baker had that first crisp his gaze returned to the bowl a lot more.
Got you, thought Michael, and then instantly felt awful for it.
‘Do you mind if I have another?’ asked Dr Baker.
‘By all means,’ said Michael. ‘I’m not as hungry as I thought I’d be.’
‘Thank you.’ This time, Baker pulled out a few crisps from the bowl and ate them with no small amount of satisfaction. Michael continued to use every trick he had learned to lengthen the conversation. After a while, the bowl sat empty on his desk.
‘Can I get you something to wash those down with, doctor?’ asked Michael with a faux innocence that nearly made him sick.
‘Yes please,’ said Baker, smiling. ‘I’m sorry for polishing them all off.’
‘Quite alright,’ said Michael. ‘I’ll just be a minute.’
Michael pulled open the drawer in his desk and pulled out the flask. As he rose to leave his desk his heart froze as he saw Dr Baker looking at him.
He’d seen the flask!
Dr Baker looked at Michael questioningly.
Quick! Think of something!
‘Erm…I always bring my own water to work to make drinks,’ said Michael, trying desperately to keep the rising panic out of his voice. ‘The water we get here is too hard for my tastes.’
Dr Baker continued to look at Michael for what seemed like an eternity.
He sees through you!
Sees through your lies!
‘I see.’ Baker went back to putting his papers into his portfolio, and Michael could feel his legs weaken underneath him. He held on to the edge of his desk to stop himself from stumbling, and he made his way over to the corner of his office where the kettle and cups stood on a cupboard.
‘Tea or coffee?’ asked Michael. He could feel the sweat clinging to his shirt. If this went on much longer Baker might start to grow suspicious.
Michael turned his back on Baker so that he couldn’t see what he was doing. Fortunately, the doctor had brought quite a few papers with him, and he was busy putting them back in order. Michael made the drinks and felt a deep, plunging sensation in the pit of his stomach as he unscrewed the flask and added the contents to Dr Baker’s drink.
Please forgive me for this, Michael thought to himself.
He took the drinks back to the desk and placed the now poisoned cup of tea in front of Dr Baker, who took it gratefully.
‘So, what do you think of my proposal?’ asked the doctor.
‘I think it sounds very interesting,’ said Michael, before taking a sip of his tea, hoping that this would urge Baker to do the same.
Come on, drink!
Baker raised the cup to his lips.
‘Will I be able to count on you for the funding, then?’
The cup was lowered slightly.
Michael put his own cup down to avoid it falling out of his hands. He felt as if his whole body was trembling uncontrollably. He took a steadying breath before speaking again.
‘I think we’ll be able to work together,’ he said, finally.
‘Oh that’s wonderful!’ said Dr Baker, sounding delighted.
He raised his cup again.
‘To the future,’ he said, proposing a toast of sorts.
‘The future,’ said Michael, feeling wretched.
Dr Baker smiled and took a generous swig of his drink.
He placed the cup back on the desk and Michael sat there, rigid and pale faced.
‘Are you alright, Michael?’ asked Baker.
‘What? Oh yes, yes. Fine.’ Michael wanted to break down and cry until his throat burned.
‘You seem a little…’
Dr Baker’s words were cut short and replaced by a strangulated sound that emanated from him like the gargle of a blocked drain. The doctor’s expression changed from mild concern to wide-eyed shock and fear in a matter of seconds. His eyes bulged as he looked pleadingly at Michael, his hands clawing at his throat.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Michael, in a small, weak voice. He looked into the terror-struck eyes of Raymond Baker as they gazed their last on the world.
‘I really am sorry.’
Dr Baker didn’t hear this last wretched apology.
Dr Baker was dead.
Michael stared in stunned silence as the doctor’s body stiffened and then tumbled out of the chair like a rag doll. The thud of his lifeless body hitting the carpeted floor sounded like a death knell in Michael’s ears.
He had done it.
How could he have done it?
How could you have done it?
The world suddenly felt strange and alien. Edges lost their definition and seemed blurry and out of focus. Michael shook his head and screwed up his eyes. Something was pulling at his attention: a noise.
No. Not a noise.
‘Michael! What have you done?’
What had he done?
Michael blinked several times in rapid succession, and as he did so the scene in front of him changed. Where Dr Baker’s body had lain there were now several bodies, and there was a lot of blood.
An awful lot of blood.
A woman’s scream pierced through the fog in Michael’s head for just long enough for him to focus. He looked around and thought, dully, that he wasn’t in his office.
Where was he?
And who were all these people?
And why were they all shouting?
‘Quick! Someone call the Police!’
‘Get an ambulance!’
‘Hold him down!’
Michael suddenly felt hands on him; rough hands; hands that had no kindness to them. He felt his arms being pulled from his sides. He caught sight of his palms before they were jerked out of view.
They were covered in blood.
As Michael was manhandled to the floor, he heard laughing.
Who on earth was laughing?
‘Get him out of here!’ came a gruff voice from somewhere above him. Michael felt himself being dragged to his feet. The room was full of people he didn’t know, including the bodies strewn on the blood-streaked floor. Their expressions were of anger, fear and revulsion.
And still someone was laughing.
To one side a mirror hung askew on the wall; cracked and smeared with a bloody handprint. Michael locked eyes with the source of the laughter.
It was him.
He was laughing.
Just like the others.
He was laughing.
Michael Kerrow was led away from the scene. As he shambled out of the room his feet kicked their way through the detritus that peppered the floor. One of the many items was a small cylindrical medicine bottle. It rolled in a lopsided circle and came to a stop with its label facing up.
The label said MindSet, and the prescription was made out to one Michael Kerrow.
* * *
- April 2015