Riverport General Hospital, February 8th 2010, Riverport, Massachusetts.
“No”, Will whispered in a weak tone of voice. “I didn’t see what he looked like.”
Detective Mahoney, sitting in the chair next to the bed, made a note. “So you have no idea who shot you or why?”
“The time machine started”, Will said in that weak, hoarse voice. “He must have come from the future.”
“Will…” Jack rubbed a hand over his tired eyes.
“The… time machine?” Mahoney looked at William as if he had grown a second head. “So, you believe you were shot by someone from the future? Maybe I should come back when you’re feeling better, Mr Joyce.” The chair scraped against the floor as he pushed it back, then came a creak of relief as the man eased his heavy body onto his feet.
“Way to go, Will”, Jack muttered after the door had closed behind the detective. “The police will think you’re either insane or on drugs, or both.”
“I know what happened. The time machine became active and it worked! Someone came through, Jack! There is someone from the future here in Riverport!”
“Do you even hear yourself?” Jack asked, anger making his voice hard.
“I only got a glimpse of him”, Will continued as if Jack hadn’t spoken at all. “He kept… shifting… as if he could move within the Meyer-Joyce field itself. No, not only move, he could manipulate it.”
“For God’s sake!” Jack all but shouted. “Someone almost killed you and all you can talk about is that fucking machine! You’re delusional, Will!”
“You were there”, his brother said stubbornly. “You saw it too. The ripple-effect. You have to go back to the workshop, Jack. Get my laptop and download the logs from the core. Then I can prove to you that I’m right, that I’m not just imagining things.”
“I can’t go back there!” Distress started to bleed through the anger. “You can’t ask that of me.”
“You have to. Don’t you understand?” Will’s eyes had taken on that feverish gleam that Jack had come to hate. “This could be the breakthrough I’ve been needing to make the university give me more time and another grant.” He grabbed Jack’s hand, giving it a squeeze. “Please, Jack…”
Jack felt his shoulders slump and the fight go out of him. I’m leaving Riverport, he thought, meeting his brother’s gaze. As soon as he’s back on his feet and out of the hospital, I’ll go. And I’m not coming back. “Yeah, alright”, he mumbled. “I’ll go tonight.”
Will gave him a bright smile. “Thank you, Jack, thank you. I won’t forget this. Once I can prove that the machine works everything will change. Literally.”
Jack stopped listening. Ignoring Will’s crazy was something he’d gotten a lot of practice of after their parent’s death. Before the car accident, Will had been seen as one of Riverport’s stars. A genius who’d sailed through high school, who’d chosen to remain at the local university instead of heading off to MIT or Cal Tech. And the university had rewarded him, given him everything he wanted. He had put them on the map. Riverport U had gone from a small, backwaters place to be the centre of new cutting-edge science. Will had been nineteen when he’d proven the existence of the Chronon-particle. At age twenty-two he’d headed his own research department. Now, eleven years later, he was considered a has-been, a genius who had burnt his candle in both ends.
The death of their parents had made Will lose all structure in his life, had pushed him into a downwards spiral that had ended with him having to be forcibly removed from the campus and permanently locked out of what just a year earlier had been his lab.
It had gone downhill after that. And Jack had been the one who’d been force to deal with it. To make sure the bills got paid, that there was food in the fridge, that his brother ate and showered. It had been like living with a ghost; a ghost who shuffled around the house wearing nothing but boxers and one sock while mumbling to the voices in his head.
Jack swallowed past the lump of bitterness and resentment that seemed to be firmly lodged somewhere between his throat and his heart, and listened with half an ear to Will who rambled on about time travelling and visitors from the future. I’m leaving Riverport, he thought, watching that obsessed gleam in his brother’s eyes. I’m leaving and I mean it this time. For real. I’m leaving and never coming back.
I’M LEAVING RIVERPORT AND I’M never coming back… I’m leaving Riverport and I’m never coming back… I’m leaving… He repeated the words over and over like a mantra as he waited for Detective Mahoney and his partner to leave Will’s workshop. The crime-scene, he thought with a sick sort of sinking feeling churning in his guts.
“Time machine?” The man said, shaking his head. “And here I thought I’d heard it all.” He was built like a quarterback with hands the size of toilet-lids, and Jack really didn’t want to end up in an interrogation room down at the station, getting a close up look at the guy’s face.
“Joyce claims the guy that shot him is from the future.”
“Jesus… What the hell are they smoking these days?” The two detectives disappeared behind the corner of the building, presumably heading back to their car, and Jack never got to hear them finish the conversation, but he was pretty sure that the word ‘crazy’ would come up a lot.
He waited for another minute, minute and a half, before pulling up the hood of the black sweater he had on, tugging it down so it shadowed his face, then he jogged across the street, keeping his head down, avoiding the circles of light painted by the street-lamps.
A note on the door informed him that this was an active crime-scene and any trespassing would result in both fines and jail-time, and for those who couldn’t, or wasn’t bothered with reading, there was the official yellow police-tape as seen in countless TV-shows and films.
Jack used the key Will had given him, unlocked the door and slipped inside.
The maglite cut through the shadows, playing over turned off computer screens and what looked like stacks of advanced control panels mixed with servers. Beyond that, the large structure of Will’s machine rose with the scaffolding circling the geometrical sphere and cabling snaking across the floor.
Having ignored the thing on his previous visits, Jack curiously moved a little closer, really seeing it for the first time. Ringed by what looked like a maintenance walkway, was the octagonal sphere that gleamed dully in the light from the maglite. Each face of it was jacked and wired with what looked like a couple of tons worth of heavy-gauge cables that poured down to snake across the concrete floor before it got tangled up in the scaffolding that encircled the sphere.
Had Will really managed to build all this by himself? Jack knew his brother had poured every dime he had into the project, using up what had been left of his grant, not to mention the money he had inherited from their parents. He had even taken loans and a second mortgage on their house, which had forced Jack to work his way trough High School, often holding down several jobs in order to stay on top of the payments so they wouldn’t end up losing their home.
He had come to hate the machine, and Will’s obsession with it. But now, for the first time, he found himself wondering what if… What if Will was right and the thing really was a time machine? What if they could go back and prevent the accident that had taken their parents life? What if…
A metallic clank of something being knocked over made him turn around. “Hello? Anyone there?” His voice echoed in the following silence. Then something flickered in the corner of his eye and he spun, raising the flashlight, hoping to blind whoever it was that was sneaking up on him.
But it wasn’t one of the homeless winos who hung out under the bridge, or some would be thief hoping to find something worth stealing. Instead he came face to face with a thing that made him question his sanity: a swarm of those fractured shards he and Paul had seen seemed to assemble before his eyes, taking on the shape of a human. Jack gasped and nearly dropped the maglite as the shards stitched together, creating the fractured image of a man. He caught a glimpse of luminous dark skin, of keen eyes, and for a second it looked like the man, or whatever it was, smiled. Then an arm shot out from the swarming shards, as solid as Jack’s own, and grabbed for him.
“F-fuck…” Jack scrambled back, stumbled on one of the cables and fell, hitting the floor hard enough that the wind was knocked out of him. The flashlight rolled from his limp fingers, sending the light all over the place.
Struggling to fill his aching lungs, Jack got staccato glimpses of the fractured man closing the distance between them in a couple of strides. Then he materialized.
“Well hello, Jack.” His voice was a rich alpha-wave hum.
“Who the fuck are you?” Jack wheezed the words out.
“You don’t know me yet”, the man said, crouching in front of them, bringing them at eye-level. “But one day, not so far from now, you and I will stand on opposite sides in a war. A war you inevitably will lose.”
Jack gulped down some air. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“The future, Jack. Now, tell me where your brother’s laptop is.”
“Fuck-” The man grabbed him by the throat and squeezed, effectively cutting off his air-supply.
“I think we’ve already established that”, the man said in a calm, even tone of voice. “I need what’s on that laptop, and I need it now. Time is, after all, precious.”
Jack trashed and squirmed in the man’s vice-like grip like a fish caught on a hook. His head was pounding, his lungs burning with a fierce and desperate need to breathe. The lack of oxygen was eating away at his senses.
“B-bastard…” He managed, clawing at the hand squeezing his throat. That red light he had noticed when entering the warehouse and finding Will shot was back, pulsating in time with his racing heart. He was vaguely aware of reality having shattered again, or perhaps it was time itself. Jack looked into the man’s face. He hadn’t broken a sweat or changed expression. As calmly as if he was simply adjusting a tie, he was slowly squeezing the life out of him.
Time… Jack thought inside a quickly thickening fog, dimly aware of the rush of his own blood filling his ears. This is all the time I got and I wasted it… The world seemed to darken around him, his eyes swimming with shadows.
The next thing he knew a flash went off, and something tore the man away from him. Jack sucked in air in great, painful gulps, his head spinning. Around him those fractured pieces of reality reflected light and movement; crazy glimpses of two men exchanging blows Van Damme style.
Jack struggled to stay conscious. He pushed himself up on his hands and knees, and started to crawl away, wanting to get out of the blast-zone. Behind him, that wild, impossible dance continued. Then something grabbed him and hoisted him up off the floor. Jack’s head spun with vertigo. Then he was outside, as if God had taken a pair of scissors and simply cut out the thirty seconds or so it must have taken to cross the empty space between the machine, the raised dais that was Will’s HQ with its setup of computers and control panels, and the door leading out of the warehouse.
The icy wind suddenly hitting him was a shock to his senses, and it cleared his head a little. He realised that someone was half-carrying half-dragging him along and he craned his head, catching a glimpse of a familiar profile under a mop of dark hair.
The world tilted again and the vertigo increased until he felt like he was on a roller-coaster, flying through the cold, velvety darkness. He could hear a voice, both rough and soft, speaking to him: “C’mon, Jacks… keep breathing… Stay with me…” Then the dazzling, cold darkness swallowed everything, pulling him with it, and he was more than happy to let it.