Ethan immediately felt the difference. The death of his original body had released him from its anchoring influence. He no longer needed Memnon or anything else from the physical universe.
And with that snapping of his tether, Ethan’s abilities took a quantum leap. He no longer felt that he was groping through time and space.
He flashed to the moment in the clearing as Hulse’s body tumbled to the forest floor and thrashed in pain. He saw Jasper lining up the shot that would end Churchill.
Plenty of time. I have a promise to keep.
Where would he find the fulcrum point to change everything? Ethan blinked inside his mind and returned to the lightning bolt.
He had been here many times and had been unable to change the outcome. He saw why. He had always believed in the insurmountable power of the lightning, but had fought it anyway. He had focused on the wrong point in time. He needed to go back earlier.
Which point? Could he go back to the kite delivery, confuse the UPS driver and make him unable to find Ethan’s address?
No. Ethan could not influence other minds. He had tried. And then in a flash he knew the place that he needed to apply pressure. He saw the moment that could change the course of everything and where he had some chance of success.
But he also saw incompatible consequences.
Ethan thought of another time and blinked in his mind. He saw himself with Beth as they ran down the hill, trying to avoid the rain. He would not waste effort trying to change Beth’s actions. The true potential was with himself, his own body. His own spirit animated that body. He couldn’t influence other entities, but might he align himself with his own energy? If a chance for success existed, that would be the entry point.
Ethan probed gently at the outer edges of his then-consciousness. The touch felt strange. He did not feel the wall he had encountered in trying to contact others. Ideas and impulses flooded him, the waves of conscious thought that made up his being.
Ethan felt the frenzied excitement of running through the rain with Beth, the joy of their love. He did not experience a flash of memory, but rather the moment as it unfolded again, now intensified by the rush of energy from his physical self, his own senses as they lived the experience.
The torrent of his own emotions caught him up, dragged him along and intoxicated him with sensations. He relived a singular moment in his life which could be a turning point of ultimate importance.
Ethan mentally shook himself for almost allowing opportunity to slip away. In a few seconds the lightning would arrive. He had fought to get here, had worked to insinuate himself into his own mind. Now he must act. He must change what had been. If it worked, he could not turn back. He would have looped back along his own timeline, cutting off everything that had been.
Beyond that image of what Ethan intended, he could see nothing, as if a wall had been erected in time. Would he cease to exist? But Beth might live.
The first fat raindrops began to fall. Ethan willed one command: TRIP HER NOW!
Beth turned to Ethan and ran sideways, looking at her husband with sheer mischief. “Meet you in the barn. Try to find me. I’ll be the naked one.”
TRIP HER NOW!
Beth turned and lifted her right knee, the first step of her sprint. His past-self did not hear him, did not respond. Or perhaps the stubbornness inside his other self rejected an idea that seemed alien.
Ethan pushed his energy up to the being that had been him. He lost himself in it, tried to blur the edge between them. Frontal assault would not work. He had to make himself think that this was his own thought. Ethan lost himself in the effort.
At exactly the right moment, Ethan’s past-self snaked out his left leg and planted it in front of Beth’s right foot. As she brought that leg forward, it collided with the solid part of Ethan’s calf. She twisted to the left, stumbled, and went down on the slippery grass.
The sky burst as a billion volts of electricity found its grounding. It flashed to the old oak tree, the highest point in the vicinity.
The lightning bolt lasted a nanosecond, but that amount of time stretched like eternity. Ethan lived inside that tiny blister of time as forces beyond his ken sputtered and pulsed and became incandescent reality around him. He was in it now. For an instant he felt only chaos…and then everything changed.
The oak exploded and Ethan smacked into the mud, face-down. One of the lightning streamers crackled across the ground and brushed past him, feeling like a hot steamroller running over his body. It spat and hissed and slammed across the clearing like a whip in the hands of a madman. It hit Ethan again.
Ethan’s heart stopped. His mouth gaped wide, trying to suck in air. But all around the edges of his vision, triangles of iridescence danced, then closed in toward the center, slowly at first, then more rapidly. When they hit the center of his vision, Ethan lost consciousness. His body settled into the mud with his head turned to the right side. Muddy water trickled into his open mouth. Ethan’s eyes remained open but unseeing.
A second passed. And then another. A slow procession of seconds marched over and around Ethan’s body as the world went on without the Ethan who had been.
As fierce energies continued to writhe through space-time, Ethan’s spirit moved above his body. Here is where it ended. Or began.
He had traded Beth’s life for his own. Payment lay in the mud.
He had seen nothing beyond this point. He had deleted his own timeline. He waited for his past self to die, waited for the moment he would cease to be. But some deep instinct refused to accept the inevitable. Some part of him wanted to find another way.
Why couldn’t he enter his body at exactly the moment when it died? Just as he had with Cole, and Watson, and all the others? Why couldn’t he bridge what had been to what could be? He hovered above the body, waiting. He would have a tiny sliver of time in which to act.
He felt the kettledrum of his heart pound its last beat. He hurled his mind at himself and became himself. The past-Ethan died as the present-Ethan energized his body.
And he went on.
As a peel of thunder died away, a new sound cut through the clearing. A grunting cough. Then another.
The taste of dirt and death filled Ethan’s mouth. He spat out the mud and sucked in a sweet lungful of air.
His thoughts jerked and fumbled as he reoriented inside his body.
I’ve done it. I’m back. Before Churchill, before Neural Research, before all the rest of it happened.
The lightning’s fierce voltage had paralyzed Ethan’s body. He struggled to regain control as the seconds ticked by. First breathe. Then move fingers. Then roll over and push off the ground. Then get onto those screaming knees and numb hands and crawl through the storm. One hand in front of the other. Then a leg. Move!
He would have his answer now. Had he looped back through time to the place his nightmare had started? Would the change he envisioned occur? Or was he alone? What would he find through the curtain of rain? He prayed it wasn’t the steaming smear he had found before.
He felt through the gloom until another crash illuminated the mud ahead. He saw a body. He crawled to her, mud sucking at his hands. He pushed her onto her back, and knelt above her to keep the rain out of her face.
“Beth,” he said, barely a whisper, lost in the wind.
Ethan knelt down and placed his ear over her mouth. Beth was not breathing. He pressed an ear to her chest. She had no heartbeat for all he could tell with the shriek of the storm around him. The whip-lightning had caught her too.
Without hesitation, he straddled her and set his palms against her sternum, then dropped his weight onto her and began chest compressions. Each time, air rattled out of her throat. Ethan continued like a machine. “Beth, come on. Come on.”
He hated the rattling sound. He wanted to press harder, to crush the life back into her, but he was afraid of breaking her ribs, puncturing a lung. He moved faster, desperation now consuming his actions and thoughts.
“Please, Beth. Please.”
His tears combined with the rain, one great drenching sorrow. Had all of his efforts been for nothing?
Time stretched out and Beth did not stir. Except for her bubbling exhalations after each compression, she felt like a rubber doll. Ethan worked in a rising panic, his thoughts skittering through his mind like butter on a hotplate. Did he have to find a way back, try another path through time? Could he loop back like this again?
What was the best thing to do?
He saw no solution.
I have failed in the only thing that ever mattered.
I can’t even kill myself.
I am trapped in time.
And then some part of him rebelled. It grabbed him like a terrier with a toy and shook him. What was he doing? How could he let panic and failure overwhelm what he had learned?
He stopped the chest compressions, stopped waging war with the physical. Why fight with matter? He had to deal with something far more fundamental.
His being here and now proved that he had reentered his own timeline before the lightning blast vaporized his wife. He had branched the timeline in a new direction. This answered the nagging question of whether he was stepping between alternate universes. He now knew he remained in the same universe he had started from. Only one vast universe existed. But it startled him to know how much it could be changed. His theory that it was like a rope whose fibers could be snipped and rearranged was pretty accurate. The universe did not function as a fixed system like the workings of a clock. Instead it was freewheeling, flexible, nonlinear. Knowing that was the key to his problem.
Ethan concentrated. He pushed his thoughts into that state of transition from which he timejumped. Relax. Think. Just like with Memnon.
He felt the fabric of space-time. He felt the flow of forces. Aligning himself with these forces, his mind flashed images. Like something under a microscope, he saw himself in that tiny moment of time. Then, he saw the scenarios of shifting possibility, the imagined futures. In several of them, Beth died. But in one, she didn’t. He needed to bridge the gap, shift his timeline again.
How many times had he felt those subtle shiftings, suspected that he somehow influenced them? Then this jump, where he had excised a major timeline to retrieve this moment, this possibility with Beth. It had been difficult, but what he could do once, could he not do again?
All that lay between what was and what could be was the power of thought. He had the power to do more than merely move through time. He had hints over the past months that he could actually change that which he thought constituted reality. Wasn’t his being here proof that he had reorganized energy and matter?
He saw that this timeline did not hold a solution. He had chosen the wrong thread. Once again, he had fixated on the lightning, trying to make small changes in what had happened. He needed a big change, a completely different thread in the timeline.
There is no time. There is no distance. There is only what I believe.
Ethan untangled the skein of possibility and visualized his desires. Then he believed. He did not try to believe. He believed.
And his mind blinked.
And he felt that odd shift again. He felt the bubble of his thoughts rip free from existence for an instant. The threads of existence re-wove into a new fabric.
Yes, there and there, he needed that and then and this. Snip snip and mend and pull the threads together.
Then everything began again.