2. The Guest
The bang jolted Nick as if he had been slapped by a giant fist. Holding up his hands to shield his face, he knocked his knee against the edge of the counter and stumbled into the wall. The sharp reek of a recently fired weapon filled the cafe.
When Nick lowered his hands, he saw a flailing and panting man stumble through the broken door and skid on the shattered glassthat covered the tiled floor. The man was in his late fifties, with plush cheeks and a white halo of receding hair. His black suit was streaked with dirt, his white shirt was stained, and his once-red leather loafers were covered with grime. In the man’s hands was a long, black rifle. Nick glanced at the door and realized that the man had blasted the lock to pieces. The door had been unlocked, but the man before him did not look like someone who would try the handle first.
The man peered around the room and cursed as he struggled to find his balance on the slippery floor. When he spotted Nick, he swore again and aimed his rifle at Nick’s chest.
“Twenty minutes,” the man wheezed. “I’ve got twenty bloody minutes. Is it you? Answer me, damn it. Is it you?”
The man’s bent glasses were at an angle across the bridge of is nose, making him look like a combat-weary mole in a second-hand suit. Nick resisted the urge to smile. Not that grinning would have mattered, but the man was visibly in distress, and there was such a thing as plain and simple decency.
“Me?” Nick asked.
“Who’s going to kill me?” the man insisted. “It has to be you. What are you going to do? Shoot me? I won’t let you. One move and I’ll fire. Understood?”
“Understood,” Nick said. “Please, calm down.”
“Quiet,” the man rasped. “Just tell me why you want me dead?”
“I don’t want to do anything,” Nick said, “except finish making another coffee. I’m unarmed. There’s a gun over there, on the counter, but you can take it if you want it. I’m not even sure it’s loaded. Go ahead, pick it up. Does that help?”
“Yeah,” the man said. “No. Maybe. Fuck.”
“I know the feeling,” Nick said, nodding slowly.
“Sure you do.”
The man marched over to the counter, took the gun, and shoved it down inside the lining of his trousers. Once he had managed to find a way to walk without dropping the gun, he stalked up to Nick and thrust the rifle in Nick’s face.
“How long have you got?” the man asked. “Answer me, or I’ll shoot you. I swear I will.”
Nick looked into the man’s wild eyes, then gently grabbed the shaking barrel and spoke into the muzzle as if it were a microphone.
“Pretty long,” Nick said.
“How can you be so sure? What if I do this, and just pull the trigger?”
The man snatched his rifle back, brought it level with Nick’s eyes, and stared at Nick over the barrel.
“If I shoot you now, how would you survive that?” the man asked. “Do you think someone can put your head back?”
“I don’t.” Nick sighed. “But I’ve I seen so many strange things happen over the past day that I’ve run out of wonder.”
“But I can shoot you,” the man said, his threat coming out as a question. “No one can tell me not to. Right?”
“Yes,” Nick said. “And perhaps you will, at some point farther down the road.”
He could almost feel time slipping away, grain by momentary grain, but the hourglass was still running. His moment had not come yet.
“Or maybe you’re just not a killer?” Nick suggested. “What’s your name, by the way?”
The man stared at Nick and slowly lowered the rifle. Sweat glistened from his brow.
“Luke,” the man said hoarsely and looked away.
“All right, Luke,” Nick said. “Can I help you to a coffee?”
Nick returned to the espresso machine, flicked a switch, and watched the water hiss and spurt as it was pressed into a small cup. Luke did not move; the man only stared at the floor with a vacant expression on his face.
Luke did not, Nick thought, look anything like a Luke. That name fit someone with a bit of edge and an air of energy. But Nick suspected that that was just one of pains in the armed man’s life. This Luke looked like someone who had elbowed and bull-rushed his way through his twenties and thirties, only to stumble unfit and frustrated into the dimming woods of middle age.
Luke shook himself and blinked at Nick.
“What was that?” Luke asked.
“I asked if you wanted a –”
“Are you mad?” Luke blistered. “If that fucking computer is right, I’ve got only minutes left. Of course I don’t want a coffee. It that gunk yours?” He gestured with his rifle at the counter.
Nick looked at the remnants of his former life, arranged in a tidy row on the bar next to where the gun had been. A scratched taxi driver’s license, a set of car keys, a dented steel thermos, and his cheap but functional sunglasses. Flung over the back of a seat was his black-and-yellow company jacket, faded after ten years of navigating the traffic jams of Los Angeles. His tie hung over the rim of a bin in a corner. It had been his most hated possession.
Half a year ago, just before he turned forty, a drunken passenger had tried to strangle him with it. Nick had been scared witless, and to make things worse, his dread had been laced with shame: he was being murdered with part of his own uniform. He had flailed, chocked, struggled and cried before the crazed man had changed his mind and fled the car. Nick had thought he’d die, and he had been intoxicated with relief when he had survived.
During that struggle, Nick’s coffee, some lukewarm variety from a twenty-four-seven, had ended up splashed over the dashboard. It should have been the last time he had drank the vile, bowel-hostile brews he used to pick up from various corner shops, but he had continued to buy them. Not even a near-death had been enough to break the habit. That was when he had realized how firmly stuck he had been in his rut.
But today he had stopped for good. No more instant or week-old drinks. Only the most expensive beans, blistering hot water, and patience.
“Yes, those are my things,” Nick said. “They’re symbols, in a way. I’m going over what I am. Summing things up. It seemed like the right thing to do.”
“So that you’ll can plan what to do next?” Luke asked. “Pretty pointless, don’t you think? Seeing as it’s all been decided for us.” He glanced out the window as a shadow raced past.
“I don’t think that’s how it works.” Nick took his cup and walked over to Luke. “I’ll sit over there by the window, if you don’t mind.”
“Will you change your mind if I’d tell you that I do mind?” Luke asked.
Nick smiled apologetically and carried his brew to a seat near the window. The scent of the coffee filled his head with pictures of muddy rain and burned fruits. He inhaled and tried to turn the images into colours: mud-brown for the fertile soil, vivid green for the leaves, and a deep, flickering orange for the sun.
A warm afternoon glow lit the large plaza outside. The scene had improved a little since last night; there were fewer shots and sirens now, although there was no equilibrium in sight. Most likely, there would never be one.
Smoke still rose from Long Beach where armies of firemen had fled the onslaught of the flames, devouring block after block. Good thing most properties had been abandoned before they were turned to sooty rubble. Other, smaller fires around the city added dark pillars that spiralled into the otherwise clear sky. The government had moved in to secure the fusion plant, but the rest of the nation appeared to be slipping out of the grip of the authorities. Hoovers circled the city, just as they had done all night, megaphones directing, urging and commanding. Most of their calls went unheeded.
Luke pushed a table up to the door to block the entrance, then walked up to Nick and sat down across the table, keeping his rifle out of Nick’s reach.
“I’m still not buying it,” Luke said. “It’s mass hysteria, nothing else. I’ll prove them wrong.”
“I see,” Nick said.
“No one can get in here. I’ve got all the guns. All I have to do is sit here for another fifteen minutes or so, and I’ll be in the clear. Right?”
“One would have thought so,” Nick said.
“So I’m safe.”
Nick sighed and put the cup down.
“As safe as you could possibly be,” Nick agreed in perfect honesty. “Although a helicopter could crash and wreck the building.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Luke said. “Not everyone can die in a freak accident.”
“Of course not,” Nick said.
He could not help but feel sorry for Luke. The man assumed that his end would be logical, that it might sense in some grander and reasonable scheme.
“No, you don’t see my point.” Luke made a disgusted face. “You’re just like them out there. It’s because of people like you that the city is a mess. Hell, the whole country is going down the drain.”
“It’s not the end of the world.” Nick leaned back in his chair.
Luke twitched when Nick moved, as if he expected Nick to reach for the rifle.
“No?” Luke asked. “What would you call it, then?”
“A societal earthquake,” Nick said. “Or a transition, maybe. A switchover, caused by a nine hundred billion dollar machine, a shocked man, and a link on a web page.”
Oh, that man, Nick thought. He would give a lot to know what had gone through the head of that particular individual when he realized what he’d done.
“You mean the guy who ran the Experiment?” Luke asked.
Nick nodded. “Our hapless nemesis. Or saviour. Your call, my friend.”
Luke glanced at the clock and licked is lips. “I never read exactly what they did. I’ve heard only bits and pieces since some idiot torched the office. Now my phone doesn’t work, and all the channels are dead.”
“I can fill you in,” Nick offered. “You know, this coffee was probably the best one I’ve made so far. Are you sure you don’t want one?”
“Shut up. If you know what happened, just tell me. And make it quick.”
“What if I don’t?” Nick asked. “Will you shoot me?”
“Only if you try anything stupid.”
“Interesting.” Nick drained his cup of the last drops of the black fluid and put the cup down.
“I know they wanted to poke a hole in time,” Nick said, “and that they were going to use a quantum computer. Don’t ask me what that means. I struggle to operate a normal phone.”
The newspaper article Nick had read, long before the test run, had been both straightforward and outlandish: Some kind of machine would create a tiny rip in the fabric of space and allow the bizarre instrument to throw a digital tentacle into the future. A virtual net, thrown blindly through a night yet to happen. The objective was to retrieve information, records of events still waiting to take place, indications of major crises on the uncharted roadmap of humanity.
The method had been in its cradle. The science was imprecise, the mechanics unstable. From what Nick had understood, during the few seconds the test lasted, the computers would gobble rivers of raw fusion energy, and the chance of success was tiny. But possibility of triumph was there, beckoning like a siren among the vast calculations. The slightest crumb of data snared and brought back would be seen as an Olympic achievement.
It was, the developers had repeated over and over, not a case of actual time travel. The Experiment was a misty grab for knowledge yet to be recorded. They would only look, not touch. Nick remembered thinking that it had been the most criminally understated use of the word only he ever had read.
“I’ve understood that much,” Luke said. “But they’re scientists. They try things first to figure out what’ll happen. There’s no way this was an accident.”
“They did test it,” Nick said and poked at his cup. “Don’t you remember the trial runs? Those worked just fine. The tests brought back almost perfect weather forecasts, even some stock market results.”
When the scientists went public with the results, reactions were all over the spectrum, from disbelief or anger to fascination or euphoria. Churches had been locked in debate, philosophers found themselves under siege by reporters, and politicians talked in circles while their aides scrambled to make sense of possible ramifications. With the flick of a switch, the concept of determinism had been ushered in from the realm of advanced physics to become the dinner table topic of billions. The idea of choice filled everyone’s head. Bohr and Hume became new must-reads.
Three weeks later, the twenty-seven countries funding the machine had raised the money needed for a greater experiment. The tentative date was set to around fifty years down the line from today. Throats were cleared, foreheads were wiped. And finally, after much discussion, ceremony and preparation, a button was pushed.
Deep in the European bedrock, the computer hummed briefly.
“Of course I read about the tests,” Luke said. “I won’t forget about that in a hurry. Christ, my entire business nearly came to a standstill. I couldn’t get half of my orders through. But then I didn’t hear anything else, so I thought they’d screwed up?”
“They were going over their catch,” Nick said. “Like beachcombing, I guess. They were still putting pieces together when they received that email.”
“What email?” Luke asked.
“You don’t know?” Nick asked rose and walked back to the counter, ignoring Luke’s startled gasp.
“I’m making another,” Nick said. “There’s an unopened bag of beans back here. I’ll make you one, too.”
Humming under his breath, Nick rummaged among the silvery bags of coffee beans and smiled when he found the one he sought. The beans were from Nyanza, in Kenya. He pictured mist-covered mountains and titanic rain clouds rolling over savannas. Not that he had been anywhere near Africa, but his imagination, along with the caffeine rocketing through his blood, provided all the paintbrushes he needed.
The time after the larger experiment was still clear in his mind: From his driver’s seat, he had followed the news feeds on his phone and on the radio. Immediately after the event, most technicians had murmured and rubbed their jaws before reporting possible success, but they could not say any more. They needed time to figure out exactly what they had got. The more distant the future, they had explained, the more tangled the data. And they had lots of data.
The media, always a restless creature, soon lost interest and began to prowl more visual stories, but the silence was short: a week later, rumours and brief press releases started to drip from the lab. The technicians were ready to talk, and the news corporations swung its thousand heads back to the machine. There had been cheers, applauds, and excitement, because at that point, no one had yet noticed that something was wrong.
First had come meteorological reports, satellite scans, and overviews of changed terrain. A rundown of our physical world in fifty years’ time. The questions never ended: Was our society still functioning? Were we around?
According to the computers, the answer was yes. Earth was a bit overpopulated and somewhat more polluted, but it was there, waltzing through space as if nothing had happened. And so, it seemed, was the human race.
Records of natural catastrophes and economic trends soon followed. No one wanted another Katrina or a new 2009 financial collapse, and now we had a map that let us navigate between the shoals of greed and nature’s wrath. Elated enthusiasm hung like an electric cloud over parliaments and street parties alike. The data was a treasure house straight out of a nanotech fable. It would take years to decode it all, but the sacred parts had been dug up. Earth was thriving. We were safe.
The same morning, two lines were posted in an obscure online forum about sleepwalking.
1. A twister will hit Maryvale, Nebraska, at 19.38 today. It will kill 22 people.
2. Click here to find out when you will die.