4. The Fallout
In the past hour alone, Nick had seen sights that could have filled a year’s worth of headlines. Some people sauntered along streets or stood still at intersections and gazed into the distance, while others raced down roads at breakneck speeds, as if testing their newfound limits. He had spotted men and women scaling office towers, couples making love in public parks, and groups stalking alleys back to back while they held out knives in hope to ward off their impending dooms. All because of one man’s unpredicted, hasty and, maybe, thoughtless action.
Butterflies and hurricanes, Nick had thought when he first understood what had happened, but he had soon thrown out the comparison. Storms calmed down or moved on. This whirlwind would never cease.
Nick noticed that Luke stared at the clock again, as if he was trying to stop time with his gaze.
“Don’t you want your coffee?” Nick asked.
“If that computer’s right,” Luke rasped, “I’ve got about two minutes before something horrible will happen to me, and you want to drink coffee?”
“Why not?” Nick asked. “This place stocks any roast you can imagine. Tanzanian, Colombian, Indonesian, French, it never ends. It’s funny, really. I must’ve had thousands of cups but never really tasted any of them. Not until today.”
Luke shook his head. “You’re insane,” he said. “Just like those scientists.”
“Are you’re saying the scientists were mad?”
“You’re saying they aren’t?” Luke asked. “Don’t you get it? They murdered us.”
Nick put down his cup and looked up at a nearby façade. A woman sat playing a guitar three floors off the ground, her face turned to the sun and her legs dangling outside the window.
“I’m not so sure,” Nick said. “We’re still alive. Just like we would’ve been”
“Sure,” Luke said, “but if they hadn’t decided to go through with that fucking test, the world wouldn’t have gone to shit.”
Luke pointed out the window with a trembling finger. “This wouldn’t have happened, because no one would have known when they’d die, and it would’ve been business as usual.”
“I thought you said you didn’t believe it?”
“I don’t,” Luke said. “But that doesn’t stop everyone else from acting crazy. If I die, it’s because of them.”
“Do you think we could have not done it?” Nick gestured at the clock. “Years from now, registries will show all the deaths of these days. We know that, because we went into the future and peeked at the paperwork, and the death rate skyrocketed last night.”
“I know,” Luke said. “But that’d mean –” He paused.
Here we go, Nick thought. Having stumbled down the same path only hours earlier, he sympathized with Luke. He wanted to reach out and put his hand on Luke’s shoulder, but Luke was so tense he might suffer a cardiac arrest.
“Unless,” Nick suggested, “the records popped into being just because we went there and grabbed them. Like a rabbit materializing in the magician’s hat the moment the hand reaches inside it. But I’m not a scientist or a philosopher. Or a magician. I was an inner city cabbie. Which, if you ask me, isn’t too far off from being a wizard.”
“That’s impossible,” Luke hissed. He stood up, backed into a corner, and sank down behind a beige designer couch.
“I’m sorry,” Nick called after him. He’d hoped defuse Luke’s mounting anxiety, but Luke, looking between Nick and the clock, was far too distressed.
“Stay away from me.” Luke warned. He peered over the back of the couch and aimed his rifle first at Nick, then the door.
“Look,” Nick said. “I am as lost as you are. This has cleaned everyone’s slate.”
“What do you think that record looked like before we took it?” Luke shouted.
“I’ve no idea,” Nick admitted.
“If we’d left it alone,” Luke said, “or if that idiot never had put it online, would the records have been different? They must have been. Although they couldn’t, because we took them from the future, which means – fuck. I can’t make sense of it. Why can’t I make sense of it?” He gripped his rifle so hard it creaked.
“Please, calm down,” Nick urged. He was not exactly scared, but a weapon was a weapon, and he had spent too many years shying away from firearms to be at ease around them even now.
“What I’m asking,” Luke screamed, his voice hoarse, “is if people out there are going off the rails because of the record? If we hadn’t touched it, would the same have happened?”
“Who knows?” Nick said. “I think they – we, I mean – must’ve known what happened. But we still kept the records. We’re still keeping them, you know? Maybe they’re going to be seen as some kind of sacred relic in the future, copied and spread a million times so that we can look back and remember. Come to think about it, perhaps that’s why the scientists found them so easily.”
“But if they hadn’t done that experiment, those records wouldn’t have been everywhere. No, we started this. We messed up. They messed up.” He fingered his rifle, eyes darting from place to place.
Nick wondered how many seconds there were left before Luke’s supposed death.
“What if we couldn’t have stopped ourselves from finding the data?” Nick asked.
“Of course we could have. They could’ve decided not to go through with that damn test. Simple as that.”
Nick, who was less sure that the experiment had been avoidable, realized that Luke wouldn’t listen. That was a pity. It would’ve been interesting to discuss the situation, especially over coffees as good as these, but he knew better than to bang his head against the wall of an aggravated, terrified man. His years as a taxi driver has taught him when change the subject.
“If you really believe you’re running out of time,” Nick said, “I’m sure you don’t want to spend it arguing. How about another coffee?”
“Are you trying to poison me?” Luke asked.
“I’m trying to calm you down. No matter how long your life is set to last, there’s no point in stressing.”
“You’re stalling,” Luke said, his voice full of sudden revelation.
“I’m doing what?” Nick frowned.
“You are trying to delay me. You hope to make me feel safe while you’re confusing me with your ideas. Maybe you’ve lost your mind too, just like the rest of the world. Is that it?” Luke stood up and looked at Nick over the barrel.
“I’m not –”
“It’s not working,” Luke barked. “I’m not falling for it. I am in charge here, not you.”
“Okay,” Nick said and raised his hands. “You’re the captain. No coffee.”
“I can still stop it,” Luke shouted. “There’s still time.”
Nick glanced at the clock and tried to remember when the man had entered. “Yes, you’re obviously still alive, so just –”
Once more, thunder erupted in the café. Nick squeezed his eyes shut, dropped his cup and shrank back behind the table. His ears rang, but he was otherwise unhurt.
Finding himself alive on the other side of the moment, Nick opened his eyes and blinked in a light rain of dust, plaster and fragments of glass. The shotgun blast had ruined part of the ceiling and obliterated a fluorescent tube. Perhaps Luke’s frayed nerves had made him miss, or maybe the man had suffered a moment of doubt or mercy, knowing that Nick wasn’t to blame for the planet’s unravelling. Or it could be that Luke simply was a terrible shot.
Blinking away tears and grime, Nick saw Luke run out of the café and past the window, aiming at people near him as he sprinted away. Some ducked or ran for cover, while others ignored him or looked curiously at Luke’s harried appearance. Luke fired again, this time at something farther down the street, and ran out of sight.
Moments later, Nick heard more shots. The boom of Luke’s rifle and other guns. One of the helicopters swooped in. A series of heavy thuds echoed down from the sky. Screams and the sound of glass breaking followed.
Nick exhaled. He shook himself, walked back to the espresso machine, and studied the bags of ground beans. This time, he chose on a chocolate-and-spice-scented variety from Nicaragua. When the scalding water had pushed though the black powder, drip by unhurried drip, he brought his cup back to the window.
Part of him wanted to find out what had happened to Luke. He would like to know if the tormented man had escaped the noose of his destiny, but it was unlikely. There was also the question what had driven Luke to leave the might-be safety of the cafe. More mysteries that would remain unsolved.
After a few minutes, Nick returned to his window seat and placed his refilled cup before him on the table. He had long since decided to stay put and relish the moment as well as the coffee. Looking at the sun, he raised the cup in salute to the man who had found the data and made it public.
No grudges, Nick thought. But I would’ve liked to ask you one thing: Could you really have chosen not to make your discovery known?
Maybe you would’ve liked to know the answer to that question, too.
The coffee tasted of spices, slow song and bonfires. It was the best one he’d had so far. A thousand lukewarm beverages gulped down while waiting for a green light, and he could not remember the taste of a single one.
As soon as Nick had learnt the exact time when he was due to die, he’d found himself determined to wring fresh sensations from every moment. That was his choice. Or, possibly, the road he always had been destined to walk down from this day. Either way, he was grateful for his new path.
Nick rose up, walked around the bar, and inspected the bags again. So many options. Thousands of untested sensations, all waiting for him. He glanced at the clock and smiled. There was time to make one more cup.
Perhaps two, if he hurried up.
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