The Last Word
By Rhonda Schlumpberger
My breakthrough in time travel in 2217 was predestined.
So humanity claimed.
Didn’t the time loops prove the inevitability of my theory?
Discovery should lead humans into ever-deepening technological enlightenment. Science–not subjective destiny–was in control. I stood on the brink of proving mathematical calculations and logic superior to fate because–finally–I’d discovered the faulty time loop machine’s hiding place, the monster that dissolved my son, John, generation after generation.
The machine burrowed inside a brownstone apartment within an antique-themed loop. No pre-determined cosmic map led me to the stolen machine. Mathematical calculations illuminated my way. The choice to act against destiny was my own, as was kidnapping my grandchildren moments before entering the olden loop.
Time was a tricky beast and secretive about those who occupied her circles. Though I’d never witnessed my grandkids doing wrong, John insisted when they got older the three played a role in time travel’s biggest disaster–the very disaster he faced over and over. With Max, Johnny, and Caroline in tow, I’d prove nothing was set in stone.
The little ones trailed me flat-footed and mute through the apartment’s rooms of sepia tones, crocheted lace, and carved woods. Nearing the second of two rooms, I lifted a finger to my lips. Three heads nodded, and I pointed to the oak flooring. Eyes rounded, the children settled down. This lot were missing their bottom teeth. Caroline, the youngest, sniffled and pushed blue plastic glasses farther up the bridge of her freckled nose. Satisfied, I entered the chamber.
The looper hunkered in the far corner like a trapped animal, trembling and defiant in a room constructed more like a bank’s vault than a bedroom. The machine snarled at my approach–I, its maker. It sounded an alarm–as if a warning would stop me.
I stood before the machine, the one which caused the taint, my knees weak.
“I’ve found the looper, John.” I spoke into the silver comm curled around my wrist that reduced my son’s image to the size of my thumb. “Give me a few moments to shut it down. Calculations got me here. Calculations will make your damaged loop go away. You’ll be safe. I promise I’ll free you.”
“Don’t, Mama. Don’t sabotage the loop. My outcome is fixed,” John said. “Calculations be damned! You can’t control this with numbers.”
On his side of time, ensconced in a loop filled with history lovers, my son pressed nearer his view screen. I bit back a sob at his hollow gaze. Wet curls clung to high cheekbones. His skin, streaked with sweat, glistened in the low light.
“You can’t save me, Mama.”
“How can you expect me to pay attention to a fanatical ideology? I’m right here.” I slapped the machine’s fevered surface. “And I can’t think with you blathering! I’ll spike the damned thing, and everything will go back to normal.”
His laugh was short. “Push all you want, but destiny will shove back.”
Initially, I’d been sickened that my discovery of time as circular in nature had spawned the tenacious new destiny ideology. Its spread infected my own son with its deceit.
Did a dominant missense mutation in human genes compel us to fill knowledge gaps with garbage? After a while, I’d stopped trying to educate the masses about the physics of time travel. Progress was double-edged. Giant moves forward came inevitably with humanity’s self-inflicted steps backward.
“I’ve worked the variables, John. First, remove the kids from their future loop–done. Next, kill the machine. Almost there.” My fingers flew over the surface. “You’ll slip free of your tainted circle.”
I jumped. I hadn’t heard Caroline enter the room.
“Wherz Daddy?” Caroline said around the two fingers in her mouth.
“Oh.” I knelt. “He’s someplace far away, but he’ll be back soon.”
Caroline pressed close, and on her heels, Max and little Johnny did too. My grandchildren were small, but their nearness shrank the room to the size of a bathtub.
“The kids have their part to play, Mama. Besides, the dissolve has begun. Will it hurt? I can’t remember from … before. Isn’t that strange?” He shrugged. “You’d think someone who’s died as often as I would remember.”
I shot to my feet. My comm’s screen was too small for many details, but I saw past my son to the sky. It faded from dawn’s pink into dove gray. He slid down a wall. His head sank into his hands, and my heart squeezed. I wasn’t God; my creation shouldn’t have such power.
“This is my path–and the children’s,” John whispered. “I love you.”
I stabbed the button in the machine’s center and held my breath. The looper squawked … and my stomach rolled. The lettering color beneath a looper’s buttons was blue, but the letters wavered between blue and red, settling on red. Color was an infinitesimal change in the scheme of time loops, hardly worth mentioning, but change it was.
Destiny, my ass.
“Come, children.” I held out my hands. “We’re going to exit. Do you know what that means?”
“No,” the three said in unison.
“But it’s prolly not good, is it, Gramma?” Caroline said.
I gazed into a cherub’s face–golden hair and expressive brown eyes–the look all the children of my family bore, and I brushed a curl from her temple. Johnny wadded a fistful of my coat in his pudgy fingers, tipping up a chin so like his father’s it pierced me.
“Gramma?” Johnny said. “We have to tell Daddy. He’ll wonder where I am.”
“Gramma Nicola?” Caroline pushed at her glasses. “Are you kid–kid-nappeling us?”
“Don’t be so dense,” Max, the oldest, said. “Course she is.”
Caroline’s lip trembled, and tears formed. After I’d made the loops safe, I’d have a talk with Max about his vocabulary.
I flung open the apartment door and plunged into the hall that smelled of fresh paint and wood polish. I held Caroline and Max’s hands. Johnny trailed, gripping Max’s woolen coat tails.
“Not the uni-lift, children. The stairs, please. Careful now. As I was saying, we’re not going to use the time trains in the underground station. We’re going to exit through a special door. Doesn’t that sound fun?”
“Daddy tole us about those,” Max said, his feet pounding over the steps. “He said they’re dangerous to our paths or sumthin.”
“You’ll be safe with me.” I gripped his hand tighter.
The looper machine’s hissing and rattling reached us from two floors away. Once, I’d owned a dog and walked it each day. That pooch whined and strained against its bright pink leash in the same way the looper must struggle to throw off my fatal calculations. The machine must stop, and I must exit with all three children. My calculations depended on it.
We burst outside and down a flight of cement steps. My circadian rhythm insisted it was night, but the yellow dot high in the white-washed sky marked the time as noon on a spring day.
A cracking boom filled the air. I yelped, and the kids screamed. The concussion pushed us into the street.
The loop’s atmosphere shuddered.
Doors burst open to all the brownstones edging the tree-lined sidewalks. People, some shrieking and others dazed, scuttled into the street. They carried whatever they’d been engaged with: open books, cooking bowls, lap-sized comms, and gardening tools. The young and old and in-between ran onto the pavement where the children and I stood. Dogs barked. Cats dashed up trees and hissed.
In no time, Pleiades Lane swelled with a gaping, pointing crowd. Heat radiated from the roadway. Smoke billowed from the brownstone’s roof and settled over the people. My eyes watered. The children coughed. Emergency wagons, sirens wailing, neared Pleiades Lane.
“Wait a minute.” I counted the brownstone stories. “When I entered, there were four levels, not five.”
First a color change in the looper’s lettering, and then a change in the number of building stories.
Lightness filled me. “I did it!”
“Did what, Gramma?” Caroline pushed up her glasses.
Another boom shook the ground beneath my boots. The wounded machine blew the roof clean off the building. Jagged pieces of brownstone launched into the air, arced, and plummeted like streaking stars.
People cried out and covered their heads and dashed for safety. I herded the children beneath a tall elm and shielded their little bodies.
All around us, people slapped hands to their ears to drown out the dying looper’s squeal, but I didn’t. That cry was why I’d come. The loop unraveled; the twisted reality rippled and warped. The loop would dissolve, and in so doing, take with it the years it had distorted healthy loops like my son’s.
I mentally outlined the paper I’d write denouncing in the strongest possible language the fraud of the so-called destiny theory.
“What happened, Gramma?” Caroline said.
“She wrecked the loop, stupid,” Max said.
“Daddy’ll be scared.” Johnny tugged away. “We have to tell him where I am.”
“Hush now. Don’t be afraid.” I pointed to the east corner seven doors away. “The exit is there.”
“But the people are going that-a-way,” Caroline said. “To the trains. Shouldn’t we go too?”
As though a race official had fired a shot, residents ran nilly-nally into the big square opening that led to the underground station. Two other streets intersected with Pleiades Lane at ninety-degree angles, and people from those brownstones crowded toward the entrance. With the loop in collapse, the connector trains were the only hope of escape for those who lived in the time.
I tugged the children upstream, caught as we were in the frantic crush, and pushed down my guilt. I was a discoverer and an inventor. I built things; I didn’t destroy, and I certainly didn’t kill. And yet, I found myself sacrificing–possibly–many.
“I’m gonna tell,” Max said.
Tell away, Max, my boy. When my calculations did their work, his wagging tongue wouldn’t matter.
“John,” I said into my comm. “This loop is collapsing.”
My son didn’t respond. Dropping Caroline’s little hand, I lifted the comm to my lips. “John, answer me!”
“I want Daddy.” Fat tears rolled down Caroline’s flushed cheeks.
A man with a budging belly pushed between Caroline and me and launched the child into the human flow–the flow headed in the wrong direction.
“No!” I lunged. “Caroline.”
Too late, she was flotsam on the sea of people flooding into the underground.
Her little arms stretched to me, but she disappeared through the wide doors and into darkness beyond.
“Boys, wait here.”
I plunged forward.
“I’m going, too.” Max darted past me.
“You little pill!” I twisted. “Johnny? Johnny! Where are you?”
I spun this way and that, gathering lurid impressions: a frantic dog; a little girl’s oh of a mouth; a woman’s red face; an old man’s hat knocked from his bald head; a single pink balloon floating above. My gaze swerved to a dark-headed, wide-eyed child.
“Here, Gramma,” Johnny called. “I’m here. Help!”
I nearly fainted. My fingers grazed his, and then the stampede carried him away. With a sob, I halted, and people surged around. Sound faded to muffled ringing as I ran the calculations on possible outcomes.
My plan rested on controlling the children and spiking the machine. Finding the errant machine inside the time loop had taken generations … but the loop was in collapse, and collapse would happen in minutes. I couldn’t be there when it dissolved. The sane course of action was to abandon the attempt and try again.
Ah! I had no guarantee of success.
And for sure, without the kids, my calculations were as dust.
I waded into the underground.
Hundreds streamed through the long halls lined with white tiles. Tubular lights flickered overhead. The smell of oil swelled the back of my nose, and that’s how I knew we’d neared VeValdor Station. With a last surge, the wailing crowd pushed onto a wide platform almost as long as Pleiades Lane. Behind the tracks, enormous posters in bright colors advertised items for sale that ranged from theater tickets to women’s underthings. All heads turned left toward the steel tracks running out of the darkness.
The tracks connected to the next time loop, and the next after that, and so on. Now that I was there, in the station, it was tempting to find the kids and ride a train to safety. But no; my calculations demanded obedience to an exit, not riding to the next time loop.
The crowd’s distress deafened, and I cupped my mouth and called, “Caroline–Max! Johnny, answer me.”
Then I saw a sign which read Platform Number Three. VeValdor Station had two platforms, not three. The change was the biggest yet. I laughed out loud. When destiny pushed, you just had to shove back.
The crowd parted, and I glimpsed Max, his hand firmly entwined with Caroline’s. Elbowing my way forward, I sank to my knees and crushed the two against my chest.
“Where’s Johnny?” I gasped. “Johnny!”
A child’s wailing drew me to his position near the platform’s edge. Gripping Caroline and Max by their collars, I shoe-horned our way to Johnny’s side.
“I’ve got you, dear. We’re going back to the exit. Hurry,” I said. “We’re going to see Daddy.”
A hot wind blew over the platform and ruffled the people’s hair. The air thickened with the smell of hot metal. A train’s white eye expanded out of the dark.
“Let me pass, please,” I said to the wall of people waiting for the train.
I strained against a woman wearing a ridiculous plumed hat. I might have been a ghost for all the attention she paid me.
“Gramma,” Carolyn cried. “Help!”
I whirled, and my stomach plummeted into my boots. Caroline’s brown eyes bulged. As the people surged forward, they pushed her toward the platform’s edge.
“Stop!” I cried, but desperate people ignored anyone’s desperation except their own.
I grabbed Caroline’s chubby hand. Mine was slick, and her little fingers slid away. The train’s whistle shrieked, and I did, too. The engine came on with demon’s speed.
The boys stood frozen.
“Got you!” With a gut-wrenching cry, I dragged Caroline back.
Next to me, a man yelped and tumbled headfirst onto the tracks.
The train thundered past.
“It’s all right it’s all right.” I ran my hands over her. “You’re all right.”
Caroline sagged against me, her face wet.
The train squealed to a halt. It stretched the platform’s length and belched steam from its undercarriage. Steel doors slid apart like mouths. People stampeded inside. The force of their escape threatened to drag us aboard. I sank to my knees and wrapped my arms around the children. A horn blasted. The doors snapped shut, and the train whisked away, an illuminated snake slithering into a black hole.
I climbed to my feet. “Come,” I said shakily.
Like donkeys, the three planted their boots on the pavement.
“What’s all this?”
My calculations didn’t allow for disobedient children.
“Shud’da got on the train,” Max said.
“I have to pee.” Caroline crossed her legs.
“Daddy’s just a call away,” Johnny whined. “Please?”
The platform trembled. Chunks of the ceiling the size of mud clods splattered onto the floor. If the loop collapsed while we were inside … how might the event affect my calculations? I had to think, and I paced away from the children.
Another train whisked into the station. Those remaining on the platform rushed to the cars.
“Just you wait,” Max said. “You’re gonna get in trouble.”
What now? That child was a pill. I whirled to face him, and time slowed.
Max, gripping his sister and brother by the hands, stepped back into the open car.
“No no no,” I cried.
I leaped for the doors, but they snapped shut in my face.
Johnny, his forehead pressed against the glass, beat the plexi with his small fists. Caroline fiddled with her glasses. Max shot me a toothy grin.
The illuminated snake dove into its hole.
I stared into the darkness while the platform glazed over. With my grandchildren headed away from the sabotaged loop, the chance of adhering to my calculations vanished with the train. In the silence of that deserted platform, destiny stuck out her tongue.
I folded onto the cold cement.
“John?” I whispered into my comm.
He didn’t reply. On his side of time, my precious boy lay slumped on his side. His once vibrant head of curls was gray, like his face, and in a breath, the loop swirled into dust.
My little boy. My precious man. John was gone. Despite my care with the variables that produced my counter-plans, nothing important had changed. The children traveled to safety while I, on my knees, wept, and John died. Again.
Destiny roared in victory.
A gust of hot wind pushed over the platform and announced the arrival of another train. It raced into the station, brakes squealing, and drew to a staccato halt. The doors slid open with a whoosh. Moments later, the doors slid shut, and the snake slithered on.
I doubled over and screamed and slapped the floor with the flat of my palm until fat tears wetted the cement and my hand stung. Science should lead humanity to technological enlightenment, not conceptual enslavement. My calculations were excellent and accounted for the main variables to outfox fate: the faulty machine, the children, me, John.
The faulty machine, the children, me, John.
I straightened and touched shaking fingers to my lips.
“How could I have been so blind?”
I’d acted out the age-old meaning of insanity by using the same faulty combination over and over while expecting different results. My problem wasn’t the variables.
A giggle bubbled up, and I pushed to my feet. Discovery wasn’t without its sacrifices.
A train whistle blew, and destiny’s triumphant smirk slipped.
“Science and logic always trump fate,” I said.
The train thundered into the station, and as I leaped in its path, I blew my enemy a kiss good-bye.
The Master of Ceremonies dressed in black tie regalia and a smile big as the Old Grand Canyon crossed the Presidential Ballroom stage to the lectern. The stage presided over nearly one thousand guests–ladies in silky confections, high-piled hair, and gloves; men in tails and good humor.
The ballroom rang with laughter and smelled of seafood and red wine, exquisite perfume, and the ocean’s salty tang. Earlier, the honored guest speaker had requested the staff of the US Grant Hotel open the room’s massive windows.
“I love the ocean’s roar,” the speaker explained. “We don’t get that in space.”
Lifting a champagne flute to the microphone, the MC tapped a butter knife against the crystal. The instrumentalists ceased playing. One thousand voices hushed, and the assembly pressed near the stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome,” the MC said. “Tonight’s celebration marks–to paraphrase one historical moon traveler–a giant leap for humanity. You’ve followed Dr. Nicola Sanger’s progress during her years of trials. Tonight, you’re the lucky few who get to meet her. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the discoverer of time travel!”
Nicola tip-toed across the stage in spike heels and a too-tight skirt that sparkled like the stars. If her legs didn’t stop shaking, she’d sprawl in a mess of nerves and thong panties. An embarrassment would serve her right for deserting her baby when he screamed with a fever. Her husband was so capable, but some comforts only Mama could provide.
A quick calculation confirmed if she hurried, she’d finish in time to put John to bed.
Approaching the lectern, she tapped its surface, and her notes materialized at the perfect reading height. Her corporation’s speech-smith had one mode of writing: stiff and lofty. Blah, blah, blah. The audience wouldn’t see her red slashes.
“Thank you for your warm welcome.” She smiled just like the PR guy said. “Thank you. It’s not everyday humanity extracts methodology from the kernel of what seems like an impossible idea. Tonight, you and I are witnesses to the reality of time travel in our generation.”
The applause thundered, and the crowd’s energy washed over her.
“My father always told me anything worth having was worth working for, and he was right. Building the time loops has been a miracle, but also a great challenge. My team and I faced discouragement, failure, and even danger along the way. Science is a true friend, though. It stands by those who trust its logic.” She cleared her throat. “And … ah … ”
The audience leaned into the breathless pause.
She must give an honest account of the project, yes. How did a scientist express unsubstantiated feelings? The crowd might boo her off-stage, and boos didn’t figure into her calculations.
“The truth is, there were many times during our journey when the project’s outcome was anything but certain. I questioned whether numbers and logic–or if anything–were capable of breaking through time’s mysteries. Even scientists have insecurities and doubts, I suppose. But how does a scientist face her darkest hours? It’s only fair to tell you I stand here tonight as much from the push of science as I do … as I do by the pull of—”
She laughed, fiddled with her earring. Oh, just say it! “Destiny.”