From the author: Paradox pitfalls are not exclusive to travel through time. Any knowledge of the future can be paralyzing.
This morning I wanted Brenda to lean on the door jamb to my cubicle and squeal, "My God, Winnie, you have to celebrate!"
Her words would nudge me through the data stream like bubbles through water, indistinct. I imagine waving her away impatiently rather than pull my head out from under the streamsight hood to squint into the office fluorescents. You have to reach deep into the stream, immerse your face and hands and arms in the flow, the numbers. It's disorienting to just pop out.
But I probably wouldn't do that. I'd be social for a minute and cut the flow. "Traffic Commission open the new bridge?"
"Goof. The transmission was last night," she'd say, figuring I knew but was playing coy. I never watch the now, so I wouldn't have seen the news. Brenda doesn't really know me very well.
What I want her to say is, "The premier quoted you. 'Eighty people a year until 2046 will be saved from accidents related to winter icing conditions.'" But she won't. Too many words in a row for Brenda.
That'd be about as good as my life gets. Brenda is the center of everything worth knowing at the office. Even Henri would hear about it. That would be . . .
I smile to myself.
But this exchange between Brenda and me will never happen.
What happens is, Brenda leans on the door jamb to my cubicle and mutes her earshell. "So? How's the 2042 data stream?"
I push the stream hood up and squint into the light. "I haven't checked."
"Winnie, I can't believe how you bury your head in the sand." Brenda flicks her earshell off. "Henri went to bat for us. When we picked that bridge failure out of the stream, he was the one who got the Traffic Commission to recommend the new bridge. The first practical application of streamsight, Winnie. The flagship."
"I'll check the fluctuations." There's no pointing arguing with Brenda.
"They had the ribbon-cutting ceremony last night." Her voice behind me grates like a now-stream you can't turn off. "It was on the now, and it was repeated five more times on the retro. Big talk about how streamsight's going to ruin everyone's lives."
"Ruin? How --"
"You know media. Everything's controversial. 'Streamsight's fake.' 'We can't change the future.' 'Too much money going to the bridge.' Which is bull. Why would the government put money into streamsight if the future can't be changed?"
"We don't know enough about streamsight yet to know whether the future can be changed or not," I remind her.
"Crap. You predicted Center Street. Check the flucs."
Which, perhaps, is a compliment, but the way she says it, it sounds like an accusation. Nothing ever turns out like I imagine.
I didn't check the fluctuations this morning because I didn't see the now or the retros last night. Why would I? The stream didn't change after Henri made the proposal for the new bridge. It didn't change after our recommendations were passed by the Department of Highways. It didn't change after ground was broken. I didn't see any reason to check the flucs after the ribbon-cutting.
In 2042 that bridge -- the new one -- is still going to fail, and eight people are still going to die, with another twenty-two injured.
I do detail.
So there it is. Call me a cynic, but I've been a streamer for the Traffic Commission too long to watch the now and check the flucs whenever there's a traffic accident. Brenda quotes Thomas Edison, saying, "I haven't failed; I've only found 3998 ways that don't work." So, okay. That's what keeps her going, I guess.
I glide the big smoked glass sphere on its multi-jointed arm back over my head and shoulders, hoping she'll go away. Sure enough, someone comes along and Brenda laughs and goes for coffee.
I close my eyes and get back to work. The numbers from tomorrow morning's traffic flow like a mist over on my arms and face. They tickle like a million ants, leaving impressions of sound, fleeting images, moments of certainty. Good tekkers can fine tune the hardware for times and event-types such as traffic, and good streamers know how to cull data fragments into spiderlike chain spheres that can be linked and juxtaposed to -- hopefully -- make sense. Specialization and teamwork isn't just efficient, it's a security measure. Makes it harder for hacksters who want to peep for politics or profit, though we never stay ahead of the best of them. Pretty much all the lotteries and casinos have shut down in the last eighteen months.
But I wouldn't want to be in Henri's shoes. Taxpayer money was spent on the Center Street Bridge, and in the past two and a half years the lack of evidence from the data stream has been becoming more and more apparent. Today, Henri hasn't even shown up for work. I worry for him. A mob of reporters is probably waiting to ambush him as soon as he leaves his house today, and I don't doubt that he'll have to account to the Traffic Commission for his -- for our -- recommendations.
Last month, the Prime Minister's Office ordered a Royal Commission on the impacts of streamsight, so now our office is only tapping data under twenty-four hours and running short-term, controlled experiments just as the other streamsight branches -- medical, political, commercial -- were forced to do last year in response to international pressure. Officially, no one in Canada is peeping the future further than tomorrow. Ha. As if CSIS, the CIA and Interpol aren't. And the hacksters, of course.
Still, I guess Henri's right to make us go back to basics. Brenda finds it boring.
Well, it is boring.
-- until I feel something familiar. In my line of work, I don't want to find anything familiar. Driver's License 29312-310.
My stomach sags. It's an involuntary thing.
There's no reason to panic. DL 29312-310. I pull my fingers out of the fists they've made in the data, eddying the stream for a moment, and I breathe.
Check. Yes, check. I touch number groups that appear in my mind without visual imagery. Sounds in my inner ear. Convictions deep in my bones: half a library thumbcard, pacemaker serial number--the whole thing--clothing thermostats, something like a wrist watch. Tomorrow morning, 7:54.
I narrow down the location. Glenmore Trail? Yes. Westbound, approaching 14thStreet. Several vehicles, stopped. An ambulance. Glass shattered across the icy lanes. I can visualize nothing, but I know enough. A collision. People milling about. A scent image: diesel; a sound image: sirens.
The driver's license is Henri's.
I breathe and group numbers, trying to match pieces. There are at least fifteen people involved and I hunt down idents. Two I quickly set aside. Paramedics. Three more are policemen. I get bits of their badge numbers. I stroke forward and back in the event eddy, trying to complete elusive fragments, get times -- I suspect the policemen and paramedics will have arrived later, but right now the idents and the times are all mixed up, probably muddied by my shaking fingers. This is Henri -- I have to get the sequence right. I push the perimeter out, search for more idents.
Brenda taps my shoulder and I almost jump out of my skin.
I push the hood up. Two o'clock --
"Winnie, jeez, girl, you look like you've seen a ghost." Brenda sits on a stool beside me and takes my hand. She's really warm and I realize I'm freezing.
My throat's closed up, dry, so I flip the number array to visual and Brenda scans the figures. Her eyes dart and fix on one point and her thin face becomes thinner. "Who's this?" She points to a set of numbers I've extracted from the stream and set in the bottom corner of the array.
Her eyes flick and jump over the incomplete mess and she goes into the stream, pulls another strand of data from 7:51 at McLeod Trail northbound, turning onto Glenmore. It appears on the visual and she pulls out from under the hood. "Is this him?"
29312-310. His whole license number.
I nod. Brenda hugs me and its comforting and awkward at the same time.
"You went out with him," she whispers into my hair. A friend in need, or a gossip seeking confirmation? I don't reply.
When I calm down a little she pushes my hair back and finds me a tissue from my bottom drawer. "Maybe someone stole his wallet. Maybe it's someone else."
For a moment, her words warm me like sunshine. Of course. The figures are too crude on our machines to make out fine resolution. My imagination leapt to conclusions.
But the pacemaker. That's not in his wallet. Still, I want to believe her. Can the pacemaker be someone else's? I duck back into the data stream, but my fingers fumble so Brenda flips the visual off and joins me under the hood. I point and she culls data. She does weather and isn't used to traffic.
We follow the numbers. Male. Forty -- something. Two? Telomeres in good shape. Appendix and tonsils removed. Recent fracture of the left wrist. It's all we can get clearly.
"It's Henri." Certainty. Sunshine fades, deserts me in a gray world and my words feel flat. "That's the route he takes to work."
Henri is dead. Screw tomorrow morning. It's as good as done.
"Check coroner's records."
Dread sinking through me, I expand the search again, but the stretch from the scene is getting fuzzy, mixed with too much data from too many other sources. Some clues suggest Henri is listed, but it's all so frustrating.
Brenda pushes the hood away and takes my hands. Her expression says it before her words do. "He can't come to work tomorrow."
"It won't make any difference."
"Stop it, Winnie. We can try." She believes it. Believes the future can be changed. Can it?
I swallow past the fist that squeezes my throat. "I can't tell him. The Traffic Commission --"
"Screw the Traffic Commission."
"It's against the law. I took an oath --"
"Geez, Winnie, that's to prevent bribery. My God, if you came to a red light at two AM and there was no traffic and no cops, you'd still stop, wouldn't you?"
What the --
"Get out of your box, Winnie! Break a rule for once." She softens. "No one's going to find out. And if they do, there's no way they'll put us in jail. And if we lose our jobs, screw them. We've got to tell him."
Henri. One day he came to my cubicle three times for insignificant requests before inviting me to a football game.
"You know I'm right."
I hadn't known he was that shy.
"Do we have a choice?" Brenda's expression is tender, comforting.
I am almost too nervous to accept. But I do.
"No, we don't," Brenda answers for me.
With firmer resolve, I pull out more idents. A kid, twenty. A girl, seventeen. We winnow out two women in their seventies and a man, forty-three. They all have names, but none are familiar. Drivers of other vehicles, perhaps, or bystanders. There are more people, but we can't piece together enough information to make sense of them.
"Maybe Henri's only a witness to this accident. Maybe he isn't hurt," Brenda says. Optimist.
Or maybe he'll be brain injured. By God, we don't know.
Brenda does a back door dodge into weather conditions for tomorrow. Colder than today. An arctic front will blow in over night so the skiff of snow that was salted on the roads this morning will have petrified into glass slicked by the weight of each passing vehicle. In fact, there are so many accidents tomorrow, the data stream is turgid and swollen. Speed may be a factor.
"Girls." It's Josh, Airline Traffic, peeking through my door. "Very dedicated, but it's seven o'clock."
We've only started to check hospitals in the hours after the accident. I've ignored the rest of my territory all day, searching through one collision. So far, we haven't found Henri. I want to stay. I want to go. I have to tell him. I can't tell him.
Josh leaves and Brenda puts a hand on my arm. "We could work on this for days. Weeks."
"Maybe it isn't him." I want it not to be him. I want to find the scrap of proof that Brenda's right, that this is someone else, that Henri is fine at 7:58.
"We've learned as much as we're going to tonight," Brenda says. "We have to tell him."
I put my fist to my lips.
"You call." Brenda makes decisions. "Let him know we're coming. I'll get my things and call Scott."
I skim my thumb over the back of my earshell, to Henri's number. My heart thumps as I power down the array and wait for him to answer. What am I going to say? 'Stay right there, Brenda and I are coming over?' Why? I dim the photo frame pulsing images of my dogs.
Brenda squeezes my arm, bag slung over her shoulder, jacket half on. She shakes her head.
"Henri, are you busy? Right now?"
Brenda mimes 'no' as she buttons her coat. I mute the phone.
"Grace is sick. Scott's not home. I have to let the nanny go."
Shit. "Henri? Can I come right over? I need to -- Brenda and I need to talk to you."
She shrugs helplessly and the lights and heating minimize as we take the slider through the cubicles to the elevator. "Sure, great. Vietnamese is fine." I mute. "He's ordering takeout."
"I'll get there later if I can. Scott's meeting went late. I don't know when he'll be in." We take the elevator down.
I release the mute. "Okay, good. Turns out Brenda will be late." I mute again. "He thinks I'm being pushy."
"My God, Winnie, so what?" The elevator doors open. "You've got to tell him. You've got to." She doesn't let me go until I look her in the eye and give a little nod. I don't want to see Henri alone but Brenda hurries for her car.
So? What do I do? Blurt it out as soon as he opens his door? "Henri, you're going to die." Is he? What makes me so sure? Am I jumping to conclusions again?
No. I'm sure. I feel it in my gut.
He'll look at me like I'm crazy and laugh with his one-dimpled smile, frowning at the same time and say, "Hi, Winnie." Then because he lives in a house with no underground parking and it's cold out, I'll squeeze past him so he can close the door on winter.
No, of course I won't say it on the doorstep. He'll take my coat and I'll stamp the snow from my boots and take them off. His sensifloor is dialed soft, the way I like it, and the temp sensors will kick in to take away the front door chill, but nothing can take away my embarrassment.
"Food'll be here soon. Can I get you a drink?" He'll think I'm there to -- well, to what? Resume a non-affair that died of awkwardness? He'll play the host to cover his uncertainty.
"Something happened at work today." I'll be forthright. I'll be clear that I'm not trying to be brazen. "Brenda and I thought you needed to know right away."
"Where is Brenda?" It'll be easier for him, too, to keep the conversation about work. About Brenda. I'll explain about her nanny and he'll pour wine and I'll sit in the satin striped chair, leaving him the sofa. The sofa will be covered in magazines and cat hair because he wasn't expecting me and he won't have thought to clean up in the twenty minutes it took me to drive over. He'll throw the books and papers into that basket by the window and sit on the corner of the sofa nearest to me.
"Henri." I'll be glad to have the glass in my hand. I'm going to be assertive. I'm going to tell him. But I won't be able to look at him. "Henri --"
His stillness will show me he's listening. Curious. Humoring me?
"Tomorrow," I'll say. Perhaps I will sip the wine. "There's going to be a car accident. On eastbound Glenmore just before 14thStreet."
He won't say anything. It's my job to know these things so this information will be nothing unusual for him. He's patient. He'll wait for me to speak.
"You will be in the accident." I'll breathe for a moment, sweating and squeezing my arms at my sides because I'm freezing, letting my eyes flick up to his for the briefest moment to see how he's taking all this, but my gaze will be caught by his stricken face. He'll sit there, stunned by the cruelty of my words, paling in the uneven light of the lamps, not sure what to say but knowing that I know, that I'm sure, that I've checked. That the future doesn't change, but hoping more than I do that I'm wrong.
"A car accident." I'll have to fill the void with words, because Henri won't. "I spent the whole day -- Brenda and I did -- trying to find out what's going to happen. We didn't see you at the hospital after, but there was an ambulance." Ambulances transport the dead, as well as the injured. "There's a possibility you'll only be a witness, or that it'll just be a minor injury . . ."
But what can he say to that? He'll lick his lips and take a drink and study his knuckles. I'll do detail. The license number and the appendix and the tonsils and the partial library thumbcard. He'll get paler and put down his glass and I'll get him some water. We'll be interrupted by the fast food guy and Henri will fumble for his wallet but I'll pay for it, another awkward moment. Then I'll make him sit and I'll put out the food that neither of us can eat.
My God, what's the point?
What's he going to do once he finishes quizzing me on every detail? Will we go back to the office and pull more data? We could do that all night and still not answer the questions. Will he call his brother in Seattle and his two sisters in Victoria and have some kind of telephone goodbye? Will he search through files nested in files nested in files on his computer looking for his will and his financial statements and do some last-minute bank transfers? Is that the way to die, to spend one's last hours?
I don't tell him when I walk through the door.
I actually look at him for once, feeling a kind of numbness like none of this is real, so I can look at him and it's okay because he is not really right in front of me but actually very far away. I'm fascinated, almost, to understand who he is, this man who's going to die tomorrow, this man I never really knew. My boss, yes, and a man I went out with a few times, heart pounding, palms sweating; so dreadfully, dreadfully uncomfortable that finally about the fifth time he asked me out I convinced myself that he only did it out of politeness and I turned him down so I didn't have to endure the anxiety of trying to make small talk, trying to sit beside him, touching or not touching or almost touching, trying to decide how to get through the clumsiness of parting.
He never asked me again.
This time is different. For me. But -- now I see -- not different for him. He smiles, then laughs too quickly and drops my mitten when hanging up my coat, talking for some strange reason about cats hating the snow.
While he pours the wine, I move his papers into the basket and sit sideways on the sofa facing away from the striped chair, so he's obliged to sit on the sofa beside me. I ask him about the ribbon cutting on the now last night and I listen to him as he speaks. He has the most melodious voice. I was never conscious of that before. There's a little bit of a French 'r' in his words, and I'm reminded that he was born in Quebec, somewhere in the Gaspe. His eyes light when he talks about the clean lines of the new Center Street Bridge and the supportive words in the premier's speech.
We eat, and the food is delicious. He chuckles when I ask about the reporters, and he pours us each a second glass of wine. It turns out, Henri eats reporters for breakfast. I never knew that about him. In fact, he took the day off today for no more sinister reason than taking one of his cats, Cassie, to the vet and the groomer. Tomorrow evening he takes her to the Calgary Cat Fanciers' Show, and he thinks she has a shot at first place in the Best Household Pet category. We laugh over his cats, my dogs. But some small space inside me that I crush all evening wants to cry for the funny, bold, shy man beside me who will be gone tomorrow. Gone.
Out of my life. Out of the world.
I touch his cheek, softly, with the knuckle of my left index finger. It's warm and bumpy and yielding.
It's eleven o'clock and Brenda isn't coming.
So what will I do? Tell him now, when there's nothing he can do about it but toss and turn all night? Offer to be his all-night girl so he'll have one last good time before he goes? So I can watch over him and be here in the morning to keep him from driving to work on Glenmore Trail?
Henri kisses me.
I want more than anything to make 7:54 A.M. tick by, slip uneventfully into the past.
But I don't feel right. Has he kissed me because he thinks I'm throwing myself at him, because it's the expected thing to do and he doesn't want to let me down -- poor, shy, unlovely me? And what will he expect to happen next? That I'll sleep with him and it will all be perfect because he'll be just that good a lover and I'm just that desperate? I don't want to be his mercy date. I'll be too distracted by what I know is going to happen, to do the things a man expects of woman in bed.
But I can't leave him alone. Not without telling him.
And I want to be with him. Hold him. Keep him safe.
"Would you . . ." I begin.
He is relaxed, leans back on the couch in the dimmed light, with me lying on his chest, his arm around me, his glasses on the table by the boxes of left-over noodles and pork spring rolls, his cheeks pinked by the wine.
I lift my head. Is it the wine that makes me impulsive? "Would you think me very strange if --"
He toys with a wayward strand of hair that has escaped from my hair pins and his eyes are warm. "What?"
"If I . . ."
He kisses my forehead.
". . . ask to stay with you tonight?"
His eyebrows rise and he smiles.
"-- but not -- not --"
His fingers trace the side of my cheek. "No," he says softly. "I wouldn't find that strange at all. I'd like you to stay."
"I wanted you to stay before."
"I thought you didn't -- weren't interested. Or that I did . . . something." He shrugs, his nose wrinkled in confusion.
He shakes his head, mystified. "I've never known you to be so . . . at ease."
At ease? I suppose so. I live in the future. This is the future. A future.
"Is there something else? Something changed?"
Yes. No. "Tomorrow, maybe." After 7:54 I'll tell him. After I distract him, keep him late. Prove Thomas Edison and Brenda right. Prove myself wrong.
We go to bed, the same bed, his bed. He has an oversized t-shirt for me to wear and a clean head for his toothbrush. Henri even pretends to sleep until sleep comes to him. I lie by his side, my body tingling in ways I want to deny, and watch him in the moonlight filtering through the crack around the edge of his blind.
Sleep is fitful -- worse as it turns cold in the middle of the night and I huddle against Henri's back for warmth -- but oblivion comes to me in the hours before dawn with a grip so tight I must be catapulted from its depths by far away sirens and doorbells and pounding on doors. It's still wintry dark, blind dark as I bolt upright fighting tangled, sweat-cold sheets and find myself alone in the bed.
Pounding. Footsteps. Someone -- many people -- running in the hall.
I spring from the bed, half-dressed. There's no way I can find clothing. I pull the blanket from the bed and fling open the door.
Paramedics in the bathroom, stretcher in the hallway. Did Henri call them? Did the house sensors respond to a change in his biometrics?
"What happened?" I cry. What time is it?
The one uniformed man's back is to me, blocking the door to the bathroom, studying something on the floor and I imagine the second one is inside with Henri. "Just stay back, ma'am, we're doing what we can." Why are they here? Did Henri's house sensors call them? His pacemaker --
From beyond the paramedic a female voice says, "Clear." There is a crackle and a thump.
It's infuriating. The paramedic is so big I can't see around him. I dash back into the bedroom, throw on the lights and read the clock as I pull my pants from the neat stack on the chair. 7:32.
The paramedics clatter the stretcher and I run into the hall zipping my fly. "Wait! No! You can't take him!"
They ignore me, rumble the stretcher to the front door, expertly retract the wheels and hover it down the steps. The wind blasts, cold from the north.
The cold front has come in over night.
"You can't take him!" I fling myself on the second paramedic. I know it as certainly as I know my name, as certainly as I know I want to Henri to kiss me again.
The medic plies my fingers from his arm as the other guides the hovering stretcher impassively, efficiently into the back of the ambulance. "Ma'am, I can see you're upset. But if you go into hysterics I'll have to care for you, which means I can't help him. He has had a cardiac incident and needs to be in the hospital."
The wind gusts ice crystals into my legs. "You can't take him! Please -- just a few minutes -- half an hour --"
The one inside the ambulance has Henri on oxygen and an IV. "Ma'am, we'll have some questions. Do you want to ride with us in the ambulance?"
In my mind I imagine glass and blood smeared over ice-glazed pavement.
The second paramedic has closed one door and is standing in the other, holding out his hand to me.
I back away.
But my biometrics weren't in the stream.
This is it. This is the change I can make. I can get into that ambulance --
My heart pounds.
The other starts the engine. "We gotta go," he says quietly.
Except maybe my biometrics are missing from the stream because the collision will throw me beyond the data perimeter. Dead. Lost.
The medic shakes his head and closes the door. "Ma'am. Best get into your house."
"Wait --" My words are a whisper, too late, too slow.
The ambulance, lights flashing, is picking up speed toward McLeod Trail and then I'm running after it, screaming, stop, stop.
The ambulance turns the corner and the frozen stumps that are my feet slow, slap snow covered pavement, come to a ragged standstill. Ice burns my lungs. My breath rasps puffs of white cloud in the dark of the street lights.
Thomas Edison was wrong. There's only one future and we can't change it. I stand in the wind's needle blast. I didn't change it.
The distant siren fades in the hum of traffic.
I was going to tell Henri.
I was. I had it all worked out. I'd tell him in the morning, let him have a healing sleep. Let him live his life, just a few more minutes. A few hours.
I turn to face the gale, stumble on numb feet toward the open door. To the empty house. Maybe he won't die.
Three thousand, nine hundred and ninety eight ways that didn't work. But I have not failed . . .
I walk barefoot up the icy walk. Did we fail? With the Center Street Bridge?
I stop in the snow.
Maybe we did change the future, Henri and I and Brenda. Maybe the Center Street Bridge would have collapsed with eighty deaths, not eight, if we hadn't proposed a new bridge. We let the people know it was going to happen. Maybe they stayed home that day; all but the disbelievers and those who don't watch the now.
I climb Henri's front steps.
Maybe going with Henri in the ambulance would have made no difference.
Maybe the stream didn't change because there is only one future. Not many. A future that includes the bridge Henri built. A future that includes the collision on Glenmore Trail that will occur in four minutes.
I check my watch. Four minutes? Yes --
Maybe I did delay the paramedics by precious seconds. Maybe I did change this one small future --
I straighten, my fingers on the doorknob. It's icy, and spears of cold stab the soles of my feet. I am here. Now. I feel the wind gusts prickle my back. I am here and I feel and breathe and see and hear.
Brenda's right. I bury my head in the sand. In the future. I don't live the now. But I can change. If the future can be changed, I can change.
I will. I'll stay home from work today, leave the stream to Brenda and Josh.
I'll call my mother. Look at my will. Take a walk along the river in that pretty park near Center Street -- not uphill against the current, craning to see further and further ahead, but downhill, walking with the flow. When was the last time I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of spruce trees? Listened to snow crystals crunch under my boots, felt my blood warm with exertion? I don't remember.
But first, I'll drive -- slowly, carefully -- to the hospital. Just as Henri's bridge saved those motorists, I delayed those paramedics. I know I did. I feel the certainty in my gut.
I smile and close his front door behind me.
I'll take Henri his glasses. A photo of his cats. He'll be needing them.
This story originally appeared in On Spec Magazine.