Mystery Science Fiction time travel apocalypse paradox AIDS

Floaters

By James Van Pelt
Aug 20, 2020 · 7,979 words · 30 minutes

Photo by Allie via Unsplash.

From the author: What if you traveled into the future, and the world was completely destroyed? Wouldn't you do anything to change our fate? Would there be anything you'd be unwilling to sacrifice?


 No matter where Rye stood, the end of the world always looked the same.  First, a disturbance on the horizon.  If there were clouds, they boiled upward and thinned.  If there were none, the air itself shimmered as it gave way to the forces rushing around the curve of the Earth.  Then, on the edge of sight, a glow climbed higher and brighter, like a sunrise where the sun was a wall instead of a ball, intolerably bright, stretching to invisibility in both directions.

Land rippled before the pressure wave, rushing toward him, rolling under trees and hills and buildings.  Before he could even flinch, it was on him, and the world went acetylene white.

After that, dust and lightning and smoke tornado storms.  If he went far enough ahead, he passed over the blackened ground, finding no remnants of anything human, just miles and miles of empty, airless, lifeless vistas.  Everything burned away, even the atmosphere.

In the virtually rendered world of the future however, even on the burnt surface of a dead planet, Rye felt happy.  No swollen glands.  No weakness.  His avatar stood fully fleshed and clean.  No purplish welts of Kaposi's sarcoma.  Not pale.  No shakes.  No floaters.

It was part of Dr. Martin's regimen.  Once a week Rye and Gretta had to see the end of the world to emphasize the importance of their mission.  When Rye took his headset off, he would look up to the hand-lettered sign above the metal door,  WE CAN CHANGE THE FUTURE, and know for himself that it was untrue.

It didn't help that the note penned under the sign, in Gretta's hand, said, NOT THAT ALL OF US WILL BE AROUND FOR IT.

After his last visit to the conflagration of the world, Rye had said, "Let me go back home for my end.  I can't help you anymore down here."

Dr. Martin nodded sympathetically but said, "No.  As long as the loop is closed, we have to keep it that way."

Gretta stared at him through the conversation in the unnerving way of hers, but she didn't add a word.

#                                                     

Rye worked his way through the security screens methodically.  He tapped one access code after another into the programs, passing each level of clearance, getting closer each time to an outside line.  The notebook with security procedures lay open on the table beside the terminal.  Dr. Martin's head wasn't geared to secrecy.  He didn't lock the book up.  He hadn't kept private what was in it.  But until now, Rye had never thought he would need it.  Everyone on the outside believed him to be dead.  For all practical purposes, to them, he was.

Still, the chance for discovery was high.  Rye listened to the hiss of air coming through the vent.  The keys pattered softly.  He'd have almost no time to clear the screen if either Gretta or Martin woke up.  Their rooms were only a few steps away down the hall, and in the converted missile silo, they'd long since lost sense of day and night.  They slept in two and three hour snatches whenever they needed.

So he kept his head cocked to one side, waiting for sounds.  Gretta was with Martin again in one of the three sleeping cubicles at one end of the short hallway that constituted the length of their living space.  Across the hall, computer equipment and two small desks filled another room.  At the other end of the hall stood the blast door with its steering-wheel handle.  No missile in the silo, of course.  It had long ago been removed. 

Today, even his skin hurt.  The gentle tap of the keys burned against his fingers, and his wrists ached.

The metal floors, walls and ceiling amplified every sound.  Clicking keys pounded like hammers on stone.  They'd know he was up.  They'd know he was in the communications room, a place he had no need to be.  They'd discover and stop him.

But if he could e-mail his sister, Annie, he could save her, and he'd live with the repercussions.

A black spot drifted across his vision in his left eye.  He blinked hard.  Sometimes that helped.  Flicking his focus from left to right helped sometimes too, but this spot seemed unaffected and drifted inexorably upwards, never quite out of sight, always at the top of his vision.  His M.D. called them floaters, one of the symptoms of CMV retinitis, a herpes infection of the eyes.

His throat throbbed.  The glands in his neck were swollen again, and so were the ones in his groin.  He shifted uncomfortably in the office chair, trying to relieve the pressure.

If he could see Annie again, explain why he'd left, he could tolerate the discomfort.  He thought, I made a bad decision, coming here.

Rye hadn't really believed that a secret, government project existed that needed his expertise in virtual reality, until at the end of the long plane trip and even longer car ride the soldier in the prefab opened the elevator door without comment.  Sunburn marked his cheeks, and after a while Rye wondered if it hurt him to speak.  The soldier hadn't said a word since Rye and the unnamed NSA agent had entered.  Silently, he checked their I.D.'s, then handed Rye a clip board with a clearance form already filled out.  Rye signed it.

"Do you bring a lot of people out here?"  Rye asked.

"That's on a needs to know basis," said the agent.

"Oh."

The agent said, "God-awful hot.  You'd think they'd pop for some air conditioning."  He loosened his tie.  Sweat darkened his collar.  "Lucky dog, it's cooler down there I'll bet."

The soldier took the clipboard and gave it to the agent to sign.

"Did they get all my bags?" asked Rye.  "There are a couple of blue cases for my medications."

The agent shrugged.  He was younger than the one who'd accompanied him on the plane and more bored.  "Everything's there that went in the car."

"I really need those cases."

Handing the clipboard back to the soldier, the agent said, "I'm sure they're around.  If not, we'll find them and send them to you right away."

"I won't be coming back up, you know," said Rye.  He remembered the briefing at the hospital.  They'd found him just as he was checking out, and he was so tired and discouraged that a job offer from the National Security Agency that involved, among other things, a guarantee for paid medical treatments, sounded too good to believe.  The catch was, they said, that he'd have to disappear, at least for a while.  He'd get more explanations later, but once he took the job, he would vanish.  His family would be told that he'd died.

Rye wondered if NSA hung out at hospitals recruiting people with death sentences, or if it were just a lucky coincidence for them.

"No one comes up," said the agent.  He smiled, not unkindly.  "I hear it's pretty cushy down there."

"I'll need my medicine."  A black spot drifted across the room, across the agent's face, distracting Rye.  He worried that he looked twitchy, always trying to see things no one else noticed.

"Let's get you in the elevator," the agent said, picking up two duffel bags.

Rye bent to pick up another, but suddenly grew dizzy, and he stood until the room quit spinning.  He rubbed the spot on his chest where the catheter had been for ten days in the hospital.  They'd infused him with medication to combat the CMV, but now he felt weaker than ever.

"You're not well?" said the agent, grabbing another bag.  The blue medical cases were behind it.

"They didn't tell you?" said Rye.  He felt steady enough now, but the black spot seemed to have paused in the upper right corner of his vision, and he couldn't ignore it.

"Sorry to hear it.  But it is cooler in the silo.  What are you doing down there?  Special hospital?"

Rye crouched carefully and picked up the blue cases.  "That's on a needs to know basis."

"The rules.  First," said Dr. Martin, "we must remain in a closed loop.  It's the butterfly effect:  You know, how the flap of a butterfly wing in China might result in a hurricane in Florida.  Our smallest information leak could change everything."

"O.K." said Rye.  His stomach hurt.  Fourteen pills each morning.  Different meds through the day.  Random specks drifting through his vision.  Between disease and side effects from the medicine, it was all he could do to keep from grimacing.  He concentrated on ignoring his symptoms.

"Second, no fraternizing with each other."

"I'm not gay," said Rye.

"Neither am I," replied Dr. Martin without blinking.  "I meant Gretta."

"Gretta?"

"She's the other member of our team.  Top-notch programmer.  A graduate student from a class I taught last year.  By the way, she might be a bit hostile.  She's not convinced a man whose computer background is all in 3D gaming is the right person for the job."

"No problem."

"Third, we have to work fast.  Time is ticking on this."

"I know about limited time."

"Lastly, we can change the future.  You must believe that or there's no reason to be here.  I can send you topside right now if you think you won't have the attitude for the work."

Rye glanced around the room.  His bags were piled by the elevator door; the blue cases sat prominently in front.  "Sure."

"I know your prognosis," said Dr. Martin.  "We have a schedule for blood work-ups and medications from above.  They tell me there's lots of hope with the transcriptase inhibitors.  You could do better than they think."

"That was explained to me."

"It's tough, I know, but we're working to save everyone.  We all have a poor prognosis now."

Rye thought, yeah, but your end will be quick.  You'll get to make your goodbyes.  Then he decided that was bitter and said, "I'll do what I can to help."

A bare-footed woman dressed in black shorts and a Star Wars tee-shirt walked across the room, barely noticing Rye.  Her straight, blonde hair was tied back and looked like it needed washing.  She took a pile of papers off the desk, turned and walked from the room.  She paused at the door and said, "Is that our terminal game boy?  We don't need him."

"I told you, Gretta, he's a VR expert."  Dr. Martin sounded exasperated, but she was already gone.

Later the first day, under the headset for an orientation, Rye waited for the images to form in the two small screens that hung in front of his eyes, blocking his view of the room.  Most of the equipment looked military.  Drab green or grey, heavier electrical connections than he was used to seeing, a real sense of solidity in the construction.  Different from the light plastics he worked with at LivingSim, a 3D simulation and game company in Salt Lake City.

"Go ahead," said Rye.  The darkness in the headset gave Rye a claustrophobic itch.

"Almost there," said Dr. Martin.

Then the display flickered and the VR room focused.  Dr. Martin sat at the console, typing in instructions.

He waved at Rye.  "Can you see me?"

"Got it."  Rye made a thumbs up fist.  It blurred through the bottom part of the display.  "Pretty crummy resolution.  Your reality would make a shabby game world.  How many frames per second?"

"Yes, resolution is the problem we need you to work on.  Information comes too fast for our system to handle.  Anything that moves we lose."

Rye looked to his right, then his left.  The images streaked until his head stopped.  "Where's the camera?"

"No camera," said Dr. Martin.  "This is concurrent visual data from your point of view.  We're running chronologically constant with immediate updating, all gathered and synchronized through the power of four Cray computers in parallel alignment.  From this room I can take you any place on Earth, and any time within 6,000 years or so.  Here, I'll put you on the surface.  You can control physical position with the joystick, just like flying a jet, and chronological position with the keyboard, but until you get used to the controls let me show you what it can do."

Dr. Martin typed in more instruction, and the VR room vanished, replaced by the inside of the metal shed above the silo.  The silent soldier sat behind a desk, his feet up, reading a hunting magazine.  Below the edge of the display, Rye saw his own hands resting on his thighs.  That's the problem with VR so far, he thought, you still can tell it's simulated.

"This is the same spot a hundred years ago," said Dr. Martin.  The display fuzzed out, and now a meadow of lanky grass stretched in front of Rye to the edge of a forest and a low series of hills that looked vaguely like the ones they had driven through to get to the silo.

The rest of the tour included several stops in Des Moines at different times in history while Rye played with the joystick to control his movements.  He didn't find it difficult.  No harder than maneuvering in a 3D game environment.

Finally, Martin took him to the end of the world.  Even with the terrible resolution, which Rye had several strategies to improve already, the wall of flame and destruction afterwards stole the breath from him.

Rye watched it three times before taking the headset off.

"That's our future, seven years from today."

"Are the images real?" Rye said.

Martin inserted his finger into the file of computer printouts he'd been searching through, then brushed a strand of gray hair that had fallen across his forehead. 

"I don't know that I can explain this to you in terms you understand.  Or, at least, not using the terms the way you use them.  'Real,' for example, isn't a solidly defined word in physics."

He talked for another fifteen minutes, and all Rye remembered was that at one point Martin had said, "The energy required to retrieve the future's signature seemed so small to me, that for an instant after I worked out the math I worried that if I just thought the equations, that my consciousness would cut loose from our place in time, and I might never find my way back.  Fortunately I'd made a small computational error, and it takes somewhat more energy than that."

"So it is real?"  Rye said. 

Dr. Martin sighed and opened the pile of papers where he'd left off.

Rye thought about listening to his doctor a month earlier while Annie had held his hand, before he'd ever met Dr. Martin or known anything about the secret project buried in an Iowa missile silo. The doctor blathered about T-cells and opportunistic infections, about AZT and aerosolized pentamidine.  In the vocabulary of it, Rye couldn't see the disease.  It sounded like bad poetry in a foreign language:  host-cell receptors, monocyte, macrophage, Pneumocystic carinii, toxoplasmosis and candidiasis.  Finally Annie had blurted out, "This is Voo-doo medicine!  Give us words we can understand."  And the doctor had tried.  He talked for an hour, but the plainness of the talk didn't change the mystery of the end.  Rye had squeezed his sister's hand while looking out the doctor's window.  The words rolled by, and they filled the air so heavily, that after a bit, Rye felt like he was under water, so he rushed from the office.  Annie had found him hours later, his back against the base of a sculpture in the park.

"It's Voo-doo physics, isn't it?" said Rye.

"You can think of it that way," said Dr. Martin.  "But it works."

"What was that?" said Gretta.

They were in the VR room, the largest room other than the silo itself, which they couldn't go into--Dr. Martin had warned them of the repercussions of seeing themselves in the future; Gretta had argued that they hadn't seen themselves, so going in now wouldn't make a difference.  "We see into the future, but we drag the present with us."  Dr. Martin had looked at her oddly, then changed the lock on the silo door.

"I dropped my pencil," said Rye.  He bent to pick it up.

"Declining motor skills," she said.  "Difficulty with gait, balance, coordination, clumsiness and deteriorating handwriting.  Here, write a sentence for me."

"I dropped a pencil, for crying out loud," said Rye.

"It was only a slip," said Martin without looking up from his papers.

"Early manifestations of dementia can't be ignored," she said.  "He's not going to be able to help if he loses his mind.  Dementia is common with his condition."

"I'm not losing my mind," snapped Rye.

"Mood changes.  Irritability."

Martin said, "Keep it up, Gretta, and I'll show you some irritability."

"I don't know why you can't be more helpful with this.  Why do I have to be the vigilant one."

"He's not losing his mind.  He solved the problem with the head-set display in four days.  We couldn't make a dent after a month."       

"I just dropped my pencil."

"He's said that three times now.  Trouble keeping track of conversations is another symptom.  So is forgetfulness."

"It's also a sign of depression or stress, Gretta."

"I'm not depressed," said Rye, but neither seemed to be listening to him.

Gretta said, "You watch him for awhile, and you'll see what I mean.  He needs neuro-psychological evaluation."

She stomped out of the room.  A few seconds later, the door to her cubicle slammed shut.  Martin shuffled through his papers.  Rye rolled the pencil between his palms.

"Sometimes," Martin said, "I think she needs an evaluation."

Rye sighed.  "It's possible she's right, or she will be right someday.  How can you tell if you're losing it?"

Martin looked up.  His eyes watery but sympathetic.  "I'll let you know if I notice signs of dementia.  In the meantime, just for fun, read up on the symptoms and demonstrate a few of them whenever Gretta's around.  It'll get her goat."

Despite the floaters that drifted through his vision as thick as moths around a porch light, Rye chuckled.

Gretta's voice came muffled through the wall, "I heard that."

Two weeks later, Gretta began sharing her rest time with Martin.  Rye heard them talking.  He heard their mumbling echoes in the hallway behind the thin door, the creak of the bed moving beneath them.

Dr. Martin was fifty-two, face as grey as his hair.  Eyes constantly tearing, as if he'd just read a tragic novel.  Very unattractive, really, Rye had thought.  He couldn't see what Gretta saw in him.  She was only twenty-three.

It seemed the bed squeaked for an hour.  What am I doing here? he thought.

It struck him as such an optimistic thing to do for both of them.  Or desperate.

Either way, he decided, the rules were off.

The last security screen cleared, and Rye was into the e-mail program.  He'd thought it through.  His message had to convince her that he was alive, and that she shouldn't be on her flight.  She couldn't toss it away as some sort of crank mailing.  He typed:

 Annie,

It's me, Rye.  I'm not dead, and I have a vital message for you.  Don't take your flight tomorrow.  I can't really explain how I know, but its connected to the reason I've had to disappear.  I'm all right.  I'm asymptomatic, and have never felt better.  I know I was pretty depressed about it before I vanished, but I've figured out how to live with it.         

I could go on for years and never get sick.  No one knows for sure.   When this is all over, I'll come tell you all about it.  But what's important is that you stay off that plane.  It will crash.  No one will survive.  Stay off the plane.

It is me.  I'm still alive, and you have to stay off the plane.  Don't take it!  Call in sick.  Do anything, but if you love me, if you love the memory of Mom and Dad, do me this one favor and stay off the plane.

Don't e-mail back.  It will get me in trouble.

Your brother,

Rye

Rye typed the last word and sent the message.  The mail service confirmed that it had been delivered. 

He erased the message in the "Sent Mail Queue," then, quickly, he backed through the security screens, reapplying each one. 

Voices murmured behind him.  Dr. Martin and Gretta were awake.  Rye's mouth went dry.  The menu popped up, and he silently pushed away from the desk.  In the all metal room, sounds echoed coldly.  Even his breathing seemed to come back to him.  His shoes squeaked as he tip-toed to the door.  He surveyed the area.  Old NORAD procedures covered one wall.  The communications array glowed in readiness.  Battle-ship grey storage lockers on the other wall were neatly closed. Nothing seemed out of order. 

He froze.  The computer monitor still showed the opening menu, not the screen-saver, a hand-drawn image of H.G. Well's time machine that Gretta had scanned in weeks ago.  They'd know if they saw the menu that he'd been using the computer.

Behind the thin panel that separated his room from the rest of the environment, Dr. Martin said something, and Gretta replied sleepily.

Rye stepped across the hall into the VR room, but he could still see the menu.  How long was the delay?  How much time before it kicked in and erased any evidence that he'd been there?

But Martin and Gretta didn't come out for some time.  The screen-saver blinked on, and all signs of his breach of security were erased.  All except, of course, the ripples in the pond of time his message to Annie might cause.  Those he couldn't erase, but he didn't care.  The message was sent.  Irretrievable.  Irrevocable.  He'd remade a tiny bit of the future, even if she didn't read it.  Even if she boarded the plane anyway and went down with the flight.  His e-mail message hadn't existed in their future--the one that ended in seven years and thirteen days in a resplendent wash of flame.  And now it did.

Later, Rye rested on his bed, breathing out disease and inhaling health.  It was a visualization exercise one of the alternative treatment centers had suggested before he went underground.  Breathe in the clean air, breathe out the disease.  He imagined foul dust gathering in his lungs, catching in his mucous, turning it grey and thick.  He coughed and tried to bring some up, but that made him think of pneumonia, so he huffed deep in his throat like a dragon's growl and spit into the trash can by his bed.  Nothing.  The spittle ran down the metal side, foamy and clean.

Exhausted, he flopped back on the bed and stared at the ceiling light.  Breathe in the clean air, breathe out the disease.  Send in the pristine troops on the inhalation; send out the camouflaged terrorists on the exhale.  Every metaphor of light and dark, clean and unclean, pure and sullied he ran through, filling his lungs to nearly bursting, then releasing it all with a rush.

Finally, he closed his eyes, and bright negatives of floaters drifted across the darkness of his eyelids.  They paused at each pulse, then slid a little farther, leaving light trails, and he thought if he watched them long enough, the trails would intersect and spell out messages to him.  But they never did.  They just floated aimlessly about, never quite clear enough to focus on.  Illusive and indistinct.

He couldn't breathe them out.  With morbid curiosity, he'd read all he could find on CMV retinitis.  What it all boiled down to was the results of a study from New York Hospital and Cornell University Medical College.  The median survival from time of diagnosis was eight months.  To combat it, he took daily doses of ganciclovir, which Cornell said would give him 12.4 months longer (on the average), assuming the drug didn't destroy his kidneys.

Without opening his eyes, he groped for the glass of water on the desk beside his head.  Twenty ounces of liquid an hour on the minimum.  It hurt to swallow.

He imagined Annie checking her e-mail before going to bed.  Would she be surprised?  He pictured her rereading the message.  She wouldn't know the return address.

Across the hall, Gretta said something to Dr. Martin.  They were trolling through scientific journals four years up the line, looking for new studies, new technologies, anything that might be a precursor of the end to come.  Martin was driven; they all were.  Seven years and thirteen days away.  What caused it?  How could it be stopped?  In all of the world and all of the remaining future, they had to find the apocalyptic needle in the haystack.

Rye kept his eyes closed.  In his memory, Annie was clear.  No floaters between him and her in the remembered.  Once, when he was eleven and she was eight, they’d been stranded at a movie theater that had sold out.  Dad had dropped them off, but now they couldn’t get in.  It was very cold.  She leaned her dark-haired head against his chest and huddled closer for warmth.  She'd kept crying quietly, holding onto his hand.  He said, “Maybe Mom will take you to see it next week.”  After a bit, between soft sobs she said, "I don't want to go with Mom. I wanted to go with you."

He wished he could hold her now.  Dr. Martin and Gretta didn't need him anymore.  The problems with the headset display were solved.  They were looking for clues in the future that he couldn't recognize.  And it was clear Gretta thought Rye was a hindrance.  He wondered if she was jealous of the time Dr. Martin spent with him.

Rye could almost feel Annie's weight against his chest when he was eleven.  If he thought real hard, he could remember the feel of his cheek against the top of her head and how she shivered.

Did she get the message?  Did she stay off the plane?  There was no way for him to know until he could have a session in the apparatus alone again.

Rye tinkered with the headset.  It weighed more than the game equipment he was used to working with, almost fifteen pounds.  Wearing it for more than ten minutes left him with a sore neck.  Of course there was more in it and it did more than the VR stuff he was used to also.

On the wall, the clock said 10:12 a.m.  According to today's news he'd seen yesterday, Annie's plane went down forty-seven minutes ago.  A scream rose in the back of Rye's throat, but he bit it back and kept his face calm.  Either she got the message, believed it and saved herself, or she didn't.  Finding out wouldn't change whatever the outcome was.

"A kind of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle applies to our work," said Dr. Martin.  He sat at a console, waiting for Rye to tell him when to send information to the headset.  Gretta sat cross-legged on the floor, sorting through the hundreds of pages of screen shots they'd acquired in the last few days.  Many were too blurry to use, which was why Rye needed to adjust the equipment.

"How's that?" said Rye, giving Dr. Martin the expected prompt.  He was constantly trying out new explanations of what they were doing on Rye, as if he were working out different drafts of a paper on time travel.  Rye's hands moved steadily, and the profuse sweating fit he'd suffered from an hour earlier seemed to have passed.

"We can't look at the future without changing it.  You see, our knowledge of what's coming didn't exist in the future we look at when we look at it.  So after we've gained any information from the future, that future may not happen.  We've altered the continuum."

Rye could see that the eye tracking sensors in the headset were the problem.  The cone of focus needed to be widened, which would require more from the computers.  "So what we're doing is fruitless?  Anything we learn will be about a future that doesn't exist once we see it?"

"Not quite.  There is a way around the problem.  If our knowledge of the future remains with us.  If we don't allow the information to leak, then the future is unaffected by us.  But that means we can't interact with the world at all.  We have to remain in the closed loop.  If we send our knowledge out--if we even leave the silo with our knowledge and not say anything, the future changes and all our efforts are wasted.  Our actions will be based on knowledge we didn't have before we knew it."

"Isn't that the goal, to change the future?" 

"We want to stop the conflagration, yes, but nothing we've done has affected that.  We can't come out until we can.  Up to that time, we have to remain closed off.  Any leak before we discover the cause could move the clues around.  Some place we've already researched might then contain vital warnings about the end that didn't exist there before.  We can't risk that."

Gretta had been staring at Rye through Dr. Martin's speech. "You're eyes look weird," she said.  She was wearing sweats and balancing a stack of papers on her knee.  Lately she'd taken to sporting a baseball cap that perpetually shadowed her face, and Rye couldn't find her eyes at all.

"You ought to see them from my side."  For several minutes, he'd managed to ignore the floaters, but now that she'd reminded him, he was acutely aware of the blemishes in his vision.

"And your bruises are worse," she said.

"Gretta," Dr. Martin said sharply.

"But they are!  I'm just pointing out an empirical truth."

Rye said, "Not bruises: Kaposi's sarcoma.  Has anyone ever told you that you need to work on your social skills?"

"Too much of a computer mind," said Martin.  "All her developmental years were spent in line code."

"You're patronizing me again.  I'm sleeping in my own room from now on," said Gretta, turning her back to both of them.

"Empirical truth," said Martin.

The new chip snapped into place in the headset.  "There," said Rye.  "Plug me into today, and we'll see if this did the trick."

The headset settled on his forehead, and the display screens flickered on, showing him a virtual rendering of the VR room.  Martin looked up at him expectantly, his image crisp and flicker-free.  Rye let his vision rove back and forth a few times so the eye-trackers could get a fix.

"What time?" said Martin.

"2:00 p.m. in the monitors' room."

Dr. Martin typed in the information on his keyboard; the display fuzzed out, and then cleared.  Rye's point of view was the silo now, where the missile had once stood, but now contained four computer monitors in the middle of the circular space.  Each monitor scrolled the day's news.  Martin had told Rye that when he first started trying to discover what caused the end of the world, he had wandered through virtually rendered restaurants and shopping malls in the future, reading newspapers over people's shoulders, or stood in front of televisions until the news came on.  The process was time consuming and frustrating.  "Everyone reads the sports and comics," Martin had said, "and the science news coverage is pathetic."  Then, he realized, he could customize the news for his own benefit by setting up the monitors in the silo.  They displayed detailed reprints of scientific journals; synopses of political events; reports of anything in the strange or unexplained category, and current events.  But the monitors had revealed nothing so far.  Even on the day before the end, they spewed out an unremarkable collections of stories and articles.  Of course, there was never any mention of them either, which meant that they had decided to stay underground right until the Earth-searing fire.  They never climbed out to warn the world.  They kept sending messages to themselves until the end.

It was in the current events monitor that Rye had seen the news of the plane crash the day before.

Gretta stopped him at the doorway to his cubicle.

"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings.  Did I?"  She was wearing grey sweatpants and a blue Highlander tee-shirt cut off just above her belly button, slicing Duncan Mcleod at mid-thigh.  "I mean, just being factual about people shouldn't get you in trouble, should it?"

Rye didn't have a chance to answer.  Gretta had a tendency to talk in furious bursts.

"Like, I think it's more honest to confront disease.  Denial, you know, is no good.  This whole end of the world thing, for example, would be solved if we just told everyone what we have found out.  That's what we ought to do."

"But . . ." offered Rye.

"It's denial on a grand scale.  NSA hides stuff by instinct.  Their argument about our technology having security repercussions is hogwash.  The end of the world is more important than petty national concerns.  We're caught in Martin's closed-loop idea.  He sold it too well, and look where it's left us."

Rye thought how weird it was that he didn't find her attractive at all.  Since the heavy medication had started, he hadn't felt a whisper of sexual longing for anyone.  He wondered if it was his body disengaging from life, letting go of one desire after another.  First, sex.  Eventually, eating, drinking and finally, breathing.  She was the only woman he'd seen in months, and she was neuter to him, a personality, nothing else.  He didn't feel an urge to drop his eyes to her shirt (though clearly she wasn't wearing a bra): he didn't have a plan for maneuvering around her affections.  He couldn't decide if the change in attitude was a loss or a gain.  Overall, though, he wasn't sad, so he guessed it was probably a plus.

Gretta continued, "You know why I think we never see news of us in the monitors?   It's because we tried to tell the world--how could we not, eventually?--but NSA stopped us."

She paused.  Across the hall, Rye saw Dr. Martin wearing the headset.  His thumb rested on the tiny joystick that controlled his point of view in the virtually rendered world.  The computers behind him captured the images, processed them, analyzed them, made comparisons to the previously gathered information.  One of the three of them were almost constantly under the headset, exploring the world and time for clues.

"Here's what would make sense," Gretta said.  "That we had a hundred crews like us searching for the answer.  Not that you would care."

Startled, Rye looked at her.  "Sorry.  I wandered."

"No, I mean you don't have a stake in this.  I told Martin it was a mistake to bring you on board."  She put a hand on his arm.  "It's not your fault, really.  But the end of the world won't affect you.  Boom--the world's gone, but you'll be dead long before that."

"Thank you for that grim assessment," Rye said.

"Not grim--the truth.  I'm not into denial.  What surprises me is that you can get out of bed at all.  Sheesh.  Your days are numbered, but you not only keep working, you seem happy most of the time."

"That's true," said Rye, cutting her off.  "That's true, but it's always been that way.  It's just lately that I knew approximately the number of my days.  There's always been a number for me, though, just like there's one for you.  In fact, I think I'm luckier than you because I don't know the exact date for me."

"I do," said Gretta.  "I scanned for it when you first came down.  It's . . ."

"Don't!"  Rye backed away from her, breathing hard.  "I don't want to know the date."

She wrinkled her brow.  "Why not?  We can't be into denial down here, can we?  Why wouldn't you want to know?"

Afraid that she would blurt it out, Rye felt like covering his ears with his hands and yelling at the top of his lungs.  Instead, he backed into his room.

"Let's end this conversation now," he said.  "I'm tired.  I think I'm going to take a nap."

"Oh.  Sure, if you want.  Just so long as you're not upset about what I said earlier.  Martin, he says I talk too much too soon.  I'm working on it.  It's just if a thought pops up, I generally say it right away.  I don't see it as a character flaw or anything."

"Gretta, I understand.  But I'm tired now, honestly."

When she left, he flopped face down on his bed and tried to enjoy his good news.  The monitor had been empty of any report of a plane crash.  When he had looked at today's news yesterday, that was the main story.  Now, nothing.  Annie must have not only not gone on the flight, she prevented it.  Rye smiled.  He should have known.  There's no way she'd let a flight go without her if she thought anyone was in danger.

"The future is changing!  The future is changing!" yelled Gretta.

Rye craned his neck around from his tiny desk.  He'd been fighting off nausea by trying to figure out how he could tweak the equipment to gather information faster.  There was no reason beyond the limitations of the computers that they couldn't download the future at better than real time.  The problem was how much information there was and how well they could handle it.  In the meantime, his stomach hurt, and he kept getting dizzy.  Some combination of the meds was bouncing his blood pressure all over the place.

"The future is changing?" parroted Martin as if he were an elderly Chicken Little.

Rye almost ran into him as they rushed into the VR room.  Gretta sat underneath the headset, knuckles white, frantically punching keys with her left hand while jockeying the joystick with the right.  Suddenly woozy, Rye leaned against a wall.

"The end isn't there," she said.

"What do you mean?"  Martin checked her setting.  "Of course it isn't.  You're too early."

Gretta entered new coordinates.  "I went to see the end, and it wasn't there.  I thought I'd watch from France, where it would be dark."

She changed the coordinates again, typing automatically.

"It's prettier in the dark.  The sky glows for a second first."

She typed in new coordinates. 

Martin stood at the console, confused.  "How did this happen?  It's not there?"

"My settings were right.  It was dark.  I thought I was in the right place, but the fire didn't come.  I waited five minutes."

Rye partially sat on the edge of a desk.  He'd broken the closed loop by sending an e-mail to Annie.  She'd not only stayed off the plane; she'd somehow stopped the flight.  Is this what happened?  Some kind of butterfly effect where her changed ripple in time lapped up on a future shore and prevented the end of the world?

Sweat prickled his forehead, as if a cold breeze passed him.  Had he done it accidently?  Had he somehow saved them all?

""Where is it?" gasped Gretta.  Her fingers flew over the keyboard.

"Maybe it will never happen," offered Rye.

Dr. Martin said, "What are you seeing?  I can't follow your changes that fast."

"Still not there.  Still not there."

"You're just jumping a week at a time."  Dr. Martin checked a monitor, running his finger down the screen.  "Try one month jumps."

"Jump by years," said Rye.  "Maybe there's years of change."  He hoped there was no end, that whatever series of events that ended the world would never happen ever.

"God, I hope not," Dr. Martin said.  "We need to find it soon."

"No," said Rye.  "The longer she takes to find it, the better, right?"

Dr. Martin didn't say anything, watching the screen intently.

Rye didn't get it.  Where was the jubilation?  The end of the world was gone, and Gretta couldn't find it.  There job was done, and he could go home.  By sheer chance, he'd done a heroic thing.  He'd saved humanity.  He could go see Annie.

"Whoops," said Gretta, holding her hand poised above the keyboard.  "There it is."

Rye sagged against the desk.  "Is it the end?"

Martin checked figures on the screen.  "Could be worse," he said.  "Could be a whole hell of a lot worse."

Gretta flicked the joystick, then tapped the same key several times in a row, backing herself up or moving forward in smaller increments.  She sat still for a minute, then she said, "Here it comes," and she arched back as if watching something that towered over her.  "There it goes."  She tapped twice and ran it through again.  "Looks the same.  Nothing different."

"Rye said, "How much time did we gain?  How much longer have we got?"

Martin looked up from his monitor; his face dragged down and muscleless, as if the bones behind them had gone soft.

"Not gained," he said.  "Lost."

Rye didn't move.  Gretta didn't move.  Rye knew she must be watching the turbulence after the end: clouds of electrically charged dust flashing back and forth at each other and boiling in fury.

"What?"  Rye's voice sounded very tiny to him

"We've lost three-and-a-half years," Martin said.  The words came slowly and flat.  "The end is that much closer."

Rye stood up, reached for the two of them, then the room did a deep swoop and he knew no more.

He awoke to laughter.  For the longest time, he kept his eyes closed and didn't really listen to the conversation.  The floaters bothered him least before he opened his eyes for the first thing in the morning.  He couldn't see them then.  In the darkness of sleep, his vision regained its clarity.

"Now we've got some direction," said Dr. Martin.

"Oh, yes," said Gretta.  "I can start tracking the branches of possibility; you can go after biographies."

They were in the room with him.  Slowly, Rye guessed they were in his room.  He could smell the astringents and alcohol wipes.

They would hate him, wouldn't they?  He scrunched his eyes tighter.  Adolf Hitler couldn't measure up to the crime I've committed, thought Rye.  He didn't kill everyone on Earth.

Dr. Martin laughed again.      

"He's awake, I think," said Gretta.  "Rye. . . Rye."

Someone prodded his arm.

"Gretta!"

Offended sounding, she said, "He's got to wake up sometime."

Not able to put it off any longer, Rye opened his eyes and sat up.  Everything swirled, and he lay back hurriedly.  "I'm sorry," he said.

Gretta snorted, "Isn't that rich.  He doesn't know what he's done."

Confused, Rye eyed them warily.  Gretta leaned toward him, her elbows resting on her knees, and her chin in the cup of her hands.  Dr. Martin sat beside her, one hand draped on the back of her chair.

Rye took a deep breath.  His lungs felt papery thin and his skin transparent, but he didn't feel sick to his stomach, and his sight didn't seem any worse.  But a heaviness pressed him down into the bed.  Three-and-a-half years less time for all of humanity.  And for what?  So Annie could die with them at the end?  So Annie could look up the second before the flame hit and join the mass exodus?

Rye turned his head away.

Dr. Martin said, "You've done us all a great favor, Rye.  I checked the computer records.  I know about the message to your sister."

The metal wall beside his bed had a long scratch in it.  Rye stared at that.  Underneath the sheets, he dug his fingernails into his palms.

"Rye, you have to understand.  For months we've been looking for clues about the end, but there's never been anything.  No clues at all, Rye.  Nothing.  And the more we looked, the more I've feared that there was nothing we could do.  That the end wasn't caused by human actions."

The words didn't make sense, but the tone did.  Dr. Martin wasn't angry.  Neither was Gretta.  Rye looked at them.

Gretta said, "Come on, bruise-head.  Don't you see.  You're sister didn't die, and neither did anyone on her plane.  Now the end has changed.  Something someone does or doesn't do because that plane didn't go down causes the end of the world to happen sooner."

"Human action caused it, Rye.  And if it's human, we can find it and prevent it.  And not only that, but you've given us a place to start, your sister's flight."

Rye sat up again, this time much more slowly.  The room tipped only slightly.

"We can stop it?"

Gretta said, "See, even a game boy can figure this stuff out if you give him time."

Dr. Martin frowned at her, then rubbed her shoulder as he stood.

"We will, but not you.  I'm sending you topside.  You can better medical treatment there I think."

Bed sheets tangled around his feet, and it took a second to get them free and put them on the floor.  "But what about the closed loop of information?  I've seen the future.  Going topside will affect it in unpredictable ways."  Rye's voice rasped.  Gretta offered him a glass of water and a handful of pills, his daily dosage.

"Oh, the loop's busted now, and we haven't done much investigating yet.  So this is the only reasonable time to let you go.  Once you're out and can't look at the future, you can't change it.  You won't change your actions based on any new future you see.  You'll be out of the loop."

Gretta said, "And you can be with your sister."

Dr. Martin and Gretta loaded most of Rye's baggage into the elevator for him.

"The guarantee for medical treatment is still good," said Dr. Martin.  "NSA has it arranged for you to check into a clinic in Sante Fe.  They have new techniques."

Rye shook his hand.  "Thanks, but my condition is way advanced.  It'll be like painting the barn after it's fallen.  I'm going to get to go home though. I'm going to call Annie." 

Reaching past him, Dr. Martin pushed the elevator button.  "You'll need to bail her out first."

"Excuse me?" said Rye.  He braced his hand against the door to hold it open.

Dr. Martin grinned, his eyes looking less watery now and more like they glistened.  "She stopped that flight by calling in a bomb threat.  They've got her on a terrorism charge, but they don't know what to do with her.  The bomb squad didn't find any explosives, of course, but they did find a fatal mechanical flaw.  The press got the story, and no one's sure if she's a criminal or a saint."

"I don't suppose," said Rye, "that you could get someone from the NSA to intervene."

"Consider it done."  Dr. Martin put his arm around Gretta.  "Now, you'd better get going.  We have work to do here."

Gretta solemnly shook his hand also, pressing a slip of paper into his palm.  "Be sure you go to Sante Fe," she said.  Her eyes locked on his intensely, and she didn't release his hand until he nodded.

The door slid closed, and the elevator began to rise.  Rye struggled to read Gretta's note through the floaters and the greying of his vision.                                                                         

It read, YOUR DATE CHANGED TOO.

This story originally appeared in Talebones.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."