Brian Burt - Speculative Fiction

Time Bomb

[This story was originally published in albedo one and won the magazine's Readers Poll.]





Elias Rochon convulses as the aftereffects of the Shift roll over him like a tsunami following a deep-sea quake. For one eternal moment, every ghost of who he has been or will be shrieks inside his skull: baby Eli squirming in his crib, little Eli climbing the gnarled oak in his back yard, teenage Eli stealing a kiss from his first love, Dr. Elias Rochon accepting his Ph.D. Elias the fidgety groom beaming at his beautiful bride. Carly. Oh, Carly…. He tries to reach out - to embrace her with a longing so profound it leaves him dizzy - but she slips past in a torrent, tumbles into the currents of a universe that must reshape itself around his intrusion.


The moment passes. His entire life melts into the new timeline as it has into a hundred others - a bucket of water spilled into a churning river. Insignificant, in the cosmic scheme of things. But Elias Rochon does not give a damn about the cosmic scheme, only the local one. This time will be different. This time….


This time does not look different, at least not on the surface. His office appears much the same: littered with texts, papers, printouts, CD-ROM's, arcane trappings of Academia. The room has the musty smell of a museum, or perhaps an Egyptian tomb, redolent of secret knowledge, of mysteries barely glimpsed. A framed cover from Time Magazine hangs above the desk - his own profile limned by stars and nebulae against a glossy field of black, spiral galaxies spinning in his eyes. The caption at the bottom proclaims him Time's Man of the Year. The double-entendre has lost its charm. His gaze falls to the picture on the desk: he and Carly in hiking clothes, standing arm in arm at the foot of Tequamenon Falls. Drops of spray glisten in her hair, sparkle almost as brightly as her smile. So happy. Guilt gnaws at him until his soul begins to bleed.


This time, Carly….


He sits behind the cluttered desk, examines the computer. An unfamiliar model - similar to ones he has used in other timelines, different enough to give him pause. He presses a key to halt the geometric rainbow dance of the screen-saver. Nothing. He tries several command key sequences, still to no avail. He stares at the shifting patterns on the screen, then speaks, surprised by the raw timbre of his voice.


"Computer: stop… quit… end… resume… continue… login…." A pop-up window appears, prompting him to enter a password. He probes the recesses of his jumbled post-Shift memory, until the answer blossoms in his mind with bittersweet clarity. His fingers type of their own volition: C-A-R-L-Y-C-U-E. A desktop graphic fills the screen, covered with icons, some of which he recognizes, some of which baffle him completely. No matter. If he stays in this universe - if he has reason to stay - he will assimilate it all… as it has assimilated him.


"Link Newsnet." A window expands to fill the screen with a wide range of media icons. He draws a long, unsteady breath. "Search articles; range: minus two weeks to current date; scope: local; keywords: maternity, murders. Process."


He waits as the computer begins its search, heart thumping wildly. A chime announces that the search has been completed and a new window opens, displaying a list of articles. Sixteen matches. He scans the titles, praying silently to whatever god rules this corner of the multiverse as his eyes race down the list. He reaches the bottom - the last entry - and hope implodes. Elias Rochon is a shell: blood and bones and viscera are sucked into the vampire mouths of glowing pixels on a screen. He must know. He must know for certain. He speaks with the cold rasp of a dead man. "Computer: access Item Sixteen."


A synthetic voice reads the article with inflectionless calm that makes the content even more grotesque. "Title: Maternity Killer Caught! Date: May 16. Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor police announced today that they have apprehended a man they believe to be responsible for the gruesome slayings of at least seven pregnant women in the Southeast Michigan area. Police sources report that Jeffrey Caulder, a twenty-year-old junior at the University of Michigan, has confessed to the so-called Maternity Murders that have terrorized Ann Arbor and suburban Detroit for the past eight months. According to investigators, Caulder provided specific details about the killings that were never released to the public. The suspect is being held without bond pending arraignment. Under Michigan's Serial Killer Law, prosecutors will be seeking the death penalty.


"Tragically, police were unable to apprehend the suspect before he claimed another victim. A silent alarm alerted police to a break-in in the 2400 block of Evergreen Drive at approximately 9:17 p.m., where officers captured Caulder as he attempted to flee the scene. The mutilated body of Carlita Rochon was found in the kitchen of her home. Mrs. Rochon, wife of renowned temporal physicist Dr. Elias Rochon, was pronounced dead at the scene. University records show that Caulder was enrolled in one of Dr. Rochon's undergraduate classes, but police have declined to speculate on whether this connection played a part in the murder. Dr. Rochon could not be reached for comment."


The computer drones on with background and details, but Elias hears none of this. Sight, sound, all of it blurs into a gray and meaningless fog. Dr. Rochon could not be reached… could not be reached…. No, because he did not have the time. He may never have it.


He wants to cry, to sob like a baby, but he has no tears to give. He floats, insensate, in the cold and lightless void between the galaxies, a chunk of ice dropped into an ebony sea. Alone. Even the indifferent gravities of distant stars cannot reach him.


Alone… again.



*     *     *



Elias slumps in his chair, office door locked against unwelcome visitors. He has always been a loner. The nature of his research - his peculiar blend of physics and metaphysics - has made him an icon of popular culture and a pariah to most of his colleagues. He may garner the cover of Time, but the Nobel? Never. To spite all who condemn him for transmuting science into a mystic art, to crush them beneath the weight of his success - that is why he worked so many late nights. Why he was not there when the monster crept into their house. Carly understood his obsession, forgave him those shameful periods when he drifted through their marriage like a ghost, his mind locked in combat with the forces of Creation.


How can she forgive him now? How can he forgive himself?


He reaches for the Shift-band lying on his desk, strokes the gleaming metal of its surface. So simple. So complex. He can describe the theories in detail: the relationship of consciousness to space-time, the role of the observer in collapsing the cosmological wave function into one discrete universe. His peers simply scoff as the tabloids boil away the jargon, condense it into science-fictional mythology. He tries to make it clear. This is not time travel in the classic sense; it is more powerful, more limiting. The truth - the frustrating, terrifying truth - is that the full meaning of his discovery eludes even him.


He places the Shift-band around his forehead with trembling hands. He will not Shift yet; not completely. He must first scan the proximate timelines, searching for a universe where Carlita Kelly exists - and he does not. Time Traveler's Rule Number One: two incarnations of the same entity cannot coexist on a single timeline. If they try, they will annihilate each other, like a collision of matter and antimatter. He must search out his next target… but not before he scans the timeline from which he came. A masochistic habit. One he cannot seem to break. The band hums, its modulated magnetic field tuning his brainwave patterns to bridge the gaps between splintered branches of the multiverse. Images are fed directly into his visual cortex. He is only an observer in this mode, a voyeuristic phantom.


Every trace of Elias Rochon has vanished from the universe he inhabited before the Shift - when a bucket of water is scooped from a mighty river, the hole it leaves is quickly filled. He scans for Jeffrey Caulder around the time of the boy's college years. Jeffrey still attends the University of Michigan, still embarks on his murderous rampage. But now, with Elias Rochon gone, Jeffrey Caulder's list of victims does not include Carlita Rochon, or Carlita Kelly, or Carlita anyone.


Elias feels a hollow surge of triumph. He follows Caulder's fate with relish as the little psychopath is caught, convicted, and summarily executed. It does not always happen this way. Some times, Caulder commits suicide before the trial, or is slain by the grief-mad husband of a victim, or is killed in prison awaiting appeal… or escapes arrest entirely to continue his killing spree across a dozen states. Not here. Not now. Elias moves on to more pleasant matters - a pleasure married to exquisite pain.


She is so beautiful. Raven curls fall across her shoulders, impossible for any brush to tame. Her skin is molten bronze. Her lips curve into the slightly crooked, slightly self-conscious smile of a woman who has no idea how ravishing she is. Her eyes: deep, hypnotic mahogany, gleaming from the backlight of intelligence and humor that shine from them in seemingly endless supply. He drinks her image with the greedy thirst of a man lost in the desert. The need to touch her, to hold her, boils in his soul. Impossible. Here he is a never-was, less than dead.


Better me than you, Carly. Better me than you.


He aches when she weds a former colleague, a Literature professor aspiring to write the Great American Novel. A dreamer, full of passion - she seems to like the type. Elias skims the landscape of her life, a guardian angel making sure she does not stumble. Caulder never comes near her. Elias scans ahead, knowing the rest will hurt, still not willing to let go. He watches the scene in the hospital delivery room, shares her pain and jubilation as she strains and wails and finally rejoices at the birth of her first child. A daughter. A healthy, squalling, perfect baby girl. The child that should be his… and never will be.


Elias drags his crippled consciousness back to the current timeline and feels the moisture on his cheeks. Carly has proven him wrong again.


He does have tears left after all.



*     *     *



Panic swells in Elias Rochon's beleaguered mind; he battles it halfheartedly before it swallows him. He is trapped. He has found a target timeline, but he cannot Shift. He stares at the diagrams and calculations on the screen and moans softly, not wanting to believe the tale they tell. And yet… he has spent his life searching for the truth; he cannot hide from it. Cold equations show no pity. Extrapolations of his own precious theories define the boundaries of his prison, of his curse. Jeffrey Caulder may be a despicable monster, but Elias has become a serial killer in his own right. Every time he Shifts, he murders his beloved wife again, as surely as if he swung the blade himself.


Resonance. That is what he labels the effect, cruel corollary to his mathematical framework for navigating time and space. When he Shifts, his entire lifeline - from the tip of the cradle to the tail of the grave - is spliced out of the old universe and into the new. Timelines are fluid and unique, each flowing with different currents, but his own consciousness exerts pressure on the flow. The horror of Carly's fate has imprinted itself so deeply on his mind that he enforces the pattern of those events on every timeline into which he falls. Correction: every timeline that contains both a Carlita Kelly and a Jeffrey Caulder. That should be the loophole he needs, the reprieve. Like a Vegas casino, the odds are in his favor. But this is no game… and the God of the Multiverse plays by different rules.


He has scanned thousands of timelines, found hundreds in which Carlita Kelly exists. In every one, Jeffrey Caulder lurks nearby, blackening the landscape like a demon's shadow. Every one! The laws of probability say this cannot be, that somewhere in the vast constellation of timelines, there must be a place where he can rejoin Carly without destroying her. He cannot find it. The two central players in his cosmic tragedy are inextricably linked - light and darkness, incapable of existing without each other. They follow separate paths, maintain an uneasy balance, until Elias Rochon is dumped into their lives. Somehow, he becomes the catalyst in a reaction that ultimately dooms them all.


Resonance. He has beaten his brains against its impenetrable armor for three days now, rarely leaving the refuge of his office, hardly eating or sleeping. He can find no way to defeat it. Just the opposite, in fact: he has uncovered several ways to intensify it, to heighten the effect. He has always hated irony. The only way he can protect Carly is to abandon her, in a sense no human has contemplated before… irrevocably and totally, leaving her with not even a ghost of a memory that he ever existed. He could Shift to a universe where she is never born. That prospect makes him numb. He is tired of crossing those lonely deserts between the streams of time.


There is another way: he can choose a timeline where he and Carly and Caulder are already locked in their deadly ménage à trois, go out in a blaze of glory. By colliding with himself, he can end the suffering of two Eliases at once and save Carly from that twisted little psychopath on both timelines. The fantasy grows ever more seductive.


He is staring dumbly at the formulas on the screen when a lunatic idea possesses him. Hope bubbles up from the depths of his despair; tiny, fragile spheres that he must catch before they burst. There may yet be a chance….


A chance is all he asks.



*     *     *



Elias Rochon is more nervous than he has ever been in his life. In any of his lives. He has spent every penny of his savings to bribe his way into the jail cell of Jeffrey Caulder. He has many contacts on the Ann Arbor police force. Not friends, perhaps, but sympathetic acquaintances. He has done work for them, scanned proximate timelines to help guide investigations that were going nowhere.


He never gives them proof, of course. Time Traveler's Rule Number Two, the Rochon Uncertainty Principle: observing the past or future of one's own timeline with any degree of accuracy is impossible. Scanning a specific time distorts the specificity of place; scanning a specific place renders the time of observation proportionally imprecise. He can only sample similar timelines for statistical analysis, to identify "probable" perpetrators. Still, he has helped the police out of some sticky situations.


He is paying them well to return the favor.


The jailer - a burly cop named McGee - escorts Elias to Caulder's cell without a word. He has his orders, no matter how strange, and he follows them. He does a cursory search of Elias outside the cell. He does not look closely at the fedora in Elias's hands, does not see the Shift-band sewn inside the lining. The door slides open. McGee waves Elias inside, his voice stern and gruff.


"Let's not have any trouble, Dr. Rochon."


Elias nods. He sees a different message hiding behind McGee's watery blue eyes. Do whatever you want to him, pal. Go ahead and rip out the little freak's liver with your bare hands. Just give a yell first, so I can watch. The door clangs shut; McGee saunters away.


Elias Rochon is alone with the killer of his wife and unborn child.


He remembers Jeffrey Caulder from his Intro to Temporal Physics class: third seat in, fourth row from the back, solid grasp of the material. A pale, wiry young man with stringy brown hair. Unremarkable, really, except for the eyes: they sparkle with the cold effervescence of root beer poured over ice. Elias sees the knife-edge glitter of intelligence there, and something else… something that flashes to the surface, then dives quickly of sight. Caulder slouches in the bunk, studying his visitor like some new species of amoeba oozing through the slime beneath a microscope.


"Greetings, Professor. I confess that recent events have put me behind in my studies, but I never expected a private tutor."


Elias searches for his voice, prays that it will not betray him. The quiver is noticeable, but not acute. "Neither of us has time for jokes, Jeffrey… and nothing you say to me could possibly be considered funny."


"No time for jokes? But time is what you've given us! We have so much time now… though I suppose your wife has run out of it, after all." Elias's vision blurs behind a flaming veil of red - he comes close to abandoning his plan, to granting Officer McGee's unspoken wish and strangling the monster right here in its cage. Caulder simply stares, waits for him to regain control as if this was some sort of test. Satisfied, the boy continues.


"You came because you want to know why."


"No, Jeffrey, I don't."


"Yes you do. You want to know everything, Professor. Right now, I can only give you the general answer. My father was a deadbeat and a drunkard, but he taught me one crucial lesson long ago. He loved the outdoors - the wild places - and not much else. He always ranted about how there were too damn many people in the world, choking the very life out of it. Then I had the audacity to be born. That's why he had to beat the stuffing out of me and dear old Mum. You see, despite his many faults, he was right: the only thing more worthless than a human being is a human being with a belly full of fetus."


Elias Rochon's voice barely rises above a whisper, but the words roar like thunder in his head. "That's a tragic little tale, Jeffrey… but if you think it excuses what you've done, you're every bit as stupid as you are sick."


Caulder's lips twitch into a snarl, then quickly settle back into the condescending smirk that seems so comfortable on his face. "You disappoint me, Professor. You, of all people, should know that brilliance is often misunderstood. It takes great courage to make the hard choices, to force the masses to listen to things they'd rather not hear. You may disapprove of my methods, but fear is a potent weapon."


"So is madness."


This time Caulder cannot hide his scowl. "You're boring me, Professor. Tell me what you want, or go back to your Ivory Tower."


"Not what I want, Jeffrey; what you want. I'll give it to you, because you'll be giving it to me as well." He fumbles with the lining of the fedora, rips it loose with the savage haste of a wolf eviscerating a deer. He pulls the Shift-band free of the mangled fabric, holds it out with hands that will not stop trembling.


Caulder's eyes shine as brightly as the metal band in Elias's palsied grip, its intricate web of microcircuitry reflecting the light like a thousand mirrors. "Really, Professor, you must think me an idiot. You could easily have modified the field generator to fry every neuron in my brain."


"I could have… but I haven't. It's a perfectly functional Shift-band. Your ticket out of here: your only chance to avoid death by lethal injection… to find a universe suited to your tastes, where there aren't too damned many people in the world."


"Why should I believe you?"


"Because you know me. You know what I want. Trust me, I'd do this another way - any other way - if I could. I've Shifted a hundred times already; every time I end up losing her to you. My only hope is to Shift you away from both of us."


Jeffrey Caulder suddenly leans forward, snatches the Shift-band from Elias's hands. "Congratulations. It's taken you a while, but I knew a man of your vaunted intellect would figure it out. You're right about one thing: I know you. While you've been studying your precious theories, I've been studying you. I knew you'd try it the hard way first; I knew you'd be forced to resort to this. You are a brilliant man, in your way… but so am I. This is the specific why, Professor, the real reason I killed your gravid cow of a wife. I wanted the key to the gates of Time… and you've given it to me."


The shock, the shame, the horror of revelation stab deep into Elias's heart. Some vital fluid - more precious than blood - spills from him in gouts. Jeffrey Caulder dons the Shift-band like the crown of a demon prince. Elias is a dry, brittle husk. Dry enough to burn. Rage and hatred flame in him; even Caulder can sense the heat. But the demon prince has prepared carefully for this moment. He wastes no time, activates the field generator to initiate the Shift. To spread his pestilence across the multiverse.


Elias only watches, praying silently. The air inside the cell thickens, pulses with invisible energies beyond human comprehension. He has never witnessed the Shift this way: from the outside looking in. Jeffrey Caulder's eyes glaze. His grin falters, collapses into a puzzled grimace. Something is wrong. At last it is Elias's turn to smile.


"You don't know me as well as you think, you little bastard. I've given you the key to the gates of Hell."


Resonance. The cause of Elias Rochon's misery has become his greatest weapon. He has made subtle adjustments to the Shift-band growing greasy with Caulder's sweat. It is not enough for Elias to save Carly in one universe if that means feeding her to the monster in countless others. No. He must save her everywhere. Every when.


Resonance. The effect reaches out across the chasms that separate a thousand timelines, drags a thousand thrashing, moaning Jeffrey Caulders toward a fatal convergence. Time Traveler's Rule Number One: the man who meets himself dies twice. The man who meets all his selves will never even live. He watches Caulder struggle, knowing the monster cannot escape: he has also adjusted the Shift-band to modulate synaptic activity in the sensorimotor areas, to induce a mild species of paralysis. Oh, but the higher brain functions are undisturbed. Elias wants his tormentor to see the death stroke coming, to know who deals the blow.


He stares at Caulder's quivering body, trapped by his own morbid fascination - wondering what the moment of convergence will be like. He stares, and he cannot believe what he sees. Caulder slowly lifts his hands toward the band around his head. Caulder's arms move as if they each weigh several tons, but they move. Impossible. The paralysis inducer… that's impossible! Elias has overlooked one crucial factor in his calculations: madness is more powerful than reason.


He launches himself at the twitching figure on the bunk, grabs Caulder's arms, tries desperately to hold them down. Caulder utters a guttural snarl. Elias grips the boy's wrists so tightly he can feel sinews grating against bone, but he cannot match the strength of a maniac. The air sizzles and boils around them, impossible to breathe. They are both panting like asthmatic dogs as they roll off the bed and crash to the concrete floor. The light… the light is crazy, a whirling kaleidoscope of colors too vivid to be real. As he and Caulder wrestle on the floor, Elias begins to see it: the overlay, the superposition of countless timelines slightly out of phase. An army of Jeffrey Caulders collapse into one writhing mass, some grappling with other Eliases, others merely battling their own confusion.

A final thought sends a thrill of terror down Elias's spine. If he does not let go, he may converge with the other incarnations of himself; he may join Jeffrey Caulder in the oblivion of never-was. The thought chills him to the core… but he does not loosen his grip.


You'll be safe now, Carly. You'll all be safe.


A flash of white brighter than a thousand suns exploding in a thousand universes engulfs him just as Caulder wriggles free, burning away the pain and grief and rage, burning away everything. As he sinks into the void, Elias Rochon calls out to the ghost of his murdered wife.



*     *     *


   

Elias wrestles frantically with someone he cannot see and calls out for his wife until a voice whispers in his ear, a voice so sweet he cannot believe that it is real. He pries his eyes open, deathly afraid that doing so will break the spell. He is tangled in the covers of his own bed; morning sunlight streams through the cracks between the blinds to form a glowing nimbus around the face that gazes down at him. Her hair is so black it shines, wildly mussed from the night's slumber… and from the tender struggle that preceded sleep. He cannot move. Every muscle in his body is numb with happiness.


"It's all right, Eli. I'm right here."


He has never been a man who readily displays emotion, but Elias is crying; not from fear or any recollection of the horror he endured, because the memory grows fuzzy even now, but from the sheer relief of staring into those wide mahogany eyes and knowing that she is safe, his beautiful Carly is alive and safe. She hugs him, the swell of her belly pressing against his own, and he feels a little kick, a tiny spark of life that starts a wondrous chain reaction as joy ripples out from the center of his soul in wave after healing wave. In that transcendent moment, he knows. He has not awakened from a nightmare: he has awakened to a dream.


He hugs Carly with all his might, savors the warmth of her skin, the gentle music of her voice. He cannot stop the tears from spilling down his cheeks, as if to wash away the last traces of some psychic poison. A nightmare? No - something much, much worse. But if you push someone off the edge of the Multiverse into the abyss of Never-Was, how can you prove the difference?


Eli no longer cares about proving anything to anyone, because the shadows are melting - the monster cannot touch them now. He and Carly and the precious baby girl she carries have a wonderful time ahead.

No. They have wonderful times ahead.