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.