Thursday, May 6, 2010

Story 189: The Deep End

A while back I posted a review of the novel Timesplash, where you can go back in time (briefly) and then when the timeline fixes itself the present gets all trippy. It's an extreme sport that eventually turns into terrorism when they find that going back far enough does actual physical damage to the present.

The below story is in no way an official or canonical part of Timesplash. I normally leave other people's worlds alone, but I had to write this because of something that happens on page 18. It's the single most mind-bending thing in the book and it never comes back up for a lot of reasons, but if the character involved had been more scientifically minded and had less of a disaster to deal with shortly after, it would have kept her up at night because it challenges the central idea of these 'recreational' jumps: that everything in the past is only semi-real and changes only impact the world in the form of the splash. The point is, this is crazy stuff and while they don't really acknowledge this they're always in way over their heads.

"It's going to be the greatest lob in history."
That's what Sergey said to me, and all I could think was that that's what the techs had said about the splashparty at Ommen back in '47. The one that had turned it from a game into terrorism. Nowadays when someone says a lob is going to be the greatest they're talking about one so deep that it's likely to smash an entire city. I don't want to be part of something like that. Even I have limits. I managed to get him to wait for my reply and I looked him up. He was a nobody, a Brick that had already faded into obscurity before the party days ended. Not many people were willing to admit knowing him which would explain why he came to someone as admittedly inexperienced as I am. I could only find one solid contact, one person who could tell me any dirt I needed to know about.

"Sergey Malyutin is a coward. Take his money - you won't have to break any laws."
That's what Froboz, Sergey's old teknik, said to me. He was drunk, staring into an empty glass with a baffled expression as if the liquor had consumed itself. "Did I tell you what happened last time? The money I spent, the work I had to do just to have him flush it all down the drain? We could have been famous, you know." He held up the glass and waved it at everyone passing by, hoping that one of them would turn out to be an employee who could get him a refill. It didn't work, and eventually he continued. "We were ready to do a sixty-five year splash almost a year before Klaatu." Klaatu, Sniper's ├╝berteknik. Froboz had no respect for the bricks themselves - he liked to point out that the original was quite literally a brick and did the job just fine. "I get it set up and he disappears, says he's going to make a grand entrance at the last second. I get everything warmed up, the cage is hot and ready to go, and that bastard never shows. Chickened out. We had to shut it down, and then later he comes up smiling like nothing happened and packs it all in, takes it away. I barely got out of town alive."

So I took the job. There's no audience to get angry at us, no splashparty. It's just Sergey and me in a warehouse with a pile of expensive equipment and Sergey's video rig so he can broadcast the recording when he gets back. If he chickens out like Froboz says he will I'll take some of the gear and sell it, and otherwise... well, I set most of it up myself and he can't do a big enough splash with this to do any real damage. It's safe either way. He's kept the target a secret but I can get everything ready without that. His suit has enough air for an hour in lobspace which just goes to reinforce the idea that he's scared - he won't actually need much air at all. Maybe six minutes' worth, round trip. I finish checking the suit and give him a thumbs-up, and he grins like a little kid. He doesn't look scared, he looks excited.
"My friend... are you ready to program the coordinates?" I nod and his grin gets even wider. "Good. I will be going to July 25th, 2046."

This has to be a joke. "Five years? Are you serious? This is bullshit. I risked getting arrested so you could go on a little daytrip? Five years is nothing, it's a pebble flip!"
He holds up a hand and shakes his head. "I know what I told you, and I meant it. But either way you get paid the same... so why do you care?"
He's right. I shouldn't care. It doesn't matter. Hell, this is actually the best case scenario - I'll get paid to do a lob so simple most tekniks could set it up in their sleep. Even so, even knowing that I shouldn't be bothered, this whole thing is rubbing me the wrong way. No wonder nobody wants to work with this guy. I take a few minutes getting the coordinates set and adjusting the power. Sergey gives me a specific time to aim for and that's a little more work but nothing I can't handle with one arm tied behind my back. I give him the signal, all excitement and nervousness replaced by annoyance, and he climbs into the cage.

There's a popping noise as he vanishes, and I let out a little sigh of relief. I knew it would work, but it's still good to see it go off without a hitch. It'll take a while before any splash hits, so after checking the generator and cleaning up some empty wrappers I pull out my phone and call Froboz.
"You'll never believe what Sergey wanted," I say as I stifle a yawn. "He just went back five years. That's it." Froboz laughs, and jokes that he's probably going back to tell himself not to screw up his life by ruining that splashparty. I start to laugh, but... oh, no. No. He wouldn't.
"Froboz? What if he skipped that lob on purpose? What if he had you set it all up specifically so that he could decide not to go?"
There's silence on the other end of the phone for a minute, and then he replies in a shaky whisper. "Did he go to July 25th, back in '46?"

I drop the phone and look at the map pinned to the wall. Where was the party five years ago? Not that it matters; he could have left a car for himself. He had this all planned out. A five year lob followed by a sixty-five year one, nested. Nested! Had anyone tried something like this? I can't think of anything, and that's the kind of story that would get around. It's foolproof, too - at least the setup. He'll show up right on time, and with barely any distortion and the party in full swing Froboz will hit the switch without even knowing that he's sending the wrong version of Sergey. I look around at the building I'm in. Will a five-year splash be hitting? Sixty-five? Seventy? There's no way to know.

As if in answer to my question it starts. The other side of the room seems to stretch impossibly far away, and then all the light blue-shifts. It's not right, though. Something is different. Something is wrong. I can see Sergey walking towards me, can hear him saying "Good. I will be going to July 25th, 2046". Wait. Is this an echo of him, or... I don't understand. This shouldn't be happening, not in the present. Is this some side effect from the double-lob, or... or am I in the past right now? What if the Sergey I just sent wasn't the present one either? What if this is a triple-lob? I reach out, try to stop him from getting into the cage, but the walls seem to be melting. This for sure isn't just a five-year splash. Not even close.

He's wearing a gun at his waist and I lunge for it. It feels solid in my hand, real, and I pull it out of the holster. He turns to look at me, halfway into the cage, and he smiles at me. Just grins, like an idiot. I pull the trigger again and again and he falls backwards into the cage... while also still standing and smiling at me. Another Sergey pushes me out of the way and steps over himself to get into the cage, giving a thumbs-up to signal he's ready. Another me, over at the controls, hits the button and my vision swims.

The room is back to normal. Nothing is broken, nothing has changed. If the clock is right the jump should be over by now, but the cage is empty. Is this happening? Is this the present? It has to be if everything is stable again... right? My phone is laying on the table where I dropped it and I can hear Froboz screaming, his voice tiny and high pitched in the little speaker. Sergey, you son of a bitch. I look around the warehouse but there's no sign of him other than the gun that's still in my hand, slowly melting.