The Beginning Chapter
This is how Colin Buchanan became a crazy old man...
His name was John Smith, like many other people. He was busy typing away at his computer terminal, like many other people. And he was bored as hell, like virtually everyone else on the planet Frontier. He was in his early fifties and had a full head of wavy graying hair. He worked at the local all-news computer access station, and his job was to find news stories from one computer file, re-write them and put them into another. The newscasters could then find the stories in the more easily accessed file and read them. He had been typing since seven in the morning. It was now nearly lunch time and his hands were beginning to get a bit sore. He twisted his neck around to check the clock on the wall behind him to see exactly how long he had been typing, but the clock was perpetually under the impression that the time was twelve. A.M. or P.M. was anybody's guess. He had sent several messages to maintenance about that clock, but since the maintenance staff didn't know how to log into the computer, they never seemed to get any of his messages. And even if they had, it wouldn't have done any good because the company still hadn't managed to supply them with any tools other than a headless hammer.
The newsroom was large. It held nearly one hundred staff members, each one seated at their own desk. On one side of the room was a short stairwell leading up to the balcony section which housed the offices of the editor, executive editor, news coordinator, executive news coordinator, and chief janitor. From the balcony level, the bosses could look down imperiously upon their news staff and shout order at them, or just sit in their office and wish they didn't have a wall made of glass so that they could get away with the occasional nap.
Eventually Smith would have to take a break to eat, or at least to use the toilet. But he was always afraid that if he did that, one of the office spies would report him to one of the first floor supervisors.
There was of course the rumor that the office spies never bothered to report anything they observed. And even if they did, they wouldn't report it to one of the first floor supervisors anyway, because the first floor supervisors didn't really know what to do about it. They were only paid to sit around and look like they knew what they were doing, which they still hadn't quite mastered. They ended up just sitting around and looking like they were just sitting around.
Eventually John's bladder talked him into it, and he went to the toilet. Someone had once again scratched into the mirror, "The beatings will continue until morale improves." And management had so far left this latest attempt at humor for three days as they consulted with a psychiatrist who eventually advised them that removing it would have a detrimental effect upon employee psychology and therefore efficiency.
Another couple hours went by. Still twelve. John instinctively checked his watch, and instantly felt foolish for doing so. His watch only gave him the temperature, his pulse rate, the day and the date. He had had this watch for a full two years, but had apparently spent so many other years of his life wearing a functioning wrist watch that his body had been permanently trained to check his wrist for the time, even though his mind knew better.
Eventually the computer beeped that there was a new memo for the staff. He checked it. It said, "Several employees (Cathy Jones, John Smith, John Smith, Sarah Barhum and Tad Darius have been granted the freedom to pursue other opportunities, whilst their duties here will be taken up by new model Gold Five robots." He double checked it. Yes, it did list both John Smith's! For a moment he thought that maybe it was the other John Smith they were firing. And to add maggots to the manure, as the local teenagers' expression put it, they had used an open parenthesis to include the fired employees' names, but hadn't bothered to use a close parenthesis.
The whistle blew. It was time to go home. And then his computer went dead, killing everything he had typed into it that day. He had forgotten to hit "save" again! He banged his fist onto his desk, hurting his little finger.
The executive news coordinator walked by on her way down from the balcony level. "Um," Smith said to her. He only said, "um," because he was naive enough to think that this would be sufficient to remind her that she had forgotten to tell him that he had been fired and that she would then apologize at that point and explain why he had been fired.
But in fact all she actually said was, "Yes?" as though she couldn't figure out what this former employee could possibly have to say that would be worth her time.
"I saw that memo just now." Again he was under the mistaken impression that he would get some kind of apology or at least an explanation at that point.
"Oh, yes. Is that okay?"
Inside his head he was screaming, Is that okay!? Is that okay!? No! That's not okay, you moron! I wasn't given any notice! I wasn't told if I was doing something wrong, and whether or not I could fix it! But all he actually said was, "Um..."
She put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder, "I really hate to see you go. You're a
valuable member of our team. And as far as I'm concerned, we're parting amicably, and you'd be welcome back here any time."
"Any time? Good. Then how about tomorrow?"
She patted his shoulder condescendingly, "Take a reality tablet, John." And she continued her escape, making sure to avoid the other employees who were mentioned in the memo.
Smith sat there in mild shock, watching as everyone else left. They didn't seem to know. They had no idea that he had just lost his job. Either that or they didn't care. "You know what's interesting," Bob said to him on his way out. "The only five people who were fired are the same five who missed the company Christmas party last year." He then raised his eyebrows significantly, and continued on his way.
About the only thing Smith thought he could do was complain to Cathy. It was her job to take all complaints as though everything was her fault. Her position had started several years earlier when another employee called Herman was single-handedly responsible for more problems than everyone else in the news station's entire history put together. So it quickly became the standard assumption (which was almost always correct) that whenever anything went wrong, Herman had done it. And then when one day he got a better job (the news station certainly hadn't been able to fire him, being a minority), they found that his absence had left a gap in their lives. They needed to blame someone. They needed to holler at someone. So they hired Cathy, a perky young blonde, who did a wonderful job saying, "Oh, my God. I'm, like, so sorry. This won't ever happen again. I promise."
He glanced at the memo one last time... and noticed that Cathy had been fired as well. Fine. He'd just go, and never return. He never liked this job anyway. He picked up his single photo of himself from a safari holiday he had taken by himself several years earlier (his wife had planned on going with him but had to pull out at the last minute when she suddenly realized that she just wasn't interested), put on his coat, and left.
A couple people said, "Goodnight," as they walked by without making eye contact with him. He had to wonder if they even knew whom they had just addressed. But nobody offered any sympathy, and nobody stopped him.
He walked down the cold, dark stairwell, lonely footsteps echoing off the metal steps and concrete walls. And as he walked out the door for the last time, he felt nothing special. It wasn't eventful. It wasn't cheerful or sad. It was simply John Smith walking out the door.
The planet was called Frontier. It was the first ever human colony in another solar system after the transcendental drive had been invented in 2167. At the time of the colony's foundation, the Earth people were so desperately excited about being out in the vast frontier of space that this first human colony world was enthusiastically named Frontier. But of course, being humans, they hadn't bothered to plan ahead. Within fifty years, there were six other colonies farther out into space in all directions, and Frontier was suddenly a long, long way from the actual frontier. In fact these days it was considered one of the inner worlds.
The government of the planet Frontier shuffled their collective embarrassed feet and claimed that the name now referred to the vast areas of untouched land on the planet. For that reason and no other, they had left a sizable portion of the planet a "frontier" unspoiled by their modern industrialization.
Huge areas of Frontier were set aside where the local plants and animals and primitive tribes of fuzzy-wuzzies could continue entirely unmolested behind miles and miles of camouflaged force fields, only disturbed by the daily floating safaris for tourists.
By 2277 several non-human aliens put in a request for cohabitation rights, and were immediately okayed. So now Frontier was the home to several billion humans and non-humans.
Now, over a hundred years since the first colonists had arrived, John Smith wandered dejectedly through the crowded, rain-soaked city streets of the human section of the planet. The small rivers running along the gutters reflected the multicolored lights from signs desperately enticing travelers of the night to purchase new things which none of them actually needed anyway.
People talked and laughed as they walked by. Others shouted and ran. Traffic in the nearby street whooshed by on cushions of air. Smith thought of the old days when vehicles had used tires, and would splash pedestrians on the sidewalk on nights like this. And in the mood he was in, he felt he really ought to be splashed on by a passing car. He stopped and looked at a puddle in the gutter. But the water stayed put, resolutely ignoring him.
In the end he simply jumped into the puddle himself. Now his shoes were thoroughly soaked and the legs of his pants were quite damp as well. That was more like it!
He thought briefly about getting together with the others who were being replaced by robots. But then what? They would just whine about it and try to convince each other that the world was unfair... something they were all feeling right now anyway. No point.
Robots! Robots never wanted expensive company Christmas parties, or a raise. And they could be programmed never to disagree with the boss.
The thing he had trouble understanding was how robots could take these jobs knowing that human beings had been fired to make room for them? What the hell happened to the three laws?
He had even heard a rumor that this was only phase one in the general manager's plan. And in phase two, they were going to replace the station's entire viewing audience with robots as well... on the advice of their robotic legal council of course.
Well, why not? Who actually bothered to care anymore? There were occasionally robots who claimed that they cared. But they had only been programmed to say that by humans who themselves didn't care. Smith was mildly surprised to realize that he cared about the fact that these robot programmers didn't care. Then he wondered if anyone cared that he cared. Then he figured that he didn't care if anyone cared that he cared, and continued his way home.
A vehicle slightly larger than a van floated down from high above the crowded sidewalk. It was a time mobile from the Temporal Affairs Department. As soon as it settle down on the ground, the driver stepped out of the van-sized machine and shouted directly at John through the crowd, "Smith! John Smith!"
John turned to look at the man. "Yes?"
The driver opened his wallet, suavely displaying an upside-down library card. "Jack Parker," he said, closing the wallet again. "Get in."
Like most people, John simply assumed that anyone who acted authoritatively had a legitimate reason to do so. And so he got in the vehicle as he was told.
Jack took them up into the air above the city. He remained silent for several minutes.
Eventually finding the silence too uncomfortable, John felt it was his duty to begin a conversation. "So..." he began vaguely and uncertainly, "Temporal Affairs, huh?"
"I take it this is an official... sort of... thing that you're doing?"
"Did I, um, do something wrong?"
Smith nodded knowledgeably. "Not yet. I see. Something to do with time travel."
They sat in silence for another couple more minutes before Smith finally asked, "Do you think you could possibly tell me what's going on, please?"
"Well, it's like this..." Jack said and then paused.
"It's like what?"
"It's like this... about a month from now, there's a problem. While on a tour of the Temporal Affairs facilities, the governor goes berserk and steals one of our time mobiles. And unfortunately for you, you're nearby. The governor takes you hostage, goes back in time about a month and then drops you off. And what you did, like an idiot, was go straight home."
"Yeah. That was about half an hour ago. Your future self is actually home with your wife right now."
"And we have this sort of law thing which says that we can't have two of you living the same life," Jack explained, embarrassed. "And unfortunately the rules go on to say that whichever one of you gets home first gets to keep his life. The other is therefore redundant and has to get himself a new life."
"What!?" John had now caught on and wasn't liking it one little bit. "What!?" he reiterated.
"Sorry, guy. We gotta get you a new life."
"I don't think so!"
Jack held up what was meant to be a placating hand, "Hey, trust me. You don't wanna fight this. The last redundant guy who fought to get his life back was locked away and experimented on by the government." He paused, frowning out the windshield. "They can do that too... mother-fuckers. 'It's to study temporal anomalies'."
"Well, why can't you just leave me alone and then in a month I'll go back in time and all will be well?"
Jack rolled his eyes. "If we did that then you would be coming back to now."
Smith shrugged, "Yeah?"
"The now in which there are two of you here already."
"The you from a month in the future came back to a time when there was only one of you. Now if we let the mistake happen a second time, then one of you would travel back to now when there are two of you! Then there will be three of you! There ain't just one timeline. Every change creates a new one which takes off from the original, like blocking up a stream. We're in a new timeline now, and we're just trying to make the best of it."
"I see," John said, in that hollow way people do when they really don't understand at all. "We're in a new timeline now, you said?"
"I don't feel any different."
"Nobody ever does. Nobody ever notices, but they happen all the time. Ever wonder about the duck-billed platypus back on old Earth?"
"What about it?"
"That's where they came from. They never used to exist. Then somebody went back in time and did something bad. Very, very bad. But we couldn't put things back to how they used to be. Once a change has been made, we're stuck with the change. Putting things back is impossible. We could only make the best of the new timeline. And then suddenly these platypus things have just always been there."
"They weren't there before?"
"Nope. You and I were both born into a world with no such thing. And then there was the change, and now they've always been there. And we remember them always being there."
"That's kind of creepy, actually."
Jack inhaled slightly nervously, "I know."
John sat in silent thought for a moment. And then something occurred to him, "So what was I doing at the Temporal Affairs facilities anyway?"
"You got a job there two weeks from now."
The time mobile landed and pulled up in front of a hotel. "What are we doing here?" John asked.
"Well, believe it or not, the government has actually acknowledged that it's partly their fault when these cases occur. So we're putting you up in this hotel until you find a new place to live. In fact, we'll be completely supporting you for a while. Use your credit card. Give us your receipts, and we'll pay. Here's my business card. I want you to come and see me either tomorrow or the day after so we can get started on the paperwork."
John opened the door and stepped out. "Hand on a sec," Jack said. He reached into the glove box and took out some pamphlets. He leaned over and handed them to John. "Here's some stuff on how to cope. There's also some addresses and phone numbers of therapy groups who can help you too."
"Thanks," he mumbled. He turned away from Jack and wandered into the hotel.
Jack pulled away.
Two hours later, John found himself standing outside his house, looking in through the closed living room window. The house was exactly like all the other mass-produced houses on the street. Two stories, but very narrow. There was a front yard which was little more than a patch of grass that could be crossed in two strides. It was dark outside and most of the lights in the house were out. His wife must have gone to bed. And she must have gone to bed with... him! This was simply not acceptable! It was okay for John to go to bed with her, but not if it was another John from the future!
He went to the front door and unlocked it. He tried to push the door open slowly enough for it not to squeak. But that stupid door didn't feel that it was a proper door unless it squeaked! The sound tore through the house like a scratched chalkboard.
And then the other John came around the corner from his kitchen. He stood there facing the intruding John. And then his wife stepped around the corner as well. The John who had broken in smiled his best I'm the real John, so do please take me back and get rid of this imposter sort of smile. But his wife backed away and addressed the future-John, "It's him! It's the imposter!"
"I'm not the imposter!" John shouted. "He is!"
"I'm not the imposter!" the other John insisted. "I'm a temporal duplication!"
"Ah-hah! See!? I'm the original! Not him!"
"Not he," the other corrected.
"Look, I don't care what you call yourself," he heard his wife say. "You just get out of my home right now!"
"But sweetheart!" John protested feebly, trying to comfort her. But the other John stood baring the way.
"Now, look," John began, "this is my home too. And I deserve to stay here just as much as you do."
"The law says something different, buddy," his other self told him in his own smug voice with accompanying sneer he had designed specifically to irritate people. And he was not now pleased to discover that it worked.
"Just get outta my way," he hollered as he tried to shove past the bastard. Unfortunately his other self shoved back with equal force. And then they both gave up at the exact same time. They then realized that the other had given up, and they both suddenly began pushing again. And then they gave up again, all in perfect synchronization.
"Look," the future John said. "Why don't you just go back to Vicki. You know you still love her."
Of course he knew the exact opposite to be true. He and Vicki had had the most savage and violent breakup in human history. With all the fire trucks and police cars that had been involved that night, their breakup had even made the news. He would sooner slice his own nipples off than be anywhere near "hell's darkest nightmare" ever again.
"Why don't you!?" John suggested.
"Because I've matured a great deal in the last month. And I remember that back when I was you I still wanted her. Therefore you still want her."
John's wife's mouth dropped open as she glared disapprovingly at him, clinging to his future self for comfort.
"I do not!" he protested.
"Yes, you do! John and Vicki sitting in a tree..." the other began to sing.
"Would you kindly shut up!" he hollered with enough force to bring down the ceiling.
"K-i-s-s-i-n-g..." the other went on.
"That's it! You are dead!" he shouted as he lunged himself at his other self's neck.
But before he could successfully kill himself, four strong arms reached out from nowhere and pulled him up. "Just take it easy, buddy!" the police officers shouted at him. They had come in through the still open front door, and they separated John from his other self and stood looking at the two of them. "All right, which is which?"
John looked up for his wife, "Sweetheart, please tell them which is the real me."
And to his horror, she pointed to his evil self. "Wait a second! How could you possibly make that determination!?" he shouted hysterically, certain that she must be cheating somehow... some way. And that if he caught her at it, she would have to admit it and change her mind. "We look exactly alike!"
"He's wearing the same clothes he was before you showed up."
Good point. Duh!
She turned to the police officers, pointing at John, "That one is the redundant one."
"Right, ma'am," they said, all smiles. "We'll take care of this." And they hauled him away like a bag of garbage.
John was taken down to the police station, and with instructions from the Temporal Affairs Department, he was given new finger prints, a new retina pattern, a new DNA sequence, and they even changed his mother's maiden name to from Jones to Babinski. And as he was still reeling from all that, they changed his name to Colin Buchanan.
He was then locked up in a small, cold, concrete holding cell with a smelly old man who was in the process of discovering where boogers came from. It wasn't so horrible for the fist hour. But then the man hit upon the idea of eating them. John, now known as Colin, was just lucky that the man wasn't police enough to offer him any.
He curled up on his own cot, doing his best to keep warm underneath the thin blanket provided. He missed his own bed. He missed the way his wife shook the bed every time she rolled over. He stared blankly at the concrete wall mere inches from his face. He reached out a finger and touched it lightly. It was cold and hard. Like life. This wall was life.
He wiped a tear from his eye.
Eventually morning crept its unwelcome way into Colin's world. As he rolled over on his cot, he noticed Jack Parker step up to the bars of his cell. "You just had to go home anyway, didn't you?" Colin simply looked back up at him, too tired to argue. "Look... just accept it, guy. They don't need you. And it's not like you had a nice life before, anyway. Trust me; I read your file. There's lots of opportunities out there for a guy in your position."
"There are lots of opportunities," Colin mumbled automatically.
"That's the spirit. Now get on out there and get yourself a new life." And then Jack leaned forward and whispered through the bars of the cell, "As long as we're footing the bill... splurge your little butt off, guy. Take a vacation. There are some people who'd kill for this chance." He thought for a second and then added, "Actually, there are some people who have killed for this chance."
"Yes, but," Colin said, getting to his feet. "We never really know what we have until we've lost it."
"Exactly. Thank you, Mr. Cliche'. And now's your chance to see that what you had wasn't worth all this grief. Let it go. There's better stuff out there. Go get some!
"We've paid for your release," he went on. "They'll let you outta here in another hour or so. Now I want you to just go back to the hotel and relax." He hesitated a moment before giving Colin one more sympathetic look. He reached his hand through the bars and touched Colin's shoulder lightly. "You'll be all right," he said softly. And he walked off.
Colin sighed and sat back down. He thought about his wife. He didn't like to admit it, but they hadn't actually had the happiest marriage. They had looked good together, and they never actually fought. But then neither had they actually had fun with each other. She had never really been there for him. And if he was honest with himself, he had seldom been there for her either.
The two of them had been drifting further and further apart ever since their fifth anniversary. Or maybe even since their honeymoon. And the engagement hadn't been that much fun either. To say nothing of their disastrous first date. You know... thank God she was out of his life: Hell's second darkest nightmare!
The last time they had done anything together was that time they had gone grocery shopping. And when she had realized that she didn't have enough money, even before checking whether Colin, or John as he was called back then, had any money, she pulled out a pistol, grabbed one bag, ordered him to grab the other, and they ran out of the store.
No doubt he would miss her. She had become a large part of his life, what with being married to her. But perhaps he would miss her like people missed their in-grown toenails after being surgically removed. Yeah, he was getting quite used to this idea now.
And anyway, she'd still have that other poor, pathetic John to boss around and to make miserable. So she would still be fulfilled, if not exactly happy.
Colin was suddenly so pleased with how his life was going that he felt it his obligation to go back and rescue the other John as well.
But not for long.
Some time later a police officer unlocked his cell and let him out.
Now he was free.