The 2038 Problem
Have you ever wanted to go back in time and change a mistake? Have you ever wanted to change so many mistakes that it would be best to just try it all again? I admit that the idea crossed my mind once or twice. I should have kissed her. I should have gotten there a minute later. I should have chosen the proverbial door number two. I always hate when people say nonsense like, “live with no regrets”. If you don’t have regrets, then you’re either a fool, or you never really lived at all. Mistakes make you who you are. They taught you, not only the kind of person you are, but what kind of person you should strive for. Everything that happens to me in my life leads me to each next moment, and even if I don’t like the moment, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if it changed. There are rules and dangers to time travel. Change one thing, and you change everything. In the end, if you’re given chance to go back in time, choose not to. It won’t turn out like you hoped. It’ll probably be worse. It was for me.
It was the second day of January in the year 2038. I was working as a prison guard, and though it didn’t pay much, I was happy. The hours were steady, the job was secure, and my life was on the right track. I had adopted a wonderful son, and was foster father to little girl named Melly who was a handful of trouble, but brilliant and had so much potential. And of course, because what I’m doing is telling you a story, this is the moment that it all changes. I was checking in on a particularly heinous criminal who was sitting in solitary confinement. At least, it was supposed to be solitary. When I opened the little window on the door, I saw someone else in there. She was holding her arms out like she was performing a magical spell. I triggered the alarm and was setting about getting the door opened when it happened.
I blink and suddenly I’m sitting in a car. Not only that, but I was supposed to be driving the car. I haven’t needed to drive a car with my hands, like a monkey, for years. I swerve and hit the brakes, safely pulling over to the side of the highway. A few people honk at me as they pass by. I grip the wheel tightly, giving myself time to reclaim my breath. Once I’m calm enough, I prepare myself to look in the rearview mirror, but I already know what I’m going to see. I don’t know exactly what year it is, but I know that I’ve been sent through time. My teenage eyes look back at me with disappointment. I reach into my pocket, looking for my phone, but it’s not there. Then I remember that I used to keep it on the other side. So it’s no later than 2017, I know this much. I’m right; my screen displays March 23, 2016. Okay, I think to myself, what do I know about this time? I turned 18 two days ago. I’m about to graduate from high school, and start taking summer classes at the University of Indianapolis pretty quickly. I just broke up with my girlfriend, making things a bit awkward, but not hostile. She’ll still be sore about it, though, so I better stay away.
Today. Today is what’s important. I have to figure out where I was going. The time, 11:55 in the morning. I’m cutting school. Why? Just because? Yeah, kinda. Just because it doesn’t matter all that much anymore. I already got into college, and I entered an accelerated program, so the few classes I’m taking this semester aren’t relevant. But still, it seems reckless. The forty-year-old in me does not approve. I feel so strongly about it that I merge with traffic, and then take the cloverleaf interchange to head back for Hamilton. I can still make it before lunch ends, and no one will notice.
I was wrong, and all eyes are on me as I slip into class ten minutes late. The teacher frowns at me, and in my mind I can hear a growl, but then she just moves on with the lesson. I still can’t pay attention, though. I’m thinking about what I was doing on the highway in the original timeline. I was heading for Lawrence, but why? Something about a convent? No, that can’t be right. A concert! What concert was it? It was a lot of fun, and I remember the artist, it was...Marlin something. Um. It was a jazz concert series, and it wasn’t in Lawrence. It was at the university fine arts theatre. And it wasn’t now. It was later. I was just going to Lawrence first to meet up with some friends and make the day of it. Who am I talking about? I know lots of people in Lawrence, but...why can’t I remember?
“Your memories are being overwritten,” my friend, Brian explains. It was not surprisingly easy to convince him that I was now a time traveler. He’s always been open to things like this. He starts drawing diagrams on the whiteboard in the empty classroom we sometimes hang out in after school. “What year was it?”
“2038,” I remind him. “January 2.”
He writes it on the board. “2038, and you go back almost 22 years to 2016. But not exactly.” He starts working through it out loud, but to himself. “Why not exactly? What is the significance of that day and this one? What’s the connection?”
“It’s not me,” I say.
“I don’t think I was supposed to be the one traveling. I eventually become a prison guard in New Jersey. One of the inmates gets a visitor who magically appears with him in solitary, and I think she’s the one who sends him back.”
“You’re a stowaway.”
“Who is this man?”
“His name is Horace Reaver. He killed lots and lots of people after his wife died in a car crash.”
“Nothing else interesting about him?”
I think about it for a moment. What do I remember from the future? Ah, yes. “There were conspiracy theories about him being a time traveler. Tons of people testified, not always actually in court, that he saved their lives. Apparently, he stopped bad things from happening, as if he knew they would.”
“That would be a logical explanation,” Brian says. “I mean, it would explain your current condition, not who this woman is, or how time travel is possible.”
“What were you saying about my memories being overwritten?” I ask, knowing that to be the most pressing issue.
“Right, yeah,” Brian goes back to what he was saying, “in the original timeline, you went to some sort of event that you can’t quite remember, in a place you can’t quite remember.”
He pulls up a website on his laptop. “It’s called Ripple Effect-Proof Memory. It’s when people go back in time, often only with their consciousnesses, with the benefit of foresight. They know what’s going to happen, which allows them to change it. If the lesson is they can’t change it, then at the very least, they’re aware of it. But for some reason, you don’t have this. You’re susceptible to the changes in the timeline.” He holds out his hands like he’s presenting a giant bowl. “You don’t remember going to the event, because you never did.”
“Oh dear, and it’s getting worse.” He pulls up a chair and faces me with purpose. “Right now, you know what’s going to happen in the future, but once that future becomes the present, and especially the past, you won’t know what happened,” he pauses to glance at the words on the computer, “the first time around.”
“What the hell is the point of that? I mean, if I have no hope of changing the future, and no hope of even knowing about it, why do it? Everything will just go back to normal, and we’ll all end up where we started.”
He sits up straight and raises his chin. “But it’s already changed. You went to an event—and trust me on this; you already told me about it—but you decided not to this time. From now on, we’re in uncharted territory. You’ll only have generalizations about the future. You’ll remember future terrorist attacks, future technological innovations, future movies. Even though you’ll eventually forget what you know about these things, because you know about them now, you’ll be influencing events based on this knowledge.”
“What?” I ask, extremely confused.
“You will be able to change events,” he simplifies, “but once those changes take place, you won’t remember what it was like before. Every decision will overwrite the decision in the original timeline, both in reality, and in your mind.”
“So,” I begin, “what am I supposed to do now?”
“I’ve never heard of this in fiction; not to this extent, anyway. I have no freakin’ clue.”
Brian and I make some big decisions. If I’ve been given a second chance at life then I have a responsibility to go full force. College was nice the first time around, but it didn’t really help me in the end. One thing I do know is what companies are going to succeed and when. Sort of. I don’t exactly have perfect recall, so it’s not like I can invest in a company and sell it off the day before it makes a big dip. I also feel the need to keep myself particularly anonymous, in case Horace Reaver or his sponsor realize that they weren’t the only ones who went back in time. Instead, it’s my job to tell Brian what stocks to buy, and give him by best estimate as to when to sell them. Everything is in his name. Lincoln Rutherford is nobody.
While we’re living off of our investments, we move to Kansas and try to keep tabs on Horace Reaver. Our families are shocked by our massive shifts in lifestyles, but the money I send to my parents on a weekly basis is enough to keep them from asking too many questions. I assure them that it has nothing to do with guns or drugs, and they consider that to be a satisfactory answer. It’s fairly easy to convince them since there is a paper trail, and I’m not lying. We don’t do anything too big because, again, we don’t want to raise suspicion. The IRS and the FTC are threats to us as well. As far as we can tell, Reaver isn’t killing anybody. But then again, he’s just a kid at this point in the timeline. He does check himself into a mental institution, but we don’t quite know why.
After a few months of being completely confused and grumpy about sometimes having the knowledge of two conflicting outcomes of events, Brian makes a suggestion. I start to keep a journal, and even later publish my writings to a public blog, under the guise of fictional stories. I write down anything and everything I remember from the alternate timeline, so that when this timeline overwrites my memories, I have some reference to go back to. I half believe the timey-wimey ball will erase my stories from the web just because, but it keeps rolling and leaves me alone. I spend a not insignificant amount of time rereading my own work after the memories in question have left me. The stories feel like just that; stories. They don’t seem real to me, and I barely recall even writing them down. It’s like another person’s life, but everything he does is what I would do. This gives reliable ol’ Brian yet another bright idea. Since my memory loss is giving me a fair amount of stress, he helps me check myself into the same mental institution as Horace Reaver. This allows me to get a closer look while also hopefully actually helping me feel better. Again, it’s not like I’m lying.
“My name’s Kyle,” a man several years older than me says with his hand outstretched, like we’re meeting for a business lunch.
“You don’t like to talk in group.”
“You’re losing memories?”
“I think there’s something more to it.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
Kyle eyes me curiously. “I’m just gonna throw something out there. Know that I’m a lawyer, and I can tell when you’re lying. So it doesn’t matter how you answer. I’ll know the truth from your reaction; your microexpressions.”
“Give it a shot,” I say, trying to sound as cool as possible. Does he know?
“Are you a time traveler?” He does, what the hell?
He smiles and lifts his head in understanding.
I take a chance, “I mean, yes. How did you know?”
“I’ve seen it before.”
“How do you know they weren’t lying?”
“No, I mean I literally saw it. A few years ago, my friend disappeared before my eyes in a cemetery. I just saw him about a week ago. He came to prove that he’s still alive and well. But I can tell that he’s the same.”
“What do you mean he’s the same?” I repeat.
“I mean for me it’s been years, but I can tell that it’s only been a few days for him, not because he hasn’t aged, but because he hasn’t grown. He’s been skipping time. I don’t know why since I’m not in his circle of trust, but he’s not my concern. I only used him as a template so that when a second guy told me that he was in a similar condition, it just confirmed it. Time travel is real. That second traveler actually lives here.”
“Horace Reaver,” I say.
“He’s talked to you too,” he says, only half as a question.
“As far as I know, he does not know about me. I would appreciate it if you kept me to yourself. It’s possible I was sent back with him to keep him in line.”
“Why would he need that?”
“He killed people in the future.”
“So you’re not having memory problems?” Kyle asks, not as worried about learning that his little friend is a murder.
“No, I am,” I clarify. “But my memories of 2038 have yet to be overwritten, so they’re still there. I know what he is, and I have to stop him.”
“We can do that together. As long as it means you’re not planning on killing him.”
“My friend says that you can’t kill Hitler.”
“He’s as bad as Hitler?”
“No,” I say, holding back a terrible laugh. “It’s just an expression. If I tried stopping him before he becomes what he becomes, then I could end up being the one who makes him what he becomes. So for now, I’m just going to watch.”
“He has big ideas about the future, Lincoln,” Kyle admits. “He doesn’t want to take over the world, but he wants to make it a better place. Whether he’s capable of this is yet to be seen, but he certainly believes that to be his destiny.”
“Since you apparently know what he turns into, should I stop him? Should I crush his dreams?”
I think about this for a moment. Brian says that Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act is not to be taken so literally. If time doesn’t want you to do something, then you won’t be able to do it. One thing to keep in mind is that Reaver is in the same boat. He knows the same things as me, if not more. He’s apparently already shown an interest in doing things differently. Perhaps his entire goal is to prevent his own murders by making his life better, so he’s not necessarily fated to become a maniac. There’s a chance to save him, but I have to be in it for the long haul. No single moment makes someone who they are. This is going to be a fulltime job, and I’m going to need help. Kyle is perfect, because I don’t have to convince him of the truth. I just need to stay with him, and make sure that we’re making the right decisions. But from behind the scenes. It is absolutely imperative that Horace Reaver know nothing of my involvement, or the plan fails; whatever that plan may turn out to be. “Foster his dreams,” I say, almost like an order.
“How’s that now? He wants to build a multi-billion dollar conglomerate. Are we sure that’s wise?”
“All the better. He wasn’t a billionaire in the original timeline, and that’s the one where he kills people. I was never familiar enough with the case to fully understand his motivations, but if he’s rich, maybe that’ll be enough. At the very least, we’ve stepped on a number of butterflies by helping him. We must diverge from the other timeline as much as possible. I understand this now.” I grow very serious and start pointing my finger at Kyle. “But you have to stay with him. You have to make him a better person. Don’t give yourself away, but don’t slack off. Give him what he needs, even if he doesn’t know what that is.”
“What are you going to do?”
I shrug. “I’m going to do what I already know. I’m going to become a security guard. And if he ever does build that conglomerate, I’ll be the first in line to apply.”
Train Train Go Away
My plan to avoid Horace Reaver goes swimmingly...for almost five years. One day, I’m surveilling him a little too closely when he spots me. Fortunately, Brian and I prepared for this kind of situation. I started taking acting classes. That’s right, I actually went to a high school at night and took lessons from a third-rate acting coach at the cheapest price. I just needed to learn to lie, but to lie extremely well. He taught me that if I wanted to “get into character” I had to believe that I really was the character. I had to convince myself that the lie was actually the truth. If I could fool myself, he said, then I could fool anybody. So far, it was going about as well as could be expected.
“Why are you following me?” I try to get away from him, but he stops me. “Give me that camera.”
“No, it’s my property.”
“Who hired you.”
“I have no clue what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do. Give me the goddamn camera.”
“I’m not going to do that.”
“Tell me who you’re working for!”
“No!” I hope I said that at the right time. My teacher also said that the best way to cover up a big lie was to replace it with a slightly smaller lie. If Reaver knew that I came back from the past and was intending on stopping him from becoming a bad person, he would flip out. If he thought I was following him for other reasons, I might be in trouble, but it would work itself out. It was better than him knowing I was a time traveler. I pretend to be disappointed with myself for letting it slip that he was right about me working for someone. “Crap.”
“So you are following me.”
“My clients are confidential.”
“You’re a private detective?”
I hand him my business card. Yes, we made fake business cards too.
Reaver reads it out loud, “Sockdolager Investigations.”
“Yeah, ya see it’s—” I start to explain.
He cuts me off, “yeah, I get it. Your name is Lincoln. That’s funny.” He is not amused. “I don’t need to know who your client is. Just switch sides.”
“Come work for me instead.”
“Sir, with all due respect, you don’t have much of anything right now.”
“This is true,” Reaver admits. “But I will in the future. I promise you this. If it’s money you’re worried about, don’t. If there’s one thing I’m not lacking, it’s a way to make money. I have a lock on gambling. Just name your price and it’s yours.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“I’m not asking you to marry me. Come start work and I’ll get to know you.”
“What exactly would I be doing?”
“I need a bodyguard, and you look like you can take a hit.”
“Expecting some violence?”
“Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” he says, as if recalling a memory.
“What’s the catch?”
“Never question me,” he answers. “Always do what I say, even if it feels wrong.”
That was not a good start. But I have been waiting for an opportunity. It would seem that his dreams of becoming a billionaire were well on their way. His viewpoint on money mirrors mine, but more intensely. He too must know what investments to make, but in a far more specific way. Perhaps my plan to watch him from the shadows is no longer valid. Maybe it’s time to get right in the thick of it. He doesn’t seem to recognize me as a security guard from the future. I look older then, and we only met the once. But I realize if he does see me for who I am, he might be planning on killing me later on.
I accept his offer, and soon discover that he wasn’t lying about the salary thing. I start making six figures right away, and my life gets good. Brian and I switch places. I become the one on the frontlines while he pulls back so that I have a way out. I funnel him money on the regular so that he can live a modest life of anonymity. Reaver asks me to do a couple weird things, but I comply. There’s very little close protection work, like he first indicated. Mainly he just wants me to keep tabs on his wife from the alternate timeline, Leona Delaney. Of course I don’t know the details of their original relationship, or this one, and he certainly makes no effort to fill me in, but I still do what I’m told. I genuinely believe that he has no intention of harming her. If his experience as a time traveler is anything like mine, he might have screwed up the timeline unintentionally, and is trying desperately to get back on track by engaging with her in some other way. But if I fear that her life is in any danger, then Brian is there to spirit her away.
I continue writing in my journal of my adventures in the other reality, but decide to stop publishing them online. Even though I never used my real name, and I never mentioned anything that would catch Reaver’s attention, it’s just too risky. If he so much as suspects that I’ve had experiences that cannot be traced through the current timeline, he’ll know I’ve been keeping things from him. It would be too great a coincidence for anyone to believe, especially not for someone as smart as Horace Reaver.
Months into the job, he ushers me into the lair of what Brian would call Reaver’s hackette. “Will it be ready soon?” he asks.
She’s furiously typing on the keyboard and staring at the screen with intensity, but when we round the corner, the monitor is completely blank.
“What the hell is this?”
“You boys have this image in your mind of a hacker typing code at the speed of thought, but it’s a little more complex than that. There’s a lot more trial and error than you would think. Also, we do use mouses. I don’t know why people on TV act like they have a macroinstruction for literally everything.”
“The plural is mice,” I correct her.
“No!” she screams. “It’s mouses! You shut your mouth! You shut it! You shut it now!” She’s a little weird.
“Why aren’t you working on my program?”
“Because I finished it days ago,” she spits. Micro, as she prefers to be called, pulls something up on the screen, and it’s all Greek to me. Well, I mean it would be Greek if I couldn’t read Greek, but I can, so it’s...computer code..to me.
I realize that they’re looking at me curiously. Reaver snaps his finger in my face. “Still with us?”
“Yes, sir. Sorry about that, sir. I was just...inspecting the perimeter.”
“Nice save, Sergeant.” Micro’s nickname for me.
Reaver leans over and rests his hand on the desk. “Are you absolutely sure that you’re done with this? It is imperative that it be deployed tonight.”
“Yeah, March 29, 2022. I get it. It’ll work.”
“It’ll work?” Reaver asks, feeling no confidence in her words.
“It’s perfect,” Micro assures him. “As long as you don’t turn off the machine, the program will run continuously on its own.”
“Show me the machine.”
Micro hands him a tablet that was plugged into her workstation. “I am warning you that the programs eats up battery like a mother, so I recommend having some portable chargers on hand. I have some ready to go in the locker by the door.”
Reaver passes the tablet to me. “You need to get up to Lincoln, Nebraska. Your train leaves just after midnight. If you’re not on it, or you don’t fire up the program once on board, you’re dead to me.”
“This isn’t going to cause the train to derail or something, will it?”
“I seem to remember saying you could have this job as long as you didn’t ask questions.”
“I know, I just...I think I’ve earned your trust by now.”
He looks distracted as he shakes his head. “I have work to do.” He starts to walk away. “Be in Lincoln by midnight.”
“You don’t find it strange that your name is Lincoln and he’s sending you to Lincoln?”
I ignore her and start to fiddle with the tablet.
“Don’t touch that!”
“What does it do?”
“It’s an artificial intelligence that seamlessly takes control of the automated locomotive network and directs it as needed.”
“Obviously,” I say sarcastically, “but what does it do?”
“It doesn’t control where the trains go, but it controls when they get there. Basically we want the the train you’re on to be at a certain point at a certain time, but if we don’t manipulate all the other trains in the area, it will have no reason to be there so late. We have to alter them little by little so that everything seems organic and unavoidable.”
“Why are we doing this?”
She turns back to her workstation. “That is not my job.”
I leave the room and start driving to Lincoln, Nebraska. I dread getting there, and all the jokes I’ll hear from the train workers about my name.
Train Train Go Away
As I’m waiting to board the train, I can hear the woman who sells tickets get into it with a guy who is trying to purchase one at the last minute. As she’s giving him a hard time about his identification, I realize that I recognize him. His name is Mateo Matic. He first disappeared mysteriously in 2014, and then again in 2015, almost exactly one year later. Ever since then, I’ve spotted him hanging with Reaver’s alternate timeline wife, Leona Delaney, but only once a year. I was watching her before Reaver was paying me for it. He must be some kind of time traveler as well. I can’t be one hundred percent sure, but Reaver probably has dastardly plans for him. They might could be friends, but I highly doubt it. If he feels threatened by Mateo when it comes to his theoretical love, then only death will follow. Are my plans failing? Is Reaver falling into the same pattern as before? What am I going to do now?
I board the train, cautiously sit behind Mateo, and flip on the tablet that Micro gave me. She never told me exactly where they want the train to be, or when they want it to be there. I’m just supposed to let the program she wrote run and do absolutely nothing else. But I am going to do something else. I’m going to monitor Mateo and get a better sense of who he is. If I fear that his death is imminent then I’ll pull the plug on the whole operation. I’ll only be able to do this once, though. After I make that move, Reaver will no longer trust me. He doesn’t go on his killing spree in the alternate timeline for the better part of two decades. Anything could happen. Man, I really hope I don’t have to burn this bridge.
Mateo does nothing of note throughout most of the trip, but then someone gets on the intercom and claims that all the frequent stops are just as annoying to them because they have to be there too. Yikes. I adjust my body into a defensive position, worried that they’ll find out that I’m the one causing this. Micro assured me that no one would know, that these kind of scheduling issues used to happen all the time, but I’m still worried. Maybe I should have gone ahead and taken that stage combat class. A man on the other side of the aisle reacts to the announcement, “the difference between us and the crew, is that we are paying for the misery, while they are being paid.”
“So true,” Mateo answers.
“What’s your final destination?” the man asks. Who is this guy? Is he another time traveler? Another investigator? A threat? An ally? Does he know something, or is he just a stranger on a train?
Mateo takes a long time to answer. Either that or he’s ignoring him. I don’t have a great vantage point. I should have sat behind this dude’s seat so that I could secretly see Mateo from there. Rookie mistake.
“I didn’t know it was a trick question,” the man says with a laugh.
“No, sorry. It’s Grand Junction, Colorado.”
“Business or pleasure.”
I see Mateo take a deep breath. “New life,” he says with conviction.
“Ah, interesting. Running from, or just running to?”
Mateo tilts his head and pauses again. He must just be a thoughtful character, not wanting to answer inaccurately or rashly. “Both.” Nice answer; short and sweet.
“Well, I’m rooting for you. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
“Thanks,” Mateo says, but it doesn’t sound genuine. The train lurches and begins to move again. “What do you do for a living?” He doesn’t sound all that interested.
“I’m a physicist. The name’s Duke Andrews. I assume you don’t have a career at the moment. What’s your name?”
“Mateo. I don’t have a last name anymore, though.”
“Full commitment,” Duke says back. “I respect that.” He really does sound like he respects the decision, if that really is what Mateo is going for. If Mateo’s struggle to buy the train ticket is any indication, his last name is no longer relevant. To perhaps his family and friends, he’s been missing. To the world, and particularly the government, he would no longer exist. Once you’re gone for long enough, they’ll just decide you’re dead. Mateo probably hasn’t reached that point yet, but he will relatively soon.
After another delay, I look at my watch and see that we’re about nine hours behind schedule. I wonder if that means we’re on schedule. I can hear Mateo open a paper map. A paper map. Paper. Guy still uses paper; what a weirdo. Eventually, he stops moving. I have this strange thought that the program I’ve been running does more than just manipulate train movements. Or maybe it doesn’t do that at all. Maybe it’s been sending out a magic signal that’s programmed to rupture Mateo’s brain stem, or some crazy science fiction like that. I stand up and head towards the front of the train so I can get a look while I’m heading for the lavatory. Crap. The lav is behind us. What will my excuse be then? I’m overthinking it, and no one is watching me. Yes, they are. Duke eyes me with suspicion. Or maybe it’s curiosity. I just need to leave. I could have business in another car. What does he know? He doesn’t know. Screw him! I’m going to another car, and he can’t do anything about it. Is the food car up ahead, or is it behind us? No, it doesn’t matter. Just keep walking. My only threat is Duke Andrews, and he can go to hell!
But he’s not the only potential threat to my life as a train schedule hacker. With each subsequent car, the chances that the food car is up ahead decreases. Soon, I realize that it can’t be, and I’m walking forward for no reason. There are other people here, and they are all watching me. They’re all cops, and judges, and time travelers, and “Reaver Enterprises” spies. That’s right, this entire train is full of people who work for Reaver. This is all a big test, and I’m failing. Shit, I have to get back to my seat. But how’s a man gonna turn around? If I just stop in the middle of one of the cars and start heading in the opposite direction, people will be like, dafuq is that guy doing? Because, like I said, they all work for Reaver, so they’re all watching me. Doesn’t matter. If I’ve failed, then I’ve failed. All I can do is go back and keep my head down from now on. Sure, I might be headed towards my death, but I knew that from the start. This train may very well be on a collision course. It could have been designed to kill Mateo, or to kill me. But that would be ridiculous because all the other people on the train work for Reaver too. Surely he wouldn’t kill so many of his own employees. No, stop thinking like that. That’s called paranoia. They don’t all work for him. Maybe half. No, shut up! Nobody works for Horace Reaver. Well, except for me, of course. And maybe someone else. And probably one more for good measure.
I sit back down in my seat and take my anxiety medicine. After a while, I can hear Mateo moving around again. He’s alive. For now.
Duke shuffles his newspaper. He uses paper too. “Welcome back.”
“Where are we?” Mateo asks. He sounds panicked.
“Don’t worry. You’ve not missed Grand Junction yet,” Duke answers in a very comforting voice. It even makes me feel better about possibly sitting in a death tube. “You can go back to sleep. I’ll wake you up.”
“No, I made a mistake. I meant Glenwood Springs. I’m supposed to go to Glenwood Springs!” His voice seems to wake other people in the car. A baby starts crying. Such a terrible mother bringing a baby to a death tube. Oh that’s right. This is not necessarily a death tube, and she does not necessarily—I mean, probably does not—work for Horace Reaver.
“Oh, well you’ve missed that. But it’s okay. You’re starting a new life. Does it matter where? You won’t be that far off course either way.”
“What time is it?” Mateo gets up and desperately looks at his watch. “Oh my God. It’s almost midnight.”
“No, it’s eleven o’clock.”
“I mean a different midnight!” He’s right. It’s almost midnight central time. Maybe this is everything the train schedule manipulation has been leading to. Are we where Reaver wants us to be? Am I okay with that? If we’re not, will he blame me? I can handle myself. What I’m really worried about is him blaming his hacker, Micro. She has no clue what kind of guy Reaver is. She doesn’t know he’s a murderer. I need to get back to Kansas quickly, just in case. Or maybe I’ll call Brian and burn his cover. No, it’s too early. I have to stay in the shadows, but ya know, in a visible way.
The tablet Micro gave me beeps and the train comes to an abrupt a halt. That is definitely not a coincidence. We are where we need to be, which means we probably shouldn’t be here.
“We apologize once more,” says a different the voice on the intercom. “We’re not sure why the train stopped this time, but we are looking into the matter and will have you back on track in no time.”
“I have to get off!” Mateo screams. Yeah, we’re here. He’s scared of this place, wherever it is.
“You won’t be able to,” Duke says. “We’re on a bridge over the Colorado River.” That makes sense. Bridges are dangerous places for trains. Just ask any action movie. This is it. It’s time time to die. I shut my eyes and take a deep breath.
“I’m still on the upper level!” Mateo jumps up and tries to pull his bag from under the seat, but is unable to. He gives up on it and runs for the door, but doesn’t make it. At exactly midnight central, he disappears from sight. Some of the crowd screams while others shudder while others didn’t seem to be looking at him at that moment. Yeah, Mateo is most def a time traveler. I look over to Duke who clearly didn’t know that was going to happen, but isn’t all that shocked by it. He did say that he was a scientist of some kind.
Mateo’s bag. There might be incriminating evidence on it. I can’t let the authorities get there hands on it, but I don’t want Reaver to see it either. I can protect Mateo, even if I don’t really know why. I can keep this secret, if I decide to trust the only other person on this train with any interest in what happens. I sneak over while everyone’s freaked out about a man disappearing in thin air. I take my time and release the bag from its grip on the seat’s frame. I sidestep over to Duke and hand it to him. “This is his. Keep it safe.” My God, I sound like a spy on a park bench. “Tell no one about me.”
“Who are you?” Duke asks.
The Other 2038 Problem
A year after the whole train debacle, Reaver asked me to do the same thing again. He said that the program ran perfectly, and that I should only have this one more mysterious assignment. I knew that he was trying to kill Mateo by knocking a train into him upon his return to the timeline, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Brian had a brilliant idea for it, though. He—oh my God, it’s so crazy—he strung up bed sheets across the tracks after the last stop before the bridge. He tied them loosely enough to safely be pulled right off by the oncoming train, but bright and colorful enough to be noticed so that the train would be delayed long enough for the conductor to get out and try to figure out what the hell was going on. And it almost worked. Brian watched from the trees as a good samaritan removed the sheets not long before the train’s arrival. If he had tried to tie them back up, he would have probably been caught. Instead, he hopped in his car and sped off towards the bridge, hoping to possibly save Mateo in the nick of time. He ended up not having to. Apparently someone time traveled onto the tracks just before the train collided with him and spirited both him and Leona away. We weren’t the only ones looking out. And just how widespread was this time travel thing?
I continued to be a good little security officer for Horace Reaver for the better part of a decade before he asked me to do anything else untoward. He never seemed to suspect that I was against him. I got the distinct impression that he now thought focusing on the success of his conglomerate was what was going to get Leona to fall in love with him again. It obviously wasn’t working, and then the unthinkable happened, from Reaver’s perspective. Leona disappeared one day, never to be seen again by anyone but me and my surveillance equipment. She began to return to the timeline only once a year, at the same time as Mateo Matic. I’m not sure why she became one of us, but Brian assumed it was an indication that some mysterious entity was controlling all of this. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to contact these theoretical people, or if I should avoid them at all costs.
In the year 2031, Reaver asks me to keep watch over a trio of people he’s kidnapped. Leona becoming a time traveler really set him off, and he was no longer even pretending to be a good person. He was turning into the man I remembered from the other timeline. I was changing history, but I wasn’t making it better. We were in a warehouse on the edge of San Diego. It was abandoned and falling apart. Most of the letters for the climate control company sign had fallen off, leaving only LIMA remaining. I take a look around when I arrive, first trying my best to ignore the hostages. I inspect every nook and cranny, as it were, for any hidden cameras or spies. Nothing and no one. We’re alone. I move over to the captives and attempt to unlock their chains, but no such luck. Reaver didn’t leave any keys.
I do not recognize the other two, but the boy is Leona’s brother. “What are you doing?” little Theo asks me.
“I’m trying to free you,” I say. Isn’t it obvious?
“Why would you do that?” the man asks.
“I’m not interested in what Horace Reaver wants,” I answer. “I’ve been trying to stop him for decades.”
“What do you know of him?”
I take a risk. “He’s a time traveler, just like Mateo and Leona. In an alternate timeline, he killed a lot of people. I’m trying to stop him from doing that again.”
“How do you know about Mateo and Leona?” the woman asks defensively.
“He’s been sending me out to spy on them. He didn’t tell me why, but it wasn’t hard to put the facts together.” I quit trying to force the chains off of them. “To what end did he kidnap you three?”
“Just to get us out of the way,” the man says. “Mateo is his real target.”
“He’s holding you ransom?” I ask, giving them a bottle of water from my pack.
“I heard him talking on the phone,” Theo says. “He has no intention of helping our family find us. It’s just a trap. We would have been left to die here if not for you.”
I look at my watch. It’s nearly midnight. “The two of them will be back soon. Where are they going to appear?”
“Look, my guess is that Reaver already knows, but I don’t. So you can either trust me, or you can let them die. I can help. Please.”
Theo breaks down. “They’ll jump into the timestream in Huntsville, Ontario. There’s a motel not far from there where Reaver left instructions for him to get to us. But like I said, it’s a trap. Reaver is using that just to kidnap them next.”
I take some time to process the information. I could try to warn them through the motel, but who knows what they know? Does Reaver own them? Are they evil spies? There’s no way to know, but it’s possible, and this time, I’m not just being paranoid. I can trust no one. I need to find a way to protect Mateo and Leona without Reaver knowing about it. “How exactly is Mateo getting these instructions?”
“Reaver emailed information to the concierge, or whatever. I think they’re just supposed to hand it off to them.”
“It was his mistake doing all this in front of you.” I pull out my phone and start typing up a new document before looking up the email address of the motel.
“What are you going to do?” The woman is not convinced that I’m on their side.
“Leona Delaney is an incredibly intelligent woman. I’m betting if I leave her a clue, she’ll follow it and do the right thing. All we need to do is make it look like they ignored Reaver’s instructions because they don’t believe him.”
“What does that mean?” Theo asks.
“I’m amending whatever information Reaver emailed the motel with the directions to this warehouse. If I’m right about Leona, they’ll find their way here on their own. It’s the quickest way to alter the timeline without Reaver knowing why, because I can’t straight up tell them that you’re safe. We don’t know who Reaver has posted at the motel. We just have to hope they believe he’s changed his mind slightly.”
“Just...trust me,” I say. “I know it’s confusing.” I send off the email so that the motel can add it to the packet left for Mateo, then turn back to the other three. “You look hungry. I’ll go get you some food if you promise me one thing.”
The man eyes me suspiciously. “Promise you what?”
“You cannot tell Mateo or Leona that I was here. I have to stay in character. When they get here, I’ll be out of sight. Just let them free you and leave me out of it.”
“They’ll wonder why Horace Reaver gave them this address.”
“And they’ll never know the truth. You got that? I cannot continue helping them if they know I’m there. I can’t risk Reaver finding out about me, and the fewer people that know I’m a mole, the more effective I am.”
“Okay,” the woman says authentically. “We understand.”
Presumably because of my ultimate failure to kill Mateo back in 2023, and more recently because his family kidnapping did not go well, Reaver began to lose faith in me. He still seemed to have no idea that I was working against him, but he did gradually tease me from his life. I remained in the employ of Reaver Enterprises, but in a more general position, working as a security officer with all the other grunts. In the year 2034, we’re in one his newest facilities, the purpose of which has never been clear, and was likely irrelevant. It was built over the ruins of a house that had been just completely wrecked by some sort of artificial intelligence malfunction. Immediately upon Mateo’s return to the timestream, I realize the AI malfunction had something to do with him, and the facility was built for the sole purpose of keeping him contained.
At the moment, alarms are going off around the building, and I’m leading a team of two other security guards, neither of whom I trust. For a while, things are going all right. We’re just wandering the hallways, no idea where we’re going, and only one of us knows why. But then the target of our pursuit shows up. He’s with two other security guards. I don’t know them very well and, of course, do not trust them either. “Status?” I ask as part of protocol. I still carry weight in the department, and am respected by all.
“We’re showing this newbie the ropes,” one of the guards says as he’s motioning to Mateo.
Mateo lifts his hand and tips the brim of his hat down as a greeting, but does not speak. That’s smart of him. It’s harder to tell when someone’s being deceptive if they don’t say anything.
I’m not sure what to do. If they’re loyal to Reaver, once they find out their “newbie’s” true identity, they’ll turn him in for sure. Then again, I do not recall any new conscriptions. Assuming these two do not know what they have in their hands, then Mateo is a very good liar, and I have a responsibility to play along. But if they do know him, and they’re helping him, then I should secretly assist. This can go one of two ways. I can order them to station themselves in an area of the building I know there to be fewer obstacles, or I can order them into the lion’s den and hope they go against these orders. It all depends on their relationship to Mateo, and they’re impression of me. I trust my instincts and remain in character, ordering them to the basement. They stand there awkwardly after accepting their new assignments, so I usher my team through the doorway, allowing Mateo’s team to make the right decision.
Not long afterwards, though, things get complicated. Reaver gets back on the intercom. “That’s it! I’m calling in the cavalry. Boys, this is who we’re looking for!” My heart sinks as Mateo’s face appears on the walls. Now everyone knows who we’re looking for. What’s worse is that my team knows that we just encountered him. But there’s nothing I can do about that. Now that the entire building knows what they’re doing, I have to get back to Mateo and protect him personally. It’s my only choice. Reaver continues, “bring him to me and I will write you a blank check!”
As we reenter the stairs, my team tries to head down, but I start to go up. “What are you doing?” one of them asks.
“I have to go this way,” I say. Maybe they’ll shake it off and let me go.
“You told him to go down, remember?”
“You go ahead,” I order my team. “I’m gonna check up here in case they ignored my orders.”
“That makes sense,” the other one says. “If he’s trying to get away from us, then he’ll make a point of subverting orders.” These guys are too smart for my own good. I won’t be able to get away from them, so together we rush upstairs.
Both luckily and unluckily, we do find Mateo and his possible accomplices again. I block their path, still not sure how I should proceed. Who are these two? Are they trying to help Mateo too? Or are they on their way to Reaver right now?
One of the guards in this other team holds up some kind of cannon. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“What are you doing?” I ask, weapon pointed where they would expect it to be. “Why is Reaver so interested in him?” I’m still trying to get a feel for whose side they’re on.
“Stop us and you’ll never find out,” Number One answered.
I shake my head in disbelief, still needing to hold onto my cover. “That sounds like the opposite of the truth.”
All of the sudden, some random guy appears from one door while a girl comes out of the door on the opposite wall. They each force one member of my team through the other one’s door. It’s like they knew this was going to happen, and were waiting for them. “What the hell?” Curious, I reopen one of the doors to find the room empty. More time travelers. Awesome. Or awful. I lower my weapon towards the floor, so I can gauge the remaining guards’ reaction. And then I see it in their eyes. They’re not trying to bring Mateo in. They are trying to help. I still don’t know why, or who they are. But I know I can trust them.
Before I can reveal my true intentions to them, a man comes out of nowhere down the hall. But he’s not actually in the hallway. It’s some kind of mashup of the real environment and another place. Outside. I guess I might call it a portal. “Excuse me?” he asks. “Have you ever been to Stonehenge?”
This is my chance. This guy seems different than Kyle, or Reaver, or even those two mysterious door-walkers. He is in some kind of position of authority. I have half a moment to make a choice. Either I continue to help Mateo, or I take what might be my one opportunity to get some answers. Mateo seems to be in good hands with his friends, so I leave them to it, and walk towards the strange man who has the ability to form a teleporting bridge to Stonehenge.
He, almost lovingly, sets his hand on my shoulder and smiles. The walls of the building melt away, and all that’s left is Stonehenge. He opens his mouth to begin his speech, but then he sees something in me. He crooks his neck. “Who the hell are you?”
“I am Lincoln Rutherford,” I reply honestly.
“Are you a salmon, or are you a choosing one?”
Dowhatnow? “Neither. Both. What are those things?”
“I can sense that you’ve been separated from the timestream, but you’re not on my list. What happened?”
“I was in an alternate timeline,” I explain, “with Horace Reaver. Someone snuck into his prison cell and pushed him backwards in time. I was just caught in the crossfire, I guess.”
He lifts his chin but keeps his eyes on me. “I’ve not heard such a thing. An accidental salmon. When was this?”
“Four years from now,” I say, “and eighteen years ago.”
“Interesting, tell me everything.”
For some reason, I feel that I can trust this man with my story. And so I do just what he asks and go over my entire life’s story. I tell him what I remember from the other timeline, and also what has already been overwritten. I explain the blog, what I believe to be my job to stop Horace Reaver from causing further harm. I bring up Brian and Kyle and Duke, the train, the other train, Mateo’s family who Reaver kidnapped, the door-walkers; everything. This guy just pulls the information out of me. Brian knows everything, and I’ve discussed some of this with others, but only to a low degree. It’s nice to get all of this out to a second person, and possibly gain some perspective.
After I’m done, he again says, “interesting.”
“What happens now?
“Horace Reaver is becoming a problem for us. We are preparing a response to his actions.”
“Just now? He’s been screwing with the timeline for years now. How could you let it go this far?”
“Oh, they don’t really care about the timeline. Everything can be corrected, one way or another. It’s not hard for the people I work for.”
“You’re not the time police, or something?”
“Oh, heavens no.” He laughs. “I don’t know exactly what the choosing ones are, but they’re not that.”
“We estimate twenty-five years before Mateo finally apprehends Mister Reaver and brings him to justice.”
“That’s over three weeks in Mateo-time. You don’t really think it’ll take him that long, do you?”
“He’s smarter than you give him credit for. And now that he has Leona, he’ll be unstoppable.”
“That may be true, but either way, we’ll need your help. Reaver isn’t our only problem.”
“Tell me what to do.”
“You’ll be in your element. We’re building a security team, and we would like you to be in charge of it, as Head Guard.”
The Other 2038 Problem
My children. My life becomes uneventful, except for my search for my kids. I’m not given any information about the people I’m guarding in this special prison for time travelers. The inmates are forced special medication to prevent them from being able to manipulate the spacetime continuum. In the movies, the not-so-crazy person always escapes from the psych ward by pretending to ingest the pills, but secretly spitting them out while the orderlies aren’t looking. That was not an option in this prison. The medication is given through injections, once a week for salmon and three times a week at least for choosing ones. A salmon named Dr. Baxter Sarka jumps into the time period on the regular to dose them personally. We often chat with each other, and he explains what he knows about the whole situation. There are people out there who are capable of jumping through time and space. They’re immortal, lazy, and just complete assholes. They use their abilities to screw with other people who can jump through time. The basic difference between the choosers and the helpless salmon appears to be superficial and contrived. Sure, there seems to be this thing where two activated salmon birth a choosing one, but that’s not the only way to create one, and it doesn’t always happen. The division between these two classes is, any way you slice it, arbitrary.
Being what The Delegator referred to as an “accidental salmon” I was neither choosing one, nor truly salmon. I was not put on no particular pattern, and no particular choosing one was put in charge of me. If I wanted to go anywhere through time and space while I wasn’t on the job, I could put in a request, and someone would be dispatched to ferry me. I spent most of that time in present-day New Jersey, poring through records, hunting for the two kids that I had adopted in the other timelines. But they were nowhere to be found. My son’s parents didn’t have any children in this timeline, and I could find no trace of my daughter anywhere at all. After years of denying it, I had to accept the fact that either Reaver or I had altered the timeline enough to prevent both of their births. I had erased my children from existence by going back in time. I continued to press for someone to take me to the first timeline, but was rejected every time. It’s never been clear whether that means the original timeline no longer exists, or if they can no longer access it. Or—and this is the most likely explanation—the choosing ones simply don’t give a shit.
It’s January 1, 2038 as I’m writing up my final two blog posts, noting what I remember from that first timeline. I can feel the memories slipping from my mind as I type them out. But also, my brain is becoming fragmented and confused, but it’s more than the usual overwriting side effects. I actually feel sick to my stomach, and I’m starting to have trouble remembering pretty much anything that happened to me for the last two decades. I feel myself become nobody, a nothing. I spend the rest of the night and part of the next day in a stupor. I know that I’ve had a life; that I’ve done things, and that I’m real, but there’s nothing there. I’ve been hollowed out like canoe wood. My other brain functions are being compromised as well. I can’t remember which side to hold the spoon, or why food matters, of what food looks like, or what word I just said. It started with an “f”. What? I just had a thought about letters, but I can’t remember what it was. Did I forget something else again?
“Hello, father,” a voice says to me.
Some of my brain function returns to me, but only enough to survive the next minute or so without forgetting how to breath, or keep my eyes open. “Cranberry,” I grunt. Nailed it.
“I do not understand what is wrong with you,” the girl says. I recognize her. I saw her once in prison...I think.
“Me either,” I say.
She continues to speak, but I don’t understand many of the words. Sometimes, my ears turn off, which I didn’t know was possible, but then again, I don’t know much. “...whereas before you were having trouble distinguishing the two timelines, now it’s like you’ve never had a timeline.”
Yeah, I’m a non-person! I yell. I don’t think I said it out loud, though. “Not personing the non-person life as non-people often do with their non-person lives.” I think that’s drool bubbling from my lips. Drool or air. There was something I heard the one time about cyanide or rabies. Or was it rabbits? What’s it?
“Fuke!” she yells. But I can’t hear very well. I think she might have said a different word. People often say different words than they say. That’s just how it goes. It’s it. “I need Baxter.”
“You’re a bastard!” I scream as loud as possible.
“That is not quite an inaccurate description, if I do say so myself.” She craps her finger and a man don’t know from having met before appears in a fascist. Flascist. Fla—uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, “uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh...”
“He is not well,” the dog says, admittedly. That baxter dog. He’s not a dog though. That—I didn’t say that.
“That, that, that, that, that, that, that, that, that, than, that cat, then bat.” Prat, I mutter to my mind.
“Sarka, what the hell are we gonna do?”
The man looks in his back blag. “I’ve not been given the equipment I would need to help him. This is an unsanctioned appointment.”
“Well, what do you have?”
“Literally nothing, see?” He opens his cat and shows it. No blood, he was right. Good boy, baxter dog boy.
“Where’s your fur, you feather plucker!”
“Lincoln,” a calming voice claims. “It’s okay.”
“Don’t kill me, bull!” Idiot. “BULL!” Bad dog. “Bull-goddamn shit!” Dammit. “Shit! Shift!” I slam my fist on the table to demand order. “Heyoooooooo!”
“Please try to remember who you are,” my lovely daughter, Melly says.
“Dotter Thracker Snorkel.”
She either rolls her eyes or make a sad face, whichever is which. “He’s trying to say Doctor Baxter Sarka.”
“Yeah, I got that,” the dog replies with friendly, deadly confidence.
I stand up and try to run into the wall, but I just trip and fall asleep on the table for two years.
“He’s losing it, getting worse,” the doctor says. “I can’t do anything to help him unless somebody puts a goddamn thing in my medical kit.”
“I can try something,” Melly fries.
I wake back up and watch her. She closes her eyes, exhales deeply, and twists her neck to prepare. She puts her palms together in a prayer position before ceremoniously lifting them up and placing them softly on her beautiful head. She slowly drags her fingers down over her face. The face changes. The placement of the eyes, the shape of the nose. Nothing changes too dramatically. She still looks like her, but fresher, with softer skin. She presses on her chest and her breasts disappear. She places one hand on her head again and forces it down before pulling on her wrists and shortening her arms, one after the other. Little by little, she adjusts her body, regressing her age ever downwards. When finally she stops, she’s a little girl, only a few years old.
“I didn’t know you people could do that,” the doctor dog says. He is stunned, and a little scared. And also.
“They can’t,” she says, still sounding like a woman. She coughs and chirps and whimpers while tapping her fingers on her throat. He voice becomes that of her young self, “I’m the second most powerful of all.” She turns her attention to me. “Daddy.”
My eyes begin to water as I look upon her. “Where have you been? Where are you?” Who are you?”
“I’m your daughter,” she answers.
“You’re the one who took Reaver back in time. You did this to me. You made me lose you. You ran away, and you ran from my thoughts.”
“I am the daughter of Leona Delaney and Horace Reaver, two salmon. I was placed in your care after some time in the system. Choosing children cannot be raised long by their salmon parents. Nor can they be raised by some regular guy. Once I turned three, I was taken away to live somewhere else. This would have happened whether I was with my parents, or with you. I’m sorry for leaving you, but I had no choice.”
“But you’re from an alternate timeline.”
“And you prevented your own birth; your own existence.”
“Then how are you here? You’re not here.”
“I am here. Choosing ones have the benefit of surviving any temporal adjustment. It doesn’t matter that a version of me doesn’t exist here. In fact, there can be only one of one person anyway. I was born, and I’ll always exist. Like I said, I’m not like the others. I’m more powerful, and because of that, I can’t be killed by any means.”
“Why did you push your birth father to the past?”
“I was trying to get him to make things better.”
“Things are not better.”
“But they are. What happened to you was an accident. I did not intend on that, but you’ve had a greater effect on the outcome of events than you realize. Horace Reaver has attempted to kill people, this is true, but he’s not succeeded. You’ve made him a better person just by being around. He’s not great, and they’re still gonna lock him up, but you’ve helped the world by sacrificing your life and being at his side. His technological advancements have saved more lives than they’ve ruined. You’ve created a balance, and the timeline thanks you for it.”
“I don’t remember any of this. I remember that I’m supposed to remember. I remember what I feel, and I know what I feel now, but I do not recall the events leading up to this moment.”
“I know, you’re sick. It’s because you’re not genetically predisposed to time travel, as most humans aren’t. We avoid shifting their time placements for this very reason. About the most a normal person can take is a quick teleportation. Anything beyond that and we end up with this.”
“So I’m going to be like this forever? A nonperson?”
“Not if you come back to me. I’m going to help you, but you have to trust me.”
I’m not neurologically capable of declining the offer. “What do we do?”
“We start...with a hug,” Melly says melodramatically.
I return to work after a couple of years in recovery. I think they only give me this time off because I’m such an oddity. No one else is like me. A human who has survived such a dramatic temporal shift is rare if not completely unheard of. Each time I see my daughter again, more time has passed, and she spends less time with me, weening me off of her care. Eventually, she’s gone for good, and I never see her again. I keep abreast of the situation with Mateo and Leona year by year. Horace Reaver spends a little time in a human prison, which is apparently good enough for the choosing ones, while it lasts. But Mateo and Leona need his help with something, and so I pull some strings and have him transferred to a different prison. It’s far more complex, and seems more difficult to break out of, but it’s not; not for them. Somehow, I know this. I have some kind of connection with time that I tell no one about. I can’t see the future, and I certainly cannot travel there, but I feel it. I am part of the timestream itself. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, I just know what needs to be done. I gather a list of other salmon within my “range” and assist them as well. They never know, and that’s just how I like it. I even help Reaver out once by sending a message on a convoluted path throughout time. He thinks it's a favor, but it doesn't work out for him. And again, I just know this to be so.
After yet another decade of working at a salmon/chooser prison facility, I am given a special assignment. I and four of my closest friends operate in shifts, monitoring two of the most notorious salmon criminals I’ve met. Reaver is one of them, of course, but his pseudo-partner rival, Ulinthra is the other one. I live underground on Easter Island in a sort of cave mansion. It’s pretty badass, and I feel no need to go anywhere else while I’m not working. The others live with their families in the future. I was ferried there once. It was a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there, I’ll tell ya that. At the moment, my shift partner is taking a nap, and I’m keeping Reaver company. We’ve just returned after a brief journey into the past so that Reaver could finally attend one of his friend’s funeral service.
“I’ve been down here with you for years now,” I tell him, “yet you refuse to speak to me. I’m curious as to why that is.”
“You betrayed me. That’s all I need to know.”
“I never betrayed you. I was never with you. I was a spy.”
“Who were you working for?”
That got a laugh out of him, which is all I was really going for.
“Melly accidentally sent me back when she sent you back to 2016. I was born to protect people from people like you. It’s fitting that it should end in a place like this.”
“What do you mean, end?” he asks.
“This day today is our final day.”
“How do you know?”
“I can feel it.”
He lifts his chin, not totally surprised. “When did that start?”
“Melly rubbed off on me I guess.”
“She’s a strong one.”
“Indeed. She helped me out when I needed her most. Way I hear it, she did the same for Mateo, against you.”
“She did. I overestimated her loyalty to her father. You Would do well to remember that yourself.”
“She wants to do the right thing. All in all, I would say she is the most noble of the choosing ones.”
Reaver chuckled in a way that made it clear that he agreed. He walked over to the corner and rested against the glass. “I’m so tired. Is it really over today?”
“It is. There is nothing we can do to stop it. But it sounds like you don’t want to.”
“I believe I’ve served my purpose.”
“What are we talking about?” My shift partner says suddenly. He's woken up.
I look at my watch. “Is it time already?” Our end is coming soon. It’s like I’m being pulled towards it, and it doesn’t feel like darkness. It feels like peace.
“What do you mean?” the other guard asks.
I cover for myself, “oh, I just thought you would be asleep longer.” Before anyone can question what I really mean, someone pulls me out of the timestream.
I find myself standing on a simple garden path. A man pretends to be picking flowers up ahead of me. “Can I help you?” I call up to him.
“I just wanted your last sight to be of beauty, so I hijacked The Cleanser’s jump,” the man explains vaguely.
“What exactly does that mean? Who is the Cleanser?”
“He’s a rival of sorts,” the man answers, but then adds that “he’s more of a partner.”
“He will be the cause of Reaver’s death?”
“And yours, yes.”
“What shall I call you?”
“What do you think you should call me?”
“I’m getting the sense that you’ve been breaking the rules, but you’re so powerful that no one can stop you. You’ve gone rogue.”
He stops haphazardly tugging at a dandelion. “Rogue,” he repeats. “I love that.”
“Glad to hear it,” I lie.
“The Cleanser is trying to rid the world of time travel,” The Rogue says. “In all time periods, in all realities.”
“And you’re trying to stop him?” I ask.
“Not all that much,” he clarifies. “But I certainly don’t want him to do it, even if I thought he would be capable of such a thing. I’m just trying to have a lot of fun. When you’re immortal, every decision you make is meaningless. At that point, all you have left is watching other people’s decisions.”
“If you say so,” I respond plainly, because I have no interest in hearing him expand on his words.
He turns and looks at me. “But I can see that you don’t care.” Can he read minds? He goes on, “no, what you want is true beauty. I thought this garden would do it for you, because of its simplicity, but you want something more. You want to see something no one else has.”
“And do you have any idea what that is?”
“Death.” He snaps his fingers and returns me to the Easter Island cavern, far away from Horace Reaver’s prison cube. Reaver is talking with someone. “That’s the guy I was telling you about,” The Rogue says.
I nod. “The Cleanser.” I can’t hear their conversation, but the Rogue points to a little device in their with them and says that it's a bomb. “I’m going to watch Reaver die? I have no interest in this either.”
“Not him,” the Rogue says. “Just wait.”
I patiently wait for them to finish their conversation. The Cleanser mysteriously moves over and picks up Reaver’s pillow. His body shudders away from itself, and then he disappears. The pillow falls to the floor. Just as that happens, all five of Reaver’s security guards appear inside of the cube, including a near future version of myself.
“This is my favorite part,” the Rogue says. All he needed was a bucket of popcorn. He turns an imaginary dial in the middle of the air and the volume from inside the cube increases.
“It’s a bomb!” Horace yells as one of the guards is pointing a gun at him.
“You see? Without you, Reaver wouldn’t have cared that others were going to die. It may not seem like much to you, but if there’s an afterlife, you’ve increased his chances of going to heaven. You’ve helped redeem him, insofar as someone like that can be redeemed.” He turns the imaginary dial the other direction and lowers the volume. The device the Cleanser left in there explodes and consumes the cube.
“They died anyway,” I say. “I died. Or rather, I will. Who cares if Reaver was a slightly less despicable human being at the time? Why are you showing me this?”
“I showed you this perspective so that you could die knowing you made a difference. Sure, Reaver is only negligibly better than he was, but what about people you met who already had potential, but were squandering it. What about Micro? What about Brian?”
I laugh at the obscure pop culture reference.
“You mattered, Lincoln Rutherford,” the Rogue claims. “You matter.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better for when you send me back into the loop to experience the death I just witnessed?”
“It is,” the Rogue says.
Very well. I lean against the cave wall and let out a sigh of relief. “Do it.”