Horace Reaver’s mother burst through the screen door, hoping that her six-year-old son and his friend were just playing. She found what she had feared; little Dardan’s lifeless body lay motionless on the ground. “Oh my God. What happened?”
Horace simply shrugged. “I pushed him off jungle gym. I think he broke his neck.”
She started sobbing. “Do you understand what you’ve done?”
“I’m sorry,” Horace cried, unsure why she was so upset. “I didn’t know it would hurt him that bad. I’ll be more careful tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow‽” she screeched. “There is no tomorrow! He’s dead! People don’t come back from that! Don’t you understand?”
“I don’t mean tomorrow tomorrow,” Horace tried to explain. “I mean when I go back and do this day over again, I won’t kill him this time. He’ll be fine.”
She continued to cry. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“The day. It’ll restart. This is only the practice day, so we can learn from our mistakes, and then go back and try it again.”
Mrs. Reaver tried inhaling to get the snot back in her nose, and then she took her son by the shoulders. “Now you listen to me, mister. You can’t go back in time. We only get one chance in this life, and you just took that one chance from that little boy.” She stood up and composed herself. “Now I am your mother, and I’m going to protect you, but you have to do exactly what I say. Do you understand me?”
“No, I don’t. I’ll just go back in time and do things differently. I don’t understand why you’re acting like that’s impossible. I’ve been doing it my whole life, haven’t you?”
She slapped him across the face hard enough to drop him to the ground, right on top of Dardan’s body. “Shut up! You shut up right now! You can’t! Travel! Through time, you little shit!”
Horace deepened his eyes and wiped the blood off of his face. He took a stone as he was standing back up, bashing it against his mother’s knee. When she keeled over in pain, he swung back and then slammed it against her face. “If what you’re saying is true, mother...” He lifted the rock high over his head and prepared to drop it down. “...then you won’t have to worry about remembering this.”
That was the first Horace Reaver learned that people around him did not also have the ability to go back in time and relive each day once more.
Horace spent much of the next several years in boredom. Despite his best efforts, no one around him was even slightly aware that time reset at the end of every day. While everyone else had experienced ten years, he had lived through twenty, and there was nothing he could do to change that. He discovered a television series that ran before he was born about a medical student who shared his ability, and used it to prevent people from dying. He became obsessed with the show, and watched each episode several times. He wanted to understand every mistake the character made so that he would not do the same. But he also became convinced that, like the show’s main antagonist, he too would have some kind of counterpart; someone who could relive days, and would soon be working against him.
In order to garner the attention of this supposed enemy, Reaver grew violent. He went on murderous rampages; hosting public shootings, and blowing up buildings. He would always try to get caught and make sure his name was plastered all over the news. When the day restarted, he would be completely free. He carried out his plans across the entire country, and a few times in Canada, hoping that his counterpart would learn of the things he did only during Round One, and wonder why they did not happen the second time around. No such luck.
He moved out of his family’s home upon turning 18 and bought a new house. He didn’t feel the need to go to college, and he didn’t need a job. All he had to do was bet on sports competitions, and he would be right every time. One day, a high school girl who lived down the street offered him a lasagna her mother had made to welcome him to the neighborhood. The only thing was that this was the second time Horace was living through the day, and she had not offered the lasagna before. “Who are you?” he asked impolitely.
“My name is Ulinthra,” she answered impolitely.
He eyed her carefully, and was about to say more, but decided to wait. The next day, during Round One, he knocked on Ulinthra’s door and asked point blank if she was a time traveler.
“I am, yes,” she responded with less surprise than he would have thought.
“I’ve been looking for you.”
“Well,” he was not expecting her to not feel the same way. “Well, so I wouldn’t be alone anymore.”
She shrugged, “I like being alone.”
“You like knowing everything that’s going to happen in the future, and having no one to relate to?”
“I’m going to live twice as long as everyone I know. I spend entire days doing whatever I want, and not worrying about the consequences. Who wouldn’t want to have my life?”
“Well now we get to do those things together.”
“I don’t even know you.” She smirked. “Creeper.”
“I could kill you right now, and literally no one would ever know.”
“Unless we’re not the only two.”
“What do you know?”
She ignored the question. “Besides, it might be fun to die.”
“I’ve done it a few times. It gets old real quick. Like, immediately.”
Having finally found someone like him, and unable to contain himself, Horace shoved his face into hers to kiss her. Though everyone appeared to be human, the two of them were something different; another species, and it felt like she was the last woman on Earth. Ulinthra did not push him away, and he thought he had made the right choice, but then he felt a sting in his throat. His neck was wet, and he was having trouble breathing. He slowly pulled away from her, letting the knife slide out of his body.
Ulinthra’s father ran up from the hallway upon hearing Horace fall to the floor. “What did you do?”
She dropped the knife by Horace’s head. “Don’t worry about it, dad.”
When Horace woke up the next morning, he instantly threw his hand up to his neck. It was, of course, perfectly fine. All the events of the day before had been negated. He was going to go back to Ulinthra’s house and give her a piece of his mind, but she was waiting for him in the chair on the other side of his room. “You were saying something about having fun together?” She leaned forward and smiled at him semi-seductively. “We can’t do anything today, but tomorrow I was thinking we could shoot down some security drones. Start small.”
A portal opened against the wall. On the other side of it was Stonehenge, but it looked like it was missing a few stones. A man was standing in the middle of it. “Get the hell out here, you two!”
They obliged. “Who are you?”
“Why have you people been running around, blowing things up, killing your father over and over again, like a freaking psycho?”
The man was baffled. “Because it’s wrong!”
“No harm, no foul.”
“Have you ever stopped to think that you were given these gifts for a reason?”
“Sure but, how were we to know what that reason was?”
“Take a guess. Here’s a hint; it’s not to kill people!”
The man tried to dumb it down for them. “Instead of being in the news, read the news, go back in time, and fix the problems before they happen.”
“Why did it take you so long to talk to us about this?”
“We were waiting for you two to meet semi-organically, and didn’t know it would start with yet another murder!”
Horace spread his wings and lowered his head. “That’s all ya had to say!”
It took a month or two...or fifteen, along with several free Round One therapy sessions, but Horace and Ulinthra were able to change their ways. They didn’t start saving lives right away, but they were able to move past their need to cause death, destruction, and mayhem.
The two of them moved to Howell, New Jersey. This put them in the center of the action. They were about an hour away from each of Camden, New Jersey; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Chester, Pennsylvania; and Wilmington, Delaware. These were four of the most dangerous cities in the country. They also lived about an hour from New York City which had its fair share of dangers. They developed and perfected a system of absorbing all news in the area during Round One. Once the day restarted, they were not able to take their notes back with them, and so they also had to learn memorization techniques. They became quite excellent at it. There were whispers of two vigilantes running around stopping murders and thwarting terrorist plots, but those subsided as they learned how to stay hidden and cover their tracks.
They came to be known as The Rewinders amongst other people who did not live through time properly. These other time travelers called themselves salmon, and they all had their own patterns and missions. There were even some other couples. Horace and Ulinthra tried to form a romantic bond, but this proved to be ill-advised. Their relationship was a distraction from their responsibilities, and the more years that passed, the more committed they grew to their pattern. Ulinthra fell in love with two people whose lives she had once saved. She ended up marrying into the family unofficially, but not before they joined the team. Now they were able to dole out assignments and increase their reach; be in many places at once.
As luck would have it, Horace ran into a woman from his home town of Topeka, Kansas. They had encountered each other once in a hospital, but were both very young, and nothing came of it. They considered it fate that they both chose to live in the same new city later on in their lives. Today was their wedding day.
“Are you nervous?” Ulinthra asked as she was adjusting his bowtie.
“Are you a cliché?” Horace asked back.
She playfully slapped him across the shoulder, “shut up. I’m serious.”
“Happiest day of my life.”
“It’s supposed to be her happiest day.”
“Can’t be mine too?”
She lowered her demeanor. “Not when you’ve already been through this day.”
“I didn’t get married when we first went through the day. You remember what we did instead?”
“Yes, we said we weren’t going to talk about it.”
“It was nostalgia,” Horace said, pulling away from her to dress himself on his own.
“We shouldn’t have done it. It’s sick.”
“We used to do it all the time.”
“Yeah, separately, and we were severely messed up for it. If my husbands and your fiancée ever found out—”
“Don’t even talk like that. They have no idea who we are—who we were. They would leave us. Actually, they would likely call the cops. Sure, they would never be able to prove we hurt people in an alternate reality, but they would tell them how we “think” we live through an alternate reality, and that would probably be enough.”
“But you see, that’s just it. It’s not who we were. It’s who we are. We proved it yesterday, when we killed our loved ones in some disgusting ritualistic celebration.”
“It’s out of our system. We won’t do it again, I promise.”
“I promise never to do it again,” Ulinthra proclaimed, “but I don’t trust that you won’t. You were always much worse than me.”
Horace reached back, preparing to strike Ulinthra, but was able to stop himself in time. “It’s not a contest. I killed my fiancée, and you killed your husbands. It’s over. It never happened, and we don’t have to worry about it.”
“You killed us yesterday?” Allen revealed himself.
“Allen, no, you don’t understand.”
“Tell me what happened.”
Ulinthra tried to play it down. “It’s not a big deal, honey.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Allen raised his voice. “What exactly did you do?”
“It’s just this...form of catharsis. We would never hurt you during Round Two. Could we please just forget it?”
“I’m not going to forget it. I asked you what you did exactly, now I want details!”
“You don’t want details. It’ll just make matters worse.”
“What happened, Ulinthra!” Allen screamed.
“We slit your throats,” Horace interjected. “It’s our...preferred method. Well, it was. We don’t do that anymore.”
“Except for yesterday,” Allen spat.
“Except for yesterday, yes. It was a mistake, and we’re sorry.” Horace sounded pretty sincere, but he knew in his heart that he wasn’t. It felt good to go back to the way things were when he was younger. As rewarding as it was to save people, it was nothing compared to the sweet relief of taking a life, knowing that he could return it the next day for a full refund.
“And you two used to do this all the time?”
Ulinthra nodded with shame. “Him more than me, but yeah.”
“No need to throw me under the bus.”
Allen tried to work through the revelation, but was struggling. “I...I have to tell Richard. I’m not saying we’ll leave you, but he has a right to know who he’s sharing a bed with.”
“I understand,” Ulinthra said.
“I don’t,” Horace said as Allen was trying to walk away.
“Horace,” Ulinthra pleaded. “We have to let this play out. He has to do what he thinks is right.”
“I will not let you destroy what we have,” Horace insisted. “I’m going to get married today; on our one day off in, like, forever. And then tomorrow, she is going to continue helping us save the world. Richard too. If you don’t want to be a part of it anymore, then say the word, but the others can never know what we did yesterday, or what we did when we were kids.”
Allen put his hands on his hips indignantly. “Well, I don’t think that’s for you to decide. Now I’m definitely telling Richard, and I’m telling your fiancée too.”
Horace moved forward and took Allen’s arm forcefully. “Don’t do this, Allen.”
“Let him go, Horace. Remember, this is Round Two.”
“Oh, and if it was Round One, you would just go ahead and stab me?” Allen asked.
Horace smashed his fist against the side of Allen’s head, knocking him to the floor. “If this was Round One, we wouldn’t have to do a goddamn thing.”
“Horace, stop!” Ulinthra pulled at him, but wasn’t strong enough.
“I’m not going to stab you. It’s too messy.” Horace stepped on Allen’s neck and killed him.
“What did you do?” Ulinthra asked, tearing up.
“Do you want to help me hide the body?” He turned his head, but kept his eyes on Allen’s body. “Or do you want next?”
After stuffing Allen into a closet, Ulinthra and Horace left the changing room and proceeded to the assembly hall. Richard was waiting for them at the altar. “Where’s Allen?”
Horace shook his head. “I’m sorry. He really wanted to be here, but he just couldn’t stop thinking about the party boat that goes missing an hour from now. He went off to look for it.”
Richard smiled. “He always says that trouble never takes a day off.”
Once the bride was finished walking down the aisle, the officiant began the ceremony. He had few words of his own since the couple had a long set of vows to say. He skipped the part where he asks if anyone objected, and moved on to the good bit. “Leona Delaney, do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?”
“I do,” Leona said elatedly.
“And do you, Horace Reaver, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
“I do,” Horace repeated.
Horace and Leona postponed their honeymoon following the realization that Allen never came back from looking for a party boat they knew was going to go missing. The boat never returned, and the search for it was called off a few days later. Ulinthra backed up Horace’s lie that Allen had felt the need to find it, when really he had been murdered by Horace. Convincing the authorities that this was what happened was a little harder, but the family had no reason to think that they were not being honest; especially since the two of them had been able to practice the lie during Round One of their day. The team held off on saving lives for a couple weeks, taking time to grieve for their lost loved one. But their responsibilities beckoned to them, and they all went back to the routine, minus one important member.
On the fifth of April in the year of your lord 2030, they met a salmon named Mateo Matic. His inescapable pattern was to live for one day every year. At the end of it, he would be thrown exactly one year in the future. He had heard of The Delegator, and other salmon, but had met only one other of their kind. He spent his days doing whatever he could to stay alive in a world without identity. He had left his family days ago from his perspective, no longer wanting to subject them to the torturous roller coaster that was his brief appearances. Having nothing better to do, and wanting to fulfill a purpose, Mateo joined their team as an honorary member. He successfully helped them on missions six times before the fateful seventh day.
“She’s gotten so big,” Mateo exclaimed after returning to the timestream on April 11, 2036. He had just peeked in on Leona and Horace’s daughter. “I know, people say that all the time, but for me, it works.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” Horace said playfully.
“Be nice,” Leona warned him.
“Good morning, everyone. We have a busy day,” Ulinthra said, coming into the room. “But we’re playing with our full roster, so I think we can make it.” She picked up her clipboard. “A shipment of tin is coming in to Port of Wilmington from Columbia. It turns up stolen. We don’t know when this happens, but we know it’s after coming into port. I need both brains and brawn on this one, so Mateo will accompany Horace and Leona to protect and investigate, if need be. Richard, that means you’ll have to go up to Yale University alone. A small riot breaks out during a protest for...” she trailed off, looking through her notes. “...molecule teleportation. I don’t know, but a girl who was never named is injured when she gets caught in the middle of the fight. You’ll spend more time driving up there than actually helping. Fortunately, you’ll also be close enough to stop a three-car pileup on the 91, and help a little girl find her cat in Hartford. Here’s a hint, it’s in her neighbor’s basement. I know it’s not that important, but your night mission in Boston is. I’ll discuss that with you in a minute. While you’re all doing that, I have to drive all the way up to Montauk to assist with flood rescue.”
“I could do that instead, if you’d like,” Mateo offered.
“No, I should do it. Other people will be there helping, and we can’t risk exposing the fact that you’re supposed to be old and dead to the public.” She looked around the room. “No more questions or comments? Gear up, take your timelines, and head out as soon as possible.”
Leona pulled Horace into the other room. “Remember what we talked about?” she asked.
“We’re not going back in time,” Horace said. “I don’t understand why we’re discussing this.”
“It makes me nervous when we deal with other salmon. Anything could happen. I’ve heard rumors that his father can go back in time. If something happens, I need to make sure that you understand time travel protocols.”
“I do, I get it. Let’s go. The ship will be coming in soon.”
“Repeat them to me.”
“Leona, we have to go.”
“We can’t go anywhere until the babysitter gets here. Repeat the words. Quietly,” she insisted.
“Dougnanimous Brintantalus,” Horace said the magic words reluctantly. “Those are so stupid.”
“That’s exactly why I chose them. No one would think to say them. If you go back in time, say those words to me, and I’ll know that I can trust you.”
“Do you know what the odds are that I’ll go back in time and run into you sometime after you’ve come up with these silly rules?”
“I do actually know the odds. Would you like to hear them?”
Horace shook his head steadily. “Shut up, smarty pants.”
After an hour drive, it was still dark outside. They didn’t always start working so early in the day, but they liked to make full use of Mateo’s availability. He drooled a little on his shirt, sprawled out in the seat across from them as the car automatically took them to their destination. The man could fall asleep in an instant, wherever he was. Being homeless, and always on the move, this skill came in handy.
They quickly found the shipping container that they needed to protect, hoping their presence would not alert the robbers and put them in harm’s way. Mateo continued to sleep through the majority of the day while they waited on the sidelines for someone to make a move. But no one ever did. The proper owners of the tin came to pick up their shipment and left with a truck. It was a good thing Leona was there to make sure the people who came for it were authorized to do so. Convincing people to give up information to a stranger was not Horace’s strong suit, but it was hers.
“You don’t think we should still follow them?” Mateo asked.
“No, something’s changed.” Horace was very concerned. “Something’s not right. We must have proverbially stepped on a butterfly.”
“If we changed the outcome just by being around, then that seems to me like we definitely should follow them.”
“No,” Horace said. “I don’t like it here. We need to leave. We didn’t do enough to alter the timeline. Only one thing could have.”
“What?” Mateo asked.
“Another salmon,” Horace and Leona answered, practically at the same time.
“Well, great. Then we have some help. We should find out who they are; maybe even add another person to the team.”
“No,” Horace said.
“I agree,” Leona nodded. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“I don’t understand why you two are so afraid.”
“Ulinthra?” Horace asked to his phone.
“Yes?” Ulinthra responded.
“Mission bust. Back-up mission.”
“Uh...” Ulinthra thought it over. She sounded winded. “Armed robbery in Woodstown. No one gets hurt, but the convenience store suffers some damage. That’s all I got for ya. I had planned on you sitting there awhile. What’s going on?”
“I’ll explain later,” Horace said. “It may be nothing. Send our car the details.”
While the car was driving them to their new mission, Richard called in urgently, “help!”
“What’s wrong, Richard?” Leona asked.
“The riot has become larger. I don’t know what happened. These eco-freaks just came in and started throwing things at people. And now I think people have started joining in without any idea why they’re supposed to be angry. It’s gotten way out of hand.”
“Richard,” Horace said. “No one can get to you. We’re all too far away.”
“I can get to them,” Mateo assured them. “Uh...computer? Take us to the nearest cemetery. Um, please?”
“What are you talking about? Stay out of this!” Horace redirected his words, “Richard, are you somewhere safe?”
“I don’t know. I’m hiding behind some bushes, but—oh no, a group is coming this way. I have to be quiet, they’re like zombies!” Richard whispered loudly.
“I just need to find an open grave! Hal, take us to a cemetery!”
“The car’s name isn’t Hal,” Leona said.
“Oh, forget it!” Mateo crawled over to the dashboard, and figured out how to switch the vehicle to manual.
Horace tried to pull him off, but wasn’t strong enough. “Get away from the wheel!”
“I can do this,” Mateo swore. “I just need one grave for one minute.”
“No one drives by hand anymore!” Leona yelled.
“I knew we shouldn’t have gotten a car with a steering wheel. This isn’t 2025!” Horace continued to struggle with the wheel. But it wasn’t enough. The car crashed into the pillar of the Broadway bridge.
Horace Reaver was in prison. He had spent the better part of a year dealing with the hassle of court. He had to sit through every single day of the proceedings twice, but there was nothing he could do increase his chances of winning. Even knowing the line of questioning ahead of time wasn’t going to help. Sure, he could respond to their questions succinctly and without surprise, but there was no difference in the answers. The fact was that everything they were saying about him was true. They had even left out a few of the awful details. He really had caused a car accident that resulted in his wife’s death. Following that, he really had purposely given his now enemy, Mateo an exorbitant amount of hospital drugs that resulted in his extremely unpleasant overdose. And after that, he did indeed kill everyone in the immediate area. During the case, the truth about Allen’s death came to light. The authorities had figured out where the body was literally buried. Yes, Horace’s life could get no worse, and he made a point of expressing this to the wall in front of him in solitary confinement.
“I’ve seen worse, father,” a voice came from the opposite corner.
“It’s me, Melly.”
“I’m a time traveler. The Melly you left behind when you were sent to the clink disappeared from foster care, and will eventually become me.”
Horace did not respond.
“Do they still call this the clink?”
“Why are you here?”
“Is that any way to greet me?”
“I do not know you. My daughter’s a toddler. I have no idea what you’ve been through. I clearly didn’t raise you, and hopefully you’re nothing like me.” He turned his head away. “You should stay away from me.”
“You don’t even want to know why I’m here? And you aren’t even slightly interested in hearing what I’ve been through?”
“Yes. I’m a terrible father. Shocker. The mass murderer makes another bad decision, and you’re questioning it.”
“You weren’t necessarily a bad father. I mean, I don’t remember the first three years of my life, but they seemed fine. You didn’t have a chance to prove any different. We will never know...”
Horace rested against his palm and pointed to his chest with the other hand, piercing Melly with his eyes. “Again, I’m a mass murderer. I’m a bad person, so I could not have been a good father. Whatever you’ve been through, wherever you lived, it was better than what I could have provided you with.”
Melly sat up straighter and did her best impression of an aristocrat, “I live a life of luxury.”
“Is that so? The powers that be gave you some kind of lovely form of time travel, did they? Only take you to the good times?”
“They didn’t give me anything. You did.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m not a salmon, father,” Melly said sweetly. “I’m one of them. I’m a choosing one. I’m part of the group of people who jack with time. I know the person doing this to you personally. He’s kind of a dick, I’ll give you that. I would do it myself, and make it easier on you, but I’m not allowed.”
Horace just stared at his young adult daughter, not having a clue what to say.
Melly decided to continue, “that’s how it works. The child of two activated salmon will be born as a choosing one.”
Horace nearly cut her off, “Leona was not a salmon.”
Melly laughed disturbingly. “She was. She just never told you. She had her reasons.”
Horace tilted his lizard brain. “You’re not lying.”
“How did I not notice?”
“Not all salmon have long term patterns. Some of you are thrown to a different time and kept there. Some are just dropped off briefly so they can complete one task. One time, I sent a late 21st century photographer back to Ancient Egypt so that she could document the building of the pyramids.”
Melly looked to the side as she was thinking out loud, “but I think I’m going to change her pattern and send her to other planets in the new timeline.”
“I don’t care about that bitch! Tell me what Leona’s pattern was!”
Melly jumped back into the conversation, “oh yes. She went to college in the 2150s. That’s how come she’s so smart.”
“I saw her diploma.”
She looked at him like he was a dum-dum. “Yeah, we faked that. Well, I mean we had someone fake it. Choosing ones don’t do anything for themselves. That’s, like, the whole point.”
“That’s the point? You screw with innocent people’s lives just so you can get random things done...but not have to actually do it? You have control over time and space, you have access to infinite technology...”
“We’re also immortal,” Melly added.
He didn’t know about that. “You’ve cracked immortality,” Horace finished. “You could do so much more. You could probably alter history just by thinking about it. Why go through all this trouble? Why recruit people to do your dirty work? Why hire a human when it would be cheaper and easier to invest in a proverbial machine?”
Melly acted like she was contemplating his question, but seemed pretty blasé about it. “Because human involvement makes it more interesting.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You seem to be under the impression that we have some sort of goal in mind; that we’re...looking for the best possible outcome. We’re not doing that at all.” She shrugged, almost excitedly. “We’re just having fun.”
“Look, I don’t know everything about the history of salmon and the choosing ones. In fact, I’m not sure which came first. We could be the result of future tech, we could be some kind of shadow species that evolved alongside regular humans; I don’t even care to find out. What I can tell you is that you people read books, watch plays, go see movies, and sometimes you even kill each other for sport. Well that’s boring to people like us. Time is our entertainment.” She took a moment to choose her words. “We just like to see what you’re gonna do.”
“That’s terrible,” was all that Horace could say after minutes of doing his best to absorb the information without having a heart attack.
She shrugged again. “If you were one of us, you would feel the same way.”
“You’re right,” Horace agreed. “I would feel that way. But I’m a freak. I’m literally insane, Mel. I’ve killed thousands of people. Rewind or not, I enjoy taking lives. I killed my whole fucking family. Then I went back in time, and ended up killing them again years later, but this time around, there was no going back. I’m the bad guy of the story. Are you telling me that out of all of you,” he waved his finger in her general direction, indicating a theoretical group, “there’s not one person who wants to do the right thing? There’s not one single person who says, ‘hey! Let’s put right what once went wrong’? Why do I find that hard to believe?”
She felt no further need to explain her and her people’s intentions. “We don’t, but I think you might.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can modify patterns. I can send you back in time, but more that just the one day. I can give you a real second chance.”
He peered at her suspiciously. “How far back?”
“To when you were a teenager, before you started killing. Well, except for your mother that one time when you were a child, but I think we can let that slide. You could save her,” she pitched. “You could stop my mother from being anywhere near New Jersey.”
“I thought choosing ones couldn’t be in charge of their relatives.”
“They can’t. The others are gonna be pissed. We have rules. But most of them are arbitrary, and they can be subverted, just like when a normal person breaks a rule. Other things will be different. I’ll be making some other adjustments to the timeline, but there will also be consequences that are out of my hands. I don’t know what,” she looked around the room before continuing, “but isn’t anything better than this shithole?”
Horace slid his back against the wall and got to his feet. “Do it.”
That was it for Horace Reaver. He had spent the better part of two decades, working to make the world a better place, then he went back in time and screwed it all up. He had decided to be completely selfish this time around. He landed on the afternoon that he was supposed to be meeting his future wife at a hospital. He wasn’t sick from dinner’s food poisoning this time, though, so his mother wouldn’t take him. About ten minutes away from his destination via bicycle, he just about finished the bottle of ipecac he had stolen from the medicine cabinet. When he arrived in the waiting room, he didn’t even bother checking in. He sat down where he was supposed to, but his future wife, Leona was already talking with him. It was Mateo, the man who had been responsible for her death in the alternate timeline. It was everything he could do to stop himself from strangling his enemy right there. Instead, he waited patiently and hoped he would soon leave. Each time Leona would threw up, Horace would throw up as well; a sort of weird way to get her attention, but it didn’t work. Nothing did. Her father came round just as Mateo was leaving, and they were soon called into the back to pump her stomach.
He resolved to do a better job once the day restarted, but when he woke up, it was tomorrow. He hadn’t rewound the day to try things over. He never really knew for sure that this was true, but he suspected that the reason he didn’t restart that particular day was because he hadn’t experienced it all the way through. He would have needed to go through it once before he could go try it again. But the real reason was that this was part of his punishment. His daughter, Melly had mentioned that there would be consequences for his second chance since it broke his time travel pattern. But Reaver was still grateful for having been giving the second chance. Even though most things didn’t turn out as he had hoped, Leona was still alive. He had succeeded in that, if nothing else. And she appeared to be happy with Mateo; happier than she ever seemed in the alternate timeline when she was with Horace.
In the end, after all his struggles, was this the best possible outcome? Despite his personal problems, his company had actually done some good for the world. It had pushed the boundaries of technology, and forced the population to accept progress at a faster rate than predicted. The company did eventually fall apart, but it had sprung a healthy dose of competition from other companies, and they were still standing. They were carrying on the legacy he now wished he would have been trying to accomplish. Success was always just a means to an end; a way to secure his livelihood so that Leona would have something to go towards, away from Mateo. But that was a bad reason. He realized this now. It took him two years of reflection in his special salmon prison cube, but he had finally learned his lesson. Hopefully, that would count for something...in the next life.
He was given special permission to attend his old friend, Daria’s funeral in the past. A salmon was dispatched to take him back in time for a short trip, along with all five of his security guards. A few hours after returning to 2055, however, the two guards on shift disappeared suddenly. “Hello?” Horace called out.
“Hello,” came the reply. But it wasn’t from the outside of the prison cube. It was right in there with him. Horace turned around to find a man he did not recognize. He had placed a large knife on the kitchen counter, along with some other small machine, and he appeared to be making himself a sandwich.
“Could I ask your name?” Horace asked genuinely politely.
The man signed and placed his hand on the handle of his knife, almost like it was an accident. “The other choosers like to give their little salmon nicknames, but they don’t have their own. In fact, if they had it their way, they wouldn’t have names at all. They would find it more mysterious and godlike.” He threw a cluster of pepperoni into his mouth and continued talking with his mouth full, “but I actually like these nicknames. It’s given me a chance to redefine myself. I am...The Cleanser.”
“What do you do, Cleanser?” Horace asked. “You clean up after people’s messes?”
He laughed as he was putting the final touches on his sandwich. “It’s my job to clean up the whole mess,” he clarified.
“What does that mean?”
“It means that killing you is not going to serve much of a purpose on its own but it’s an easy job, and we all have to start small, don’t we? After I kill you and The Guards, I’m going to go after The Kingmaker.” He smashed the top slice of bread down with his fist, like a crazy person. “Then I’ll go after The Freelancers, The Shapers, The Rovers, and so on. After I’m finished with all the salmon,” he stopped to take a bite, “I can finally make my way to The Choosing Ones.”
“You’re not going to hurt my daughter.”
“I am,” he disagreed. “I’ll kill her. It may take me a few tries, but I’ll figure it out. She’s the one who did this to me, so I have some extra animosity towards her.”
“They’ll never let you kill all those people—who is the Kingmaker? The choosing ones are too powerful.”
He laughed, letting crumbs tumble out of his mouth. “They would be powerful, if they agreed to work with each other. But as it stands, they’re no better than me. I can take them, as long as I bide my time, and go after them one by one.”
“Why are you telling me all this?” Horace asked. “I mean, if you’re going to kill me anyway. Especially since I’ll just go back in time and you’ll have to do it again.”
The Cleanser shrugged. “First of all, you won’t. When I kill you, it’s done; I break your pattern. You don’t go back. Secondly, I’m telling you because I don’t get to talk very often. Mine is a very lonely existence. I do it only because time travel is wrong, and it’s my responsibility to put a stop to it.”
This time, Horace shrugged. “No, it isn’t.”
“Whatever your reasons, whatever you’ve been through that makes you think you have to do all this, you don’t. Trust me, I’ve been there. Your plan is stupid. It’ll never work. You’ll fail. You’ll be destroyed. The choosing ones might let you kill one or two salmon. Hell, they might even let you take a whole basketball team, but you definitely won’t get far enough to take out the choosing ones themselves. That would be ridiculous. I don’t care how smart you think you are; how disorganized they are; or how much practice you get, they’ll win. They always win.”
“You sound pretty confident for a dead man.”
Horace moved closer menacingly. “I have been alive for one hundred and forty-six years. I may be a slow learner, but I have figured out a few things along the way. And I’m resigned to my own death. It’s probably time.” He moved a little closer. “You want my advice. That is not a question.”
The Cleanser set his sandwich half on the plate and brushed his palms together. “I’m listening.”
“I still don’t know who the Kingmaker is, but I know who the Rovers are. Mateo and Leona are incredibly strong. She’s smart, and he’s a fucking survivor. If you want to continue with your plans of destroying the salmon world, then waiting to get rid of them is your dumbest move. Better go after them first, because if they catch wind of your existence...you’re already done.”
He breathed in through his nose and looked at Horace with curiosity. “I shall take that under advisement.”
Horace smiled sinisterly. “Good. Now pick up that knife and get on with it.”
The Cleanser laughed once with his mouth closed and lifted his knife. But he didn’t stab Horace with it. He turned the blade up and twisted the bottom, letting a small object fall out of the handle. “Do you recognize this?”
“Is that the explosive device I fruitlessly sent to Mateo in the hopes of killing him?”
He held it up and examined it like he was giving an appraisal of a diamond. “The technology is interesting. It’s pretty archaic, but it can reach out to other machines and cause them to overheat. The device itself doesn’t have to explode.”
“That’s why I chose it.”
He snapped his fingers into a fist and squeezed the device tightly, as if scared a bird would swoop down and steal it. “This is not the one you sent to the future. That one is on its journey and will, as you say, fail to complete its mission. I have no interest in extracting that from time. I made another one.” He lowered his fist and inserted the device into the machine. “I just thought it would be ironic to kill you the way you have going to tried to kill your enemy in 3118.”
“That makes sense.” Horace nodded. “I like it.”
“I thought you might.” He looked around the prison cube and settled on Horace’s pillow. He picked it up and looked at Horace one more time. “I need this.”
He seemed to be drawing energy from the pillow as he held it. Then he disappeared in a blink. The pillow fell to the floor. All five guards were pulled back, but inside of the cube, instead of outside where they belonged. They were frightened and confused. Guard Number Two drew his sidearm.
Horace reached out his hands and tried to usher them as far from the device as he could, but they weren’t having it. “It’s a bomb!” Not that it mattered. The explosion would likely consume the entire cube, and if that didn’t kill them, the lack of oxygen eventually would. Everything the Cleanser was trying for was, so far, going according to plan. With his last thought, Horace Reaver hoped that Mateo Matic would win the next battle too.