Trip of a Lifetime

Clocks floating in space, illustration for time travel story Trip of a Lifetime

A Science Fiction Story

The Westinghouse Building was ten stories of shining glass, an award trophy offered to the sky. The sun glimmered behind it, but the light seemed to penetrate it like a prism. Across the street stood a man in a bulky jacket the color of desert sand, Walker McMartin. As he watched each employee arrive, he made a tick on a mental notepad. “And the woman in the yellow pantsuit makes forty-three. That’s everyone! Time to get started.”

He strolled calmly down an alley, whistling a tuneless melody. Wandering around to the front door, he paused to salute the doorman, a chubby fellow in a slate gray uniform and bowler hat. “Morning! Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“Good morning, sir.” The doorman gestured to Walker’s jacket. “Sorry to be a bother, but you don’t seem to be wearing a badge. If you could just show me your I.D. or a visitor’s pass, I would be glad to buzz you on inside.”

Picking up the whistle where he left off, Walker reached into his sleeve and withdrew a thin, ceramic knife. He buried the blade in the doorman’s ample stomach, pushing it in until the fat rolled over the handle. The doorman wouldn’t die for a few minutes, but he would be far too occupied with bleeding to go anywhere.

With the doorman out of the way, Walker could buzz himself in. As the doors swung closed behind him, his pockets produced another useful tool: a miniature arc welder. He sealed the metal security doors and continued into the main hall. Six security guards rushed towards him, their boots pounding the tile. Walker reached for his daisy chain.

Walker McMartin was sitting on the couch in his cabin, his head in his hands. A scattering of snowflakes danced outside his window. The cabin was in the middle of an immense tree farm, which was itself in the middle of absolutely nothing. Other than the couch, the cabin was empty. He had removed the oil paintings, the grand piano, the books, everything. The couch had only been spared to give him someplace to sit while he debated whether buying new things would make him happier than simply setting the place on fire.

His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden sound. His wristwatch was ringing. He tapped the answer button. “Mr. McMartin?” a man’s voice inquired. “This is Davis with Shift, LLC. We hear you are interested in travel.”

Walker dimly recalled seeing their ad. It didn’t actually explain what they did, but the font was very nice. He spoke into the air, without bothering to look at the camera in the watch band. “Yes, of course. But I’ve already been everywhere.”

“I am sure you have, sir, but this trip is one of a kind.”

“It’s not a safari, is it? I’ve already done that. Genetiflex cloned some endangered species for me to shoot. I’ve killed so many pandas, it’s not fun anymore.”

“Oh, no, no” Davis said, chuckling, “Not a safari. But you will need weapons. For security reasons, I am not able to explain over this call. If you would like to come see us, we would be happy to send a plane.”

“Sure.” Walker stepped over to the closet and pulled on his coat. “Where are you located?”

“Flagstaff, Arizona. We’ll be at your door in eight minutes.”

The guards drew their pistols, probably for the first time in their careers. “Don’t move! Drop the weapon!” The weapon in question was a long, silver chain with a serrated, circular blade at the end, the “daisy”. He made a slight throwing motion in the direction of the first guard. The blade jumped like an excited dog on the end of a leash. It slammed into the guard’s face, digging deep into his eyes. The others opened fire.

Walker was blown flat on his back. His carbon nanofiber coat was impermeable, but the bullets still knocked the wind out of him. “They should have gone for a head shot,” he thought. “No instinct for self-preservation.” The end of the daisy chain was still in his hand. With a gentle tug, the blade jumped back.

“He’s still alive!” Before the guards could raise their guns, the daisy chain leaped out again, flying in a tight arc. The five remaining guards suddenly found themselves without feet.

He pushed himself up, leaving the daisy chain on the floor. The men were struggling to crawl away, painting streaks of blood on the tile. He decided to finish them off with his arc welder.

Davis was a sickly-looking man with a nose like the blade of an ax. He led Walker by the arm into his office. Closing the door, he stepped over to a panel on the wall engraved with the words “SoundShield Stealth Technology” and flicked a switch at the top. “Everything we do is completely legal,” he said. “It appears that politicians are like any group of senior citizens, and have trouble catching up with new technology. If you do something in a clever way, they will generally leave you alone, simply to avoid taking the time to figure out whatever the hell it is you’re doing.” Walker nodded sagely, although he had no idea what he meant. “That being said, however, we want to keep the existence of certain technologies a closely-guarded secret.”

Davis suddenly remembered his manners. “Oh, sit down, sit down. Would you like a cocktail?”

“No, thank you.” Walker tossed his coat over the back of an overstuffed chain and collapsed into the seat.

Davis took a seat behind his enormous, glass desk. Pulling a folder from a drawer, he said, “Mr. McMartin, are you interested in history?”

During the skirmish with the guards, Walker had noticed the two receptionists sneaking away to a room behind their counter. His wristwatch contained detailed blueprints of the building, so he knew there was an emergency exit back that way. He wondered for a moment how the women reacted when they found that the back door had been welded shut. “Screaming and sobbing, I would imagine. Women are so damned emotional.”

He slipped on his thermal goggles and adjusted the settings. They were sensitive enough to pick up the heat from the receptionists’ bodies through the wall. The two women were huddled on the floor, hiding behind a large box. The box was hot, probably electronic. What were those things called? Fax machines? Photocopiers? Probably one of those.

“Better hurry,” he thought. “I have to take care of those elevators! Can’t let people come downstairs… Let’s try a spider grenade.” He unclipped a green ball from his belt and tossed it into the back room. He switched on his arc welder and headed for the elevators.

Alissa and Gena were crouched behind the photocopier, trying not to cry. “Do you think he’s gone?” Alissa wondered aloud.

“Be quiet!” Gena snapped. “He might hear us!”

“I… I can’t move my arms!”

“I can’t move anything! What’s going on?” There was a soft hiss and an odor like old milk. Had this been fifty years later, she might have recognized the smell as paralyzing gas. Suddenly, a staccato clicking, like cat’s claws on tile. Eight dozen miniature robot spiders crawled under the door, to the top of the photocopier, and jumped down onto their prey. The spiders were designed to eat through gas masks, but they were just as happy attacking a bare face. Gena and Alissa opened their mouths, but the gas had stolen their ability to scream.

“I don’t understand,” said Walker. “If you’ve developed a machine like this, you could change anything! Why not control the world?”

“Who says that we don’t?” Davis was apparently the type of person who laughed at his own jokes. “Seriously, though, major changes are extremely dangerous.” He picked up a pen from his desk and nibbled the end. “Making even a tiny change is like playing a game of marbles: you shoot one marble across the circle, it collides with another, and that one collides with a third… The consequences of major changes are extremely complex and take years to calculate. So, while we may step on a butterfly now and then, we generally stay away from changing history. But this trip won’t change anything. That’s the beauty of it!”

Walker shook his head. “I still don’t get it. How could killing all those people not change anything?”

Davis finished his drink and crunched on an ice cube. “They’ll only be dying a few minutes early.”

Milton had been feeling off all day. Completing his morning paperwork had made him even sicker than usual. Finally he decided to head home. He walked out of his office and headed for the elevators. After a couple minutes, the elevator arrived with a ding. “What the hell? Why won’t the doors open?” He jabbed the button again. “This is the worst day ever.”

Something popped like a roll of firecrackers, and Milton was covered in a net made of razor wire. Walker dropped the empty net gun and produced another ceramic knife. “Just relax,” he called. “It gets tighter when you struggle.”

Davis leaned back in his chair, his fingers clasped behind his head. “When the bomb detonated, it destroyed everything within a two mile radius.”

“And so,” Walker ventured, “I would go in early, make sure no one can escape, and get out before the bomb goes off?”

“That’s the idea. We’ll equip you with the best protective armor and weapons available. You’ll be in no danger.”

Walker snorted. “Who do you think you’re talking to? I’ve hunted bears, rhinos, elephants, sharks, even cloned dinosaurs. Damn it, I’m not going to hunt humans if it’s not going to even be a challenge!”

Davis sat upright and threw up his hands. “Look, there’s no reason to get angry. For the amount of money you’re paying, you can get anything you want. We can send you in with a force field and a platoon of robot solders, or a loincloth and a pea shooter. Your call.”

“I’d prefer somewhere in between, if you can manage it. No lasers, no force fields. And I’m going alone. I’ll probably do most of it with hand weapons.”

“Good, great, whatever. Just make it to the top of the building for pickup. We’ll take care of the rest.”

Walker checked the paperwork one more time. The cost estimate looked like the lovechild of a telephone number and a ZIP code. “Leave me until the last minute, literally. At these prices, I want as much time hunting as possible.”

Bill stepped out of his office and strolled down the hallway. Adjusting his tie, he thought, “Becky was supposed to have the March numbers done already. I’m going to Mr. Mosley and see about having her fired. Then I can finally have a cubicle with a window!” He stopped short. There was a man he had never seen before holding a length of braided wire. “Is someone having electrical work done today?”

Walker turned and grinned. He lunged forward, snapping the electric whip. With a shower of sparks, Bill was knocked across the marble floor. The air was chocked with the smell of burned hair. Bill retained consciousness just long enough to silently lament his melted rayon tie.

Walker looked down from the top of the stairs, admiring the machine that would soon be sending him on the trip of a lifetime. The time shifter was a long, black tube attached to an array of computers. On either side of the tube were tall, silver disks attached to a tangle of cables running back to an immense array of generators.

“You’ll lie down there,” Davis explained, gesturing at the tube, “and a technician will set the controls. We cannot aim the shifter for a specific date and time. Instead, we have to set it for how many years we want to travel into the past, distance to be traveled, plus variables like clock drift, leap years, the Julian/Gregorian switchover, things like that.”

Walker nodded, considering his risks. “How do you know there won’t be something in the way? You could send me back right into the middle of a brick wall.”

Davis laughed, leaning against the stair railing. “This building is in an area that used to be called the ‘Grand Canyon.’ The highway was constructed when they discovered oil here in 2023. Before that, there was absolutely nothing for eons.”

“So that’s why you have to send be from here, but you can retrieve me from anywhere in the world?”

“That’s right,” said Davis. “This is one of the only places where we can be guaranteed an empty space to drop people. Our retrieval process might bring a chunk of the roof back with you, but since the building will be destroyed by the terrorist bomb, it would never be noticed. – Oh, speaking of bringing things back, you can’t. No souvenirs, I’m afraid. The twentieth century was rife with bacteria.”

“Yes, I understand.” Walker and Davis continued down the stairs. “Wait a minute,” asked Walker, “This machine just runs on plain, old electric generators?”

“Unfortunately. We couldn’t construct our own atomics down here. That would be noticed, and certain people might ask what exactly we’re doing down here that requires eight terawatts of power.”

“Sure, sure,” nodded Walker. “Have to keep time travel a secret from everybody that isn’t a wealthy big game hunter.”

“Or,” thought Davis, “a middle aged man trying to pretend he’s a hunter and not a retired insurance executive who can kill anything but boredom.”

Walker climbed another staircase, on his way up to the roof. Two minutes to spare. He thought about all the weapons he’d abandoned – the daisy chain, the electric whip, the ice cannon, the unused black hole bomb, and a few more he couldn’t recall at the moment. “Imagine,” he thought, “if this place wasn’t going to be demolished. What would these primitives think? Would they be able to reverse engineer any of them? Even something as simple as that daisy chain. The blade is propelled by geomagnetism. Of course, the drive is smaller and simpler than the ones used in spacecrafts, but it’s the same in principle…”

He kicked open the door and stepped out onto the roof. A woman in a yellow pantsuit screamed. “Oh, you scared the hell out of me!” She took a long drag from her cigarette. “I know I’m not supposed to be up here, but they don’t let you smoke inside, and it’s quicker to go to the roof than go all the way down to the parking lot… Are you here to fix the air conditioning?”

Walker fumbled in his pockets for another weapon. He had a thorn gun, but he wanted to scare her before she died, and it looked a little too much like a plastic toy to be intimidating. He decided to go with another knife.

She dropped her cigarette and raised her hands. “What are you doing with that?”

“Wouldn’t you love to have a wider smile?”

In just a few moments, the time machine would retrieve him from the rooftop. After that, a bomb would destroy everything for miles. No one would ever know he had been there. “I hunted and killed dozens of people, ” he thought, “but I can’t exactly have them stuffed and mounted! No trophies, no souvenirs. After I’m gone, everything will be exactly as it was. The whole thing’s pointless.”

He tossed the knife aside, watching it glide across the rooftop like an ice skater. To the woman, he said, “There is a bomb in the park across the street. It’s too late to run.” She flew to the stairs. Whether she wanted to escape the bomb or just the crazy man on the roof, he would never know.

An orange light tore apart the sky.

The light faded like a sunset, and Davis and the technician took off their protective goggles. Davis stepped over to the tube and knocked on the top. “Mr. McMartin, I trust you enjoyed your trip! …Where in the hell is he?”

The technician turned from his computer. “You mean he’s not in the tube? Why wouldn’t he have stepped into the retrieval field? You told him to step into the light, didn’t you?”

“Maybe he got himself killed. I tried to give him a helmet, in case he got shot in the head, and he refused. Maybe he… No. Something has to be wrong on our end.” Davis walked over to the computer and peered at the timer controls. “The variable field is empty. Didn’t you adjust for leap seconds?”

“What’s that?”

“What the hell do you mean? How can you not know?” Davis fumed. “You run a damned time machine!”

The technician sighed. “I’m not a history expert; that’s your job. Anyway, I don’t understand what went wrong. The bombing happened at noon, so I set the retrieval field to get him at one minute till.”

“Don’t you get it?” Davis grabbed the technician’s shoulders. “You should have gotten him earlier! …Look, the earth is dying. It’s slowly slowing down, and the days are getting longer. So, every other year or so, the people in charge of the atomic clocks add an extra second to the time. ” He went over to one of the computers and did some quick calculations. “You sent him back about 213 years. So you were over two minutes late!”

The technician gasped. He double-checked Davis’ figures. “What’s the big deal? I can just send the field again and get him before he even entered the building.”

“Do you know how much electricity this machine uses?” Davis demanded. “It’s too damn expensive! He only paid us for one round trip. If we turn that machine on again, we won’t have enough money left for the company’s private research! I’m accountable for this project, its budget.” Taking a deep breath, he was suddenly calm. “Well, he knew the risks, didn’t he? Forget about him.”

The technician nodded. “Sure, sure. Well, what’s next?”

Davis rubbed his chin. “What do you say we get Hitler into art school?”

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