Saturday, September 15, 2012

One Second Per Second



I found one of the stories I wrote about yesterday! I've revised it a little, cutting some bits in the introduction that didn't fit the tone of the tale.

It was my first real vacation in ten years and likely my last, so I was determined to make the most of it. I had three weeks to experience New York, no itinerary, just a nice hotel room and ample time to visit all the tourist traps. I left my laptop behind, didn't even bring a book, nor a change of clothes; I wanted nothing to weigh me down, not a single reminder of home or what awaited me there. Anything I needed, I'd buy here. 

I had one advantage over other tourists: I couldn't sleep. My approaching doom would at least give me enough time to enjoy my final trip. 

On the fifth day of sleepless frenetic sightseeing, I attended a performance of Cats. The show left me unmoved, but in the lobby I caught a young American woman staring at me. When she saw that I'd spotted her, she beckoned me over. Since I had little to lose in these final days, I approached her and introduced myself: "Adam Cranch."

"I'm April," she said. "I couldn't help but notice - you're Canadian?"

I was bemused. "What gave me away?"

"You move through a crowd very...deferentially."

I shrugged in my most charming and self-effacing manner. "I could use a coffee," I said.

That was how it began. Thanks to her local savvy we burned through my tourist itinerary at breakneck speed, one landmark after another, a blur of images from film and television finally made tangible. I enjoyed her company by day, saw her to her door and continued to explore the city by night. I explored without fear, my death sentence a perfect shield against caution. April was amazed by my stamina, and I discovered that the only fear that remained was the idea of telling her the truth.

But on the third day of our brief friendship, she insisted that we take a walk through Central Park. We stopped to feed the pigeons, snuggled together on a wooden bench.I felt a deep and sudden surge of affection for her, and I realized it was terribly cruel to hide my truth. I told her I had only days to live.

"I have a condition called Fatal Familial Insomnia, or FFI for short. Like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, it's a brain disorder involving prions, which has something to do with proteins, don't ask me what; I'm a salesman, not a doctor. The prions change shape and causes a kind of plaque to form in my thalamus, which is the part of the brain, the doctor tells me, that controls sleep patterns."

Her face was very pale, and she clutched my forearm hard. "That's why you can't sleep...but what else?"

I sighed. "Insomnia is just the first stage. Eventually I won't be able to sleep at all, then I'll develop dementia and eventually paralysis and death. At least I'll die with my eyes wide open."

The half-hearted joke fell flat.

"How long?" Her eyes were wet.

"I may not make my return flight to Toronto."

She turned away. I expected her to slap me, and I wouldn't have blamed her if she had, but instead she stood up.

"I have a friend I can talk to."

I was touched. "That's very kind, but really, I've seen the best doctors in the country already. I am going to die, and in less than a week."

"He's not that kind of friend." And then she walked away.

The next day, there was a knock at the door of my hotel room. I answered it, expecting April, but instead I saw a short, nondescript man in a black shirt and khaki shorts. He looked like a tourist.

"Can I help you?"

"Actually, April sent me to help you. I'm Edward Wynn. Will you come with me, Mr. Cranch?"

I had nothing to lose, and April obviously wanted to feel useful. I saw no reason to resist her good wishes, and so I went along with Wynn. He led me down to the parking garage, to his car, an unremarkable black Primus.

"Where are we going?" I asked, climbing into the vehicle.

"It's not far," he said.

But we drove for over ninety minutes, the buildings getting older and seedier as we travelled. Wynn turned down a narrow alley, shut off the ignition, and said, "We're here."

We left the car and Wynn led me to a pale yellow door. He pointed to the sign that adorned it: "Institute for Advanced Psychenergetic Studies." He raised an eyebrow, tapped the sign with his outstretched finger and asked, "What do you think this means?"

I thought about it. "Judging from the word 'psychenergetic,' I suppose it must have something to do with psychic energy. Moving coins around with your mind, bending spoons, that sort of thing." I suppressed my annoyance; I'd thought April had more sense than to send me to faith healers.

"Indeed. What if I told you that this is where it all began - or where it will all begin, depending on your perspective?"

"Where what began?"

He smiled in such a way that I knew he looked forward to my reaction to his next words.

"Time travel," he said.

This time, I allowed my annoyance to show. "Mister Wynn...really."

"You have plenty of reason not to believe, and I wouldn't blame you if you demanded to leave right now. But for April's sake if nothing else, will you at least listen to some friends of mine?"

I shrugged; if nothing else, I was willing to experience the new and strange in my last days. What else was the time for?

He led me through the door. I half-expected some remarkable high-tech complex, such as you might see in a film by Spielberg or Sampson, but to my eyes it looked like a simple office - perhaps a bit old-fashioned. Wynn and I walked down a half-lit corridor, turned left, then paused before another door, labelled, simply, "Operations." Wynn knocked on the door, and someone inside told us to come in.

Wynn opened the door and introduced two men: one pale, one dark, both wearing, strangely, eyeglasses. No one wore glasses anymore; they must have been eccentrics.

"Doctor Funkwright, Doctor Gurda, this is the man I told you about, Adam Cranch."

We shook hands. "Can I ask what this is all about?"

Gurda, the dark one, responded. "Edward tells us you have FFI."

"That's right."

"Your doctor must have told you that it's a hereditary disease."

I nodded.

"Edward has told you that our work involves time travel."

I smiled, making no effort to hide my disbelief. "Mmmm hmmm."

He ignored my derision. "Mister Cranch, to begin we'll need a blood sample..."

I went along with it. They drew blood, then disappeared for a while, Edward refused to answer any further questions, but brought me lunch and let me borrow his phone to call April. But she didn't pick up.

Gurda and Funkwright returned, all smiles.

"We've traced the gene that causes FFI back in time. The first carrier is a man named Marc Kastios, your great-great-great-great grandfather."

"Really," I said. I rolled my eyes.

"If you want to survive, you must travel back in time and ensure that he does not meet your great-great-great-great grandmother, one Medea Lessing. If someone else impregnates her, the gene will never appear in your DNA. You will be cured, because you will never have had the disease. You never could have had it."

I waved my hands in the air in protest. "Wait, wait wait. That's ridiculous. It's the grandfather paradox, you can't go back in time and kill an ancestor - which is what this amounts to - because then you'll never be born. It's preposterous."

Funkwright smiled, as if he'd heard this argument before. "Kastios contributed only a small fraction of the genetic material to the person that is you. Substitute another man in his place, and yes, you will be a different person - but only in the smallest respect. Perhaps you'll have green eyes instead of brown. Perhaps you'll be taller."

"And perhaps I'll wind up with a disease even worse than FFI!"

"A very small possibility, Mister Cranch."

I threw my hands up. "This is silly. It's all a mad dream anyway - you have no time machine." I moved to leave.

"But you, Mister Cranch, are the time machine."

I stopped, turned. "What are you talking about?"

"It's difficult to put in layman's terms, but while investigating the temporal lobe of the brain, my colleague and I made important discoveries about the observer effect in quantum mechanics, especially as it relates to the physiology of the brain, and more importantly, the mind. The prions will have spread to your temporal lobe by now - the very part of your brain that determines your perception of time. Only people with your condition, Mister Cranch - or similar conditions, such as CJD - may travel through time, for your brains are now fundamentally different from those of the rest of humanity."

"I've never used this word before, but I can't think of a better opportunity: balderdash."

Funkwright shrugged. "The choice is yours, of course. Will you resign yourself to a very uncomfortable death, or will you entertain a pair of eccentric cranks and a woman who cares for you very much?"

When faced with nonexistence, anyone is liable to weaken. I was out of time; my last days may as well be interesting. I nodded my assent.

Gurda clapped his hands together, smiling, and Wynn put a hand on my shoulder, nodding at me like I'd made an incredibly wise decision. I felt like a fool.

They took me to another room, a lab. It was empty but for a reclining chair, a pair of computer workstations, and a short countertop with an espresso machine. Funkwright gestured towards the chair; I took it. Then, each scientist took a position at the workstations.

"You won't feel anything. The chair will attune your brain to a different part of the space-time continuum."

Wynn opened a drawer in the counter and brought me a pair of still photos. The first was a head-and-shoulders candid shot, fantastically clear, of a dark, handsome man in what looked like early 18th century finery. "There's your man. You want to keep him from meeting this woman -" he showed me the next picture, of a startlingly beautiful, raven-haired girl, surely still a teenager - "Medea. She'll be sitting at an outdoor cafe, alone. All you have to do is keep the two of them from meeting."

"But...what about my clothes? I'll look completely out of place..."

"You'll look a little odd, but you won't be there long enough to cause too much of a stir. Besides, in this kind of situation, such distractions aren't necessarily bad."

"Ready for translocation," Gurda called out.

Wynn smiled at me reassuringly. "Don't worry. The really cool part is, you won't really be travelling anywhere at all; the rest of the universe is going to travel, relative to your position. The mountain is coming to Mohammed. Wild, huh?"

"Keen," I replied sardonically, but then I was falling, falling hard on my ass on a dusty gravel road. I picked myself up and goggled; Wynn was gone, Funkwright and Gurda were gone, the lab was gone. I was outdoors, on a plateau overlooking the sea, and there, a few meters away, was Medea, sitting as promised, alone, gazing over the water, sipping tea.

There was a shriek behind me. I jumped, spun around, and there was Kastios, face pale with terror. He must have seen me arrive! I tried to calm him, spreading my hands wide, but he broke and ran, and that was the first and only time I laid eyes on my distant relative.

My distant former relative, I thought. I took a few steps toward Medea, noting her beauty, wondering if I should try to replace Kastios as her suitor. What delicious irony if I impregnated her, becoming my own ancestor - and then passing on the FFI gene to myself!

I'm like a character in a story, I thought to myself. This is marvellous!

But then, before I could even inhale one final breath of the brisk, most air, the world spun around me again and I was back in the chair. Gurda, Wynn and Funkwright were regarding me with unreadable eyes.

"I did it!" I said, and tried to rise. But then I felt faint, and terribly weak. Something had just happened - something important. But it was fading...

***

Wynn took Cranch away, back to April. Whether she would find the new man as appealing as the old was an open question - but at least now they had the time to find out. The differences were small indeed, but the measure of a man can be had in the smallest increments - tiny alterations could make a strong man weak, could make a kind man cruel. Or they could make a good man great.

Gurda and Funkwright shut down the lab, another day's work well done.

"It's a shame the process destroys short-term memory. There have been millions of time travellers, but no one remembers," Funkwright said.

"Count your blessings," Gurda replied. "Without time travel, the death toll from CJD would be in the billions by now.

Funkwright nodded. "One of these days, someone will figure out why there are so few cases, despite the fact that nearly all beef in the industrialized world is infected. But aren't we killing the victims, in a sense? No one who makes the trip comes back as the same person, after all."

Gurda turned off the lights as they left the lab. "No one is the same person Friday that he was Thursday. Time has its way with us no matter what you or I or any of our colleagues do. We grow, we change, our old personalities die and are replaced, either in an instant, as with Cranch, or the old fashioned way, simply by moving forward through time...one second per second."

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