Uptime

by

James Brian King




Doctor Benjamin Ellsworth materialized out of thin air with a loud snap and dropped thirty centimeters to the ground under his feet. His legs, unprepared for the height differential, buckled and Benjamin ungracefully plopped to his backside in the tall grass.

A rushed intake of breath drew Benjamin's attention to a young boy, perhaps twelve or so years of age, who stood only meters away, his eyes so wide that they appeared near to falling out of his head. The boy dropped a wood cutting axe he held in his hands then spun on one heel and plunged into the thick growth of hemlock trees. "Pa! Pa! Come quick!" the boy shouted. "A man just appeared outta nowhere and dropped outta the sky!"

Research had indicated that the downtime target date of October 27, 1869 would jump Benjamin to a secluded grove of trees with no homesteads within five kilometers. It was just Benjamin's luck, or lack of it, that woodcutters were there to witness his downtime arrival.

Everyone on the project agreed, though it also happened to be a government order: it was imperative that Benjamin avoid contact with people -- any people. The slightest interaction with individuals of the past could potentially trigger a cascading effect through succeeding generations of humanity and alter the future that Benjamin had just travelled from.

If he stayed in 1869 and the boy's father believed his son saw something worth investigating, Benjamin could soon find himself in deep trouble. His planned window was for only one hour and he had to be within three meters of the jump point so the machinery back home could bring him back to the time chamber; looking for a place to hide wasn't a practicable option.

With a deep sigh of regret Benjamin probed with his fingers for the initiate button on the oversize belt at his waist.

####

Benjamin stepped from the three-meter platform that was hardly more than a big superconductor and realized almost immediately that things were wrong. Julie Knox, his project assistant, was not there to greet him. Instead, a dark-haired woman of robust figure quickly stepped from the gathered technicians and wrapped her arms around his neck then pressed her cheek against his. She said into his ear, "If anything's different, don't say anything. Remember, the government boys are here observing." She stepped back and turned to eye a tall man weaving toward Benjamin through the techs who were yammering questions at him, their voices weaving a near unintelligible buzz.

"Doctor Ellsworth, your window was for one hour," the tall man's deep, loud voice cut through the buzzing voices. The man's expression was neutral, but his gray eyes harbored, what, distrust, wariness? "Did you encounter problems?"

"No, um, no problems," Benjamin stammered. "Look, I, ah, what was your name again? The trip back always muddles my brain for a moment."

"Enders. Todd Enders, Special Agent, NSA."

NSA; an involuntary shiver traveled like electricity up Benjamin's spine. "Right. Ah, look, Agent Enders, I heard distant voices near the jump point. It seemed prudent not to take chances."

The government man studied Benjamin's face, which left Ben feeling quite uncomfortable; he never fancied himself a good liar. The lies were quickly multiplying: not only had he lied about the boy in 1869 and not let on that he had no idea who the dark-haired woman was, Ben had never before seen or heard of Special Agent Todd Enders.

####

Doctor Pruneda entered the conference room and closed the door behind her. She smiled animatedly and said, "Agent Enders appears to be satisfied and is headed back to Washington," she winked, "and out of our hair."

Fortunately, Ben had learned during the debriefing that the dark-haired woman's name was Doctor Melissa Pruneda, his project assistant. A young boy had seen him in 1869 and Julie Knox's career was forever changed -- Ben wondered if she even existed; for two years Ben had chosen to suppress his attraction to Julie Knox with the firm opinion that professional and private lives didn't mix well. Now that she was gone, he considered that maybe he had made a mistake. And, for the first time, Ben experienced a twinge of fear about the potential damage he could cause to the timeflow.

Doctor Pruneda stepped next to Ben and wrapped her arms around his head and pressed her ample breasts against his chest, then kissed him. Such intimacy from a woman he had known for only two hours initially startled Ben, but he quickly attempted to return the kiss with equal intimacy; he didn't want to let on that key things had changed with his return from 1869, at least not yet. Obviously, Ben mused, this woman had gotten past his notion of the separation of professional and private life.

Doctor Pruneda pulled her head back far enough that she could focus her eyes on Ben's. "Ben, is there something wrong? You seem tense."

"No, nothing wrong," Ben responded. His words sounded unconvincing even to himself.

She again leaned her weight against him and kissed him, then, to his surprise, she arched her pelvis forward and into his. She leaned back and smiled coyly. "I promised you I had a reward for you if everything went well in downtime."

The woman was attractive and certainly desirable with ample curves that exaggerated her sexuality. By her forties she'd be fighting weight gain but at her current age, Ben guessed mid-thirties, her body could only be considered voluptuous.

Doctor Pruneda's smile dimmed. "Ben, I just invited you to make love to me and received not the slightest response from you." A look of concern hardened her expression. "What's wrong?"

"Look, ah, Doctor Pruneda -- "

"Doctor Pruneda," she interrupted, a hint of distress sharpening her voice. "Ben, what is it? What's wrong?"

Ben mentally kicked himself. He forced an easy smile to his lips. "Melissa, sweetheart," he said, taking a big chance, though he had guessed right by Melissa's returning smile, "perhaps the, ah," he offered her an exaggerated look of sheepishness, "reward, can wait until tonight." He altered his expression to one of mock severity. "You know, until after our work is done?"

She laughed then grasped him in a quick hug. "That's my Doctor Ellsworth, all work and no play," she said jovially. Then she raised her hands to the back of his head and planted her lips firmly against his and kissed him fervently. She withdrew and said, "No more waiting, Doctor. Tonight, it's all play and no work." She cocked her head coyly. "Agreed?"

Ben smiled and nodded his head. "How could any man refuse such a demand as that?"

Melissa stepped back. "Okay. Work." She breathed deep. "The team is in pre-jump prep. Our uptime flow simulations are still giving us the date of August 2, 2057 as the closest future date on which we can timelock."

That was a date that Julie Knox and Ben had avoided discussing, though both understood its implication. The closest date into the past they had been able to acquire a timelock had been September 4, 1984. Ben had been born on June 15, 1985, just over nine months after the timelock date. The obvious conclusion was that Ben could not travel to a time in which he already existed, beginning with the conception of his fetus. Oddly, it was both reassuring and disconcerting to Ben to foreknow the date of his death.

Ben abruptly realized that Melissa Pruneda was still speaking. "...Reactors are scheduled for maximum power output three days from now, but the sims still indicate that we can give you no more than a two-minute window." She breathed deep again and her eyes widened a little. "Ben, at noon on Thursday, assuming the NSA boys give us a green light, you are actually going to do what we had thought was impossible only two years ago; you are going to jump uptime, twenty-eight years into the future."

####

Ben stood alone in the control room, his eyes wandering over the complicated control panels and the banks of computers, though his mind's eye saw nothing in the room. His mind was on the future -- his future; after seventeen jumps downtime, they were now finally able to timelock on the future thanks to the massive power output of two nuclear power plants. He was going uptime; it was very exhilarating. The only damper was that he was apparently going to arrive just in time for his own funeral.

How would they receive him? Records of his uptime jump, though top secret, would certainly be available to certain government agencies of the future, so they would know he was coming. He might very well step from the platform to find the president of the United States waiting --

Ben's foredreams were abruptly interrupted by the cycling of the time chamber -- which was supposed to be impossible! A man suddenly appeared on the platform.

Ben's security measures were supposed to restrict time travel to himself only, yet, obviously, here was an unauthorized traveller. The future. He had to have come from the future. "When -- when have you come from?"

The traveller stepped down from the platform. He was young, probably in his twenties. "I come from 2057. My name is David Benjamin Faulks. I am your son."

A sense of panic mixed with disbelief washed over Ben. He shook his head and said, "I don't have any children." Perhaps, he thought, I finally marry, start a family after my return from uptime?

David Faulks seemed to read his mind. "You don't come back from your uptime jump."

"Why, do the people of the future forbid me returning to my time?" And how was he to father this David Benjamin Faulks if he didn't come back?

David slowly shook his head, a hint of sadness pulling at the corners of his lips. "I stepped into your chamber on July 30, 2057, three days before your anticipated arrival. Our history records that you never returned to your own time. Scientists in my time believe that is because, at the moment you snap into existence in 2057, the entire universe will be destroyed."

####

"When your two-minute window collapsed, supposedly abandoning you uptime in the year 2057, your team was unable to get past your systems security."

Ben didn't really see himself as much different from most other people, yet he accepted that he was touted as a genius. He accepted it as a simple fact and didn't let it go to his head. It had been much more difficult to accept the fact that he required government assistance to finance the time project he had theorized and developed over a twenty-year period. He generally found governments unworthy of trust and had assumed his government backers would abuse the time project if given the opportunity. So, he had forced them to commit to his absolute control of the project. He had layered so much encryption code and intrusion-triggered file wipes into his project programming that it would take fifty years to get past it, then programmed the machinery to accept only his DNA as the final firewall.

David continued, "After a year, the government closed the time project and dismantled the equipment. Luckily, for the people of my time, all this machinery," David waved his hand to take in the control room and all its high-tech gadgetry, "was placed in lockdown standby and not destroyed. The chamber itself was removed and warehoused in a different location."

Ben's examining eyes took in tiny details about David: the hair only a shade darker than Ben's and of the same fineness; the straight, narrow nose a match for his own; skin tone and facial features so similar, except for his wide, full lips. And the eyes; David's eyes were golden brown where Ben's were gray-green. If the boy wasn't his son, he was a well-selected counterfeit. Yet, the machinery had allowed him access to the time stream.

"Am I to understand that you were sent because the machinery recognized your DNA as relative to mine?"

David offered a brief hint of a smile. "Given time the computer experts would have broken your computer security. As it was, they barely had time to get the project up and running." David's full lips broadened into a smile. "They were really sweating it until a full system test accepted me as a time traveller."

Ben sighed, nodding to himself. "All right, David, I'll accept for now that you are my son. Now, you will need to tell me about this theory postulating the end of the universe, because, frankly, at this point it seems pretty far-fetched."

David slowly nodded his head and reached into a side pocket on the thigh of his body suit. He withdrew a datastick, one of the high-capacity type. He offered it to Ben and said, "This storage device is compatible with your current computer systems. It has photos of the time project team, most of whom you'll recognize, and also relevant news stories concerning you and the time project. It also has scientific data for your examination." David breathed deep and his eyes had a far away look for a moment. Then he said, "I'm not a scientist, but I was briefed only a few minutes ago, just before they sent me into the chamber." He hesitated again, seeming to collect his thoughts, then continued, "In 2057 technology and science have advanced to the point that scientists -- including many of the people on your current team -- can actually view the flow of the time stream; not into the future, but at any time in hist -- "

"Yes, with the conquest of time, the flow of time itself is immaterial," Ben interrupted, staring at the datastick he held in his fingers. "So, how do these monitors actually display the flow of time?" he asked with growing anticipation.

"Actually, the monitors only show ripples in the time stream."

"Ripples -- caused by what?"

"Think of a seismograph. Each time there is the slightest tremble within the Earth, the machine records it as small spikes on a graph. They happen frequently in regions with major fault lines though people living right on them might not even know they occur. A traveller moving through the time stream causes a similar spike, a ripple in time. There are a great many ripples in the stream."

"A great many -- from other time travellers?" Ben asked with mounting, unconcealed excitement.

David raised a hand as if to say, wait. "Scientists in my time only identified your ripple three years ago. They have tracked you ever since. Now, go back to the seismograph: what would happen if an earthquake of, say, magnitude ten occurred?"

"The seismograph would print a spike that danced from one end of the graph to the other."

"And that spike would be no more than the smallest fraction of the spike you are causing as you move forward in time. Your ripple is expanding within the timestream and will soon tear at the very fabric of both time and space."

Ben closed his eyes and rubbed his face with both hands. "And will destroy the universe." He sighed, then fixed an intense stare upon David. "This is a lot to swallow." And yet, it made some kind of sense; the system would not timelock on the forty-four years since Ben was conceived -- because he couldn't exist twice at one time? But it could timelock on a future date, a date that Ben postulated was just after his death. Only, alive or dead, Ben would still exist twice at the same time. DNA. It had to be the trigger. Alive or dead, his DNA would still exist until his very bones turned to dust and joined with the earth. Could it be that, somehow, the laws of time and space recognized the DNA signatures of living matter? Yet, they had a timelock on 2057. A glitch in time mechanics?

"The questions you're thinking of are answered by the files on the storage device," David's quiet voice interjected into Ben's musings. "There is one more thing I need to tell you. The project team thinks it has happened before. In fact, they think a catastrophic uptime jump was the event that brought about the birth of our universe."

It took Ben only two seconds to realize the astronomical magnitude of David's claim. "You are referring to the Big Bang." He shook his head -- too much -- too much to accept as plausible. "Good Lord, you're claiming that the genesis of our universe was precipitated by the destruction of a previous universe -- by uptime travellers from fifteen billion years ago?"

David shook his head, a hint of frustration in his eyes. "Actually, nothing is destroyed. And it wasn't fifteen billion years ago. You're assuming linear time -- " David sighed, turned his eyes to the floor for a moment, then raised a sad, almost frightened countenance back to Ben. "It's like a cosmic reset switch," he said in little more than a whisper. "Your uptime jump will cause time to skip back to the beginning to when the universe was a superdense, unbelievably hot speck of matter, to when there was no space and no time." A quick shrug of his shoulders, then, "Time starts when matter begins to expand. Time resets, yet, somehow, the ripples remain as echoes of the time before. Those ripples indicate that time has started over not only once, but over and over again."

####

Ben ejected David's datastick from the computer; the files it contained had shaken him clear to his soul. He turned to look squarely at his son. "In three days you will go back to your time at our scheduled uptime jump. Then I will destroy everything." Ben shook his head; the arrogance of men -- his arrogance, had nearly destroyed the universe. "Then I will explain to the government why it was necessary." They could disbelieve all they liked after the time project was no longer a threat to the whole universe.

David's eyes were fixed on some particular point on the floor, his face grim.

Ben lightly touched his arm and said, "That look is a long way from anything happy." He smiled when David raised his face to look at him. "David, you just saved your world, the whole universe even, yet you look like you just lost everything important to you."

David cast a sideways look at the time chamber, then tried without success to return Ben's smile. "I'm... I'm just afraid that I'm going to go into the time chamber and disappear from existence. I'm afraid... I fear there is no me in the future I'm going back to."

Ben cuffed David's shoulder with the palm of one hand. "David, you exist. You are my son. Obviously, I have something to do with that."

David tried the smile again, but with no more success. "Ben... father, all my life I've known you only in photos and in the memories of my mother. But my mother I do know, and there are things about her character -- "

"Excuse me," Melissa -- Ben hadn't even heard her enter. "Ben, who is this man?" Melissa's inquisitive expression hardened to suspicion. "Ben, this man is not wearing a security clearance. How did he get in here?"

Ben strode briskly to Melissa and took her hand in his. "Melissa, this is David." Ben turned to introduce his son to Melissa and abruptly shut his mouth. It was clear from David's expression that he already knew Melissa. Then he saw; the full lips, the golden brown eyes, the shape of his chin and cheekbones. Melissa was David's mother. Faulks. David had said his last name was Faulks. Obviously Melissa married after Ben didn't come back from his uptime jump.

"Melissa, David came through the time chamber from the future to warn us not to make the uptime jump." Ben's voice became very quiet: "He is our son."

"What?" Melissa screeched before jerking her hand from Ben's grasp. "And just like that you believe him? Ben, how could you endanger our control of the project? Agent Enders is just looking for a reason to have the NSA take more direct control." She thrust her hand at David. "For all you know, this man works for Enders and you're playing right into his hand."

"No, Melissa," Ben quietly replied, "I was here when he arrived in the chamber. He came to warn us. He brought proof. The uptime jump will destroy," a quick head shake, "destroy everything. The project is finished. We have to destroy -- "

"Are you crazy?" Melissa shrieked. "Damn you, Ben, just listen to yourself -- listen to what you're saying. The government will not let you destroy the project. I won't let you do that." She clenched her teeth, then cursed louder, "Damn you, I attached my star to yours because your light shined so bright. You were going to take us to glory -- both of us. I was going to give myself -- all of myself -- to you. Now -- " She spun on one heel and marched two steps toward the door then abruptly turned back, her eyes shooting fire. "I'm calling Enders. You're finished with the project. It will take time, but we'll get past your security and continue the project without you."

Wow. Ben stood several seconds just staring at the door through which Melissa had stormed out. Then he turned to David -- to find him no where in the room. No. Oh, Lord, no, he pleaded in his mind. David Benjamin Faulks is -- was to be -- the offspring of a joining between Ben and Melissa. A joining that would never be.

####

Special Agent Todd Enders and company would be breaking through the locked and barricaded doors at any time, but they would be too late to save the precious time project.

Ben turned off the gas to the laser torch and the hot blue flame extinguished with a loud snap. He observed the carnage around him. He had been thorough; every computer chip and data storage device in the control room was reduced to slag. There were other data retrieval systems elsewhere in the complex, but Ben had unleashed powerful worms into the network to destroy every file concerning the time project. Space and time were safe until another arrogant, high IQ idiot believed he could use the timeflow as his personal playground. A shiver coarsed up Ben's spine; it had been so close.

The racket resumed at the entrance and abruptly the doors shattered and flung open. Enders strode in at the head of a half-dozen black-clad soldiers, all with guns aimed at Ben. Just behind them, Melissa stood watching, her expression a mixture of anger, sadness, and ... regret?

He was going to jail, and likely for a very long time. But, there was always a chance, Ben mused as Enders cuffed has hands behind him, that the government boys would listen to him. The datastick David had brought would have been useful, but it had disappeared with his son.

Hope. I will have hope, Ben affirmed to himself. The universe existed, and hopefully would for a long time to come. He suddenly thought of Julie Knox; maybe he would seek her out when he was able to do so. Perhaps some of David could yet be given a chance at having a life. Ben silently nodded his head to his firming resolve. After all, there was time.

THE END



2005 by James Brian King

Bio: James Brian King's work has appeared in Aphelion (Penance, July 2003), Lissner's Adventure Fiction, Quantum Muse, and Fables. His story "Rogue Order" is scheduled to appear this fall in Sword's Edge.

E-mail: James Brian King

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