Aphelion Issue 234, Volume 22
November 2018
 
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The Man in 302

by H. David Blalock




There was too much noise to sleep. It wasn't the hum of the passenger ship's engines or the thrum of its atmospheric recyclers. He was used to them. It was the pounding. Earl tried to block out the sound by covering his head with a pillow. It didn't work.

"God!" he said through clenched jaws.

He chucked the pillow aside and sat up. The pounding sounded like it was right outside the door of his cabin, but he knew it had to be someone at Bunk 302. Probably some drunk trying to get into his room after losing their key. Or maybe it was Security again. It wouldn't be the first time for 302, though he thought it was empty.

He staggered to his door and threw it open, ready to give whoever was making the racket a piece of his mind.

There was nobody in the passageway, but the pounding continued. He looked left and right, but no one else appeared to be disturbed by the noise enough to investigate, which left it to him, he supposed.

Wrapping himself in a bathrobe over his pajamas, Earl walked down to 302. The pounding had not abated. He answered it by pounding on the door himself. Instantly, silence descended. Grumbling, he turned to go back to his room but paused when he heard someone on the other side of the door unlocking it. The door swung open and he prepared a scathing speech about late nights and noisy neighbors.

The words caught in his throat. The man in 302 was covered in grime, his clothes in disarray, face grizzled, hair graying. All this was shocking enough. What chilled Earl to the core was the fact he recognized that man.

It was himself. Older, more careworn, but definitely him.
The older Earl stared at him for a moment, then sighed. "You better come in. We need to talk."

Earl hesitated. His head spun as he tried to understand whether he was awake and looking at his older self or having a weird dream.

"You're not dreaming," the other man said.

Earl started. It was as if the man had read his mind.

"Nope. Just remembering," the man said. He took Earl's elbow and guided him inside.

What stood in 302 did little to help Earl's confusion. The air in the main room shimmered around a suspended hole through which Earl could make out a room totally different from any he had ever seen. The furniture glowed strangely, as if reflecting light from an orange-colored source. He found himself drawn toward the opening, stopped only when the other man moved between him and the vision.

"Sorry," the man said. "Can't let you through the portal. No telling how that would affect us." He pointed to the bed. "Sit."

Earl sat. What else was there to do?

"What you're looking at is an inter-temporal rift. They're becoming more common in my time. The first one was deliberate, but it seems to have caused a cascading effect." He sat in a chair beside the bed and looked at the rift. "Totally unexpected, of course. They began opening at random. Maybe you've heard of people suddenly disappearing? Turning a corner and poof! Gone?" He waved a hand at the rift.

"How?" Earl managed.

The man smiled grimly. "Afraid that's our… rather, my fault."

"What?"

The old man sighed and gazed at Earl. "It hardly seems possible, looking at you now." He shook his head. "They say there's no such thing is fate. I'm not so sure anymore."

"What you talking about?" Earl growled, his confusion slowly turning to anger.

"I… You… We develop the technology to do that," the man said, indicating the rift again. "It was the culmination of years of study and experimentation. A lifetime of work that will probably be the catalyst for universal Armageddon."

Earl stared at him. The words made no sense. What did he have to do with this? He was just an astroengineering student on his way back to Earth after a field junket to the Belt. Inter-temporal rift? Universal Armageddon? What drivel!

"You think so now," the man said in that infuriating telepathic knowledge, "but in less than ten years, you will find yourself part of a research group investigating an alien artifact discovered on Titan that will lead you to this... this disaster in the making."

Earl started for the door. "This is crazy," he mumbled. "I'm having some kind of bizarre dream. If I leave, I'll wake up. Yeah, that's it." He went to move toward the door.

"You can't leave," the man said.

Earl stopped, turned around. "What? Why not?"

"Because you didn't."

Earl blinked once, twice. "What?"

"I'll only keep you a couple more minutes. Sit."

Earl walked back to the bed and sat, defeated. Maybe this was a dream but at least it would be over soon.

"Did you know there used to be a planet where the Belt is now?" the man said. "It's true. It was an inter-temporal rift appearing in its orbit that cored like an apple and caused it to break up. We did that. Not on purpose, of course. It was one of those random appearances. But, you see the danger." The man crossed his legs and went on. "There was a big one beyond Neptune once. Not anymore.” He laughed. "Jupiter might have been a companion sun if not for us, so I guess it was fate after all."

"How do you know all that?" Earl asked.

"Every time an ITR appears, it leaves a signature my instruments can read. Doesn't matter how long ago. The signature doesn't fade. It's built into the space-time fabric."

Earl looked at the rift. "But, you can control this one. Why not the rest?"

The other man shook his head. "If you shout, can you control the echo? The ITR's appearing at random are echoes of the first one made by me and my staff. Our tests at first seemed to be failures. It wasn't until weeks later we discovered the tests had been successful but temporally displaced."

Earl's expression must have testified to his lack of comprehension.

"You see," the man explained, "we initiated our tests one day but the resultant rift would not manifest until days later." He grimaced. "Worse, we discovered each ITR had harmonic shadows, other manifestations at equal time intervals and spatial coordinates. We have generated a literal universal ITR web, and it is spreading. What its ultimate effect may be is impossible to calculate. All we know is, it will change events from what we know into something else."

Earl finally began to follow the man's words, but they prompted a question that might still let him believe the situation was just a dream, a figment of his exhausted imagination after a long and arduous field excursion.

"Okay," he began, "let's say everything you say is true. Wouldn't your coming here to tell me this change the future?"

The man sighed. "You still don't get it. I remember this meeting. It changed my life."

"How? It didn't stop you from building this time rift thing."

"True," the man allowed. "But that was because I told myself it was all a bad dream. The result of exhaustion. Too much work and not enough rest. I went on with my life and forgot about it until the first manifest ITR." He held up a finger to make a point. "But something of this meeting must've stayed with me because my interest turned from astroengineering toward temporal physics more and more. Without realizing it, I became who you see now, the man from that dream." He looked at the shimmering rift. "The first time I saw one in real time, it all came back in a rush. At first, I didn't want to believe it. Then, as we learned to track the harmonics, it became all too horribly clear."

Earl looked from the man, the drawn visage and graying hair, the slumping shoulders, to the rift hanging in midair. The situation slowly became more real as he watched the rift float impossibly before him.

"Okay," Earl said. "So forewarned is forearmed, right? I'll avoid working in that field altogether. That will prevent the whole thing, right?"

The man stood and walked toward the rift. "No. You see, if it had, I wouldn't be here to talk to you. Paradox."

"So, what now?"

The older man shrugged. "I honestly don't know. I had considered coming back to kill you myself. Stop the cycle before it began."

Earl bolted upright at that, heart beating hard.

"Relax," the man told him. "Obviously, I didn't because I'm here. Besides, I'm not the suicidal type."

"What do you want me to do, then? If I'm not going to change, why are you here?"

Standing by the rift, the man looked defeated. "I had to come because I remembered coming. I also remembered everything about the visit but what happened to me after I left 302. I came to fulfill a duty to time I have otherwise failed. That's done now. You can go."

Earl frowned. "That's it? That's all?"

The man nodded and stepped through the rift. "That's it. Goodbye, Earl. Good luck."

And suddenly, he was alone in the silence of Bunk 302.

Earl found himself hesitantly reaching toward where the shimmering rift had hung only moments ago. The faint odor of ozone hung in the air. He snatched back his hand.

The unreality of the past few minutes' events began to overwhelm. Had he really just seen his older self? Spoken with a future version? Or had he been sleepwalking in a bizarre dream, a nightmare brought on by fatigue? What was this about inter-temporal rifts? Did he really believe it all? Now that he was walking back to his cabin, the images began to fade. The man who spoke looked less like himself with each passing moment, to be replaced by a faceless, fuzzy figure. It was all too fantastic to take seriously.

He plopped down in his bed and closed his eyes. For the briefest moment, he had a chill, a shiver from deep within, but then it was gone.

Earl slept fitfully, his dreams full of holes in space swallowing entire civilizations.



THE END


2018 H. David Blalock

Bio: H. David Blalock's work has appeared in dozens of magazines, websites, and writer sites. His current novels include the Angelkiller series from Seventh Star Press and the Thran Chronicles from Alban Lake Publishing. For more information, visit his website.

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