A Factor of 'X'
by Christian A. Larsen
Brandon shut the service door on the garage and looked at Ash. "What do you think?"
"Think?" asked Ash. "I don't think anything. You know this stuff is completely over my skis. I can't even wire a lamp. You could be bullshitting me for all I know." Pausing, "Are you?"
"Dude," Brandon said, leading his old buddy back to the house. "It's 2000% legit, at least on paper. I haven't been able to test it out yet. Obviously."
"Why not? Why tell me?"
Brandon had a bad habit of forgetting to show up at Ash's house for dinner, and Ash had a bad habit of underestimating the amount of time Brandon's work required. They hadn't seen each other in 18 months, and even their emails had turned terse, infrequent, and then stopped.
Until last week.
No apologies, not even a mention of the previously unbroken silence between them, and not so much as a 'hello' to start things off. Just that he needed to see Ash, and "pronto."
Opening the door to the house, Brandon smiled. "I need you to turn it on."
"I don't know how. Why can't you do it?"
"I'll show you, and I can't do it because I'm gonna be in it."
"The time machine." Ash didn't ask. He had read enough pop-science magazine articles in his dentist's waiting room to know that people who knew better than him thought that time travel was possible, but the details were either too dense to slip past the editor, or no one had any idea at all how to put their theories into action. "So you expect me to believe you built a working time machine in your parents' garage?"
"Yep," answered Brandon, opening the fridge. "Dew?"
Ash caught the pop from Brandon, cracked it, and took a long couple of gulps, hiding behind the upturned can. He felt like running and not looking back.
"It's really not that hard. All the materials are simple, everyday stuff. Easy to find. No radioactive material. You don't even need a computer, although I think it makes it a lot easier to do the calculations and stuff. I'm amazed, actually, that no one has built a time machine before now. Western civilization has had the materials to do it since at least the Industrial Revolution."
"Shouldn't you test it out on a monkey first, or a mouse or something?" asked Ash.
Brandon set his can down, half empty, and shook the walls with a loud belch. "Dude, how would I know it worked? I'm not coming back."
Here it was. The other shoe.
Ash slumped back in his chair, sliding his heels over the worn, yellow linoleum. "There's a million reasons why you shouldn't be doing this, any of this. Haven't you ever seen 'Back to the Future' with all that Doc Brown crap about the time-space continuum? You might never be born because you messed up your ancestors' meeting or something. What about that?"
"I'm not going backward. We know what happened back then."
Ash wanted to argue that point. How did the dinosaurs die out? Was there a global flood and an ark of survivors? What about proving with finality Jesus of Nazareth's identity, or recording his speeches and transcribing them verbatim? Brandon wouldn't care about any of those things. Anything that was more than five years old was grandpa stuff to him. "So what do you want to go forward for? How far forward do you want to go?"
"To know. And if I'm gonna do this, I might as well go whole hog and do something wild, like a thousand years or something. What do you think?"
"Might not like the future," said Ash. "Will you come back then?"
Brandon shrugged. "I'll roll the bones on that one. But I can't come back. It's not a matter of not wanting to. It's like trying to take the sling with the shot."
"Yeah, but by then someone will have built their own sling based on yours," Ash offered. "Probably better, with spoilers and racing stripes." The joke wasn't even funny in his own ears.
"No, they're won't. Because you're going to destroy it, plans and all. That Doc Brown crap could really come back to bite everyone in the ass if the wrong people got a hold of my time machine. And anyone is the wrong person. People are stupid."
"But you're not. You've figured out all the angles?"
"I told you, I'm not going back," Brandon said. "I'm going forward."
"And never coming back."
"And never coming back."
Ash sighed. "This'll be like pushing you off a cliff. You might land safe in the water, but you'll probably splatter all over the rocks. I'd be killing you."
"There is absolutely no risk in that," Brandon assured him. "It'll either work like a charm or nothing'll happen at all."
Ash ran his hair back behind his ears with both hands. "So why me?"
"I can trust you."
"You can't trust anyone else?"
"My girlfriend and parents would never do it. Goodbye forever? Uh-uh. And if I tried to get any of my old lab-mates at the university to do it, they might go and build their own. And we've already been over how stupid people could ruin everything, right Doc Brown?"
"And what happens when the cops start questioning me about your missing persons report? They'll think I killed you."
"Look," said Brandon, turning uncharacteristically serious. "The whole thing can fit in your van. All we have to do is load it up, keep out of touch for a month or two, and then meet somewhere to do this thing. No one's gonna connect you."
And somehow, Ash agreed. He wouldn't really miss Brandon, since the two had drifted apart since college, so that couldn't stop him. And Brandon promised that it wouldn't be even able to kill him, so there went that reason to back out politely. The police would never connect Ash to Brandon's disappearance, either, and deep down, Ash knew he wanted to be a part of it all, even if he was only to be Igor to Brandon's Frankenstein.
They loaded up Ash's panel van, agreed on the place and the date, and parted friends for the first time in a long time.
Gravel creaked and popped under the van as Ask carefully rounded the corner. He couldn't see the sky or even the moon through the trees, so at least no one would see them from overhead. A cop might come by, but it was unlikely. After it was all done, Ash could just junk the time machine -- what was left of it -- at the dump. Looked like junk right now, anyway. But what about Brandon's car? They'd find it, and a witness or physical evidence would put Ash and Brandon together tonight. So much for thinking of everything. With nothing else to do, he got out of the van and watched for Brandon's headlights.
"Dude, where've you been?"
Ash spun around and saw Brandon standing there in old jeans, a t-shirt of some band he had never heard of, and a pair of really old gym shoes worn so low his feet didn't stand flat.
"Where's your car?" Ash asked.
"In front of my parents' house. I biked to the bus station, hailed three cabs, and walked the last 15 miles. I told you, no one's gonna put us together. I swear, I've thought of everything."
Not leak proof, but probably good enough.
Exactly 27 minutes after he shut off the engine to his van, Ash stood alone again in the woods. Wiping the cold sweat from his forehead, he started to dismantle the "sling" that had sent Brandon forever away -- a thousand years into the future. And for a thousand years, no one would ever know what happened to Brandon, and even then, only briefly.
Brandon didn't even wear a watch. What good would it do after a thousand year jump? He didn't know, but at this point it really didn't matter. From a purely scientific standpoint, he wanted to know what these next moments would be like -- but he had no need to measure it in his mind with the help of a watch.
One second, he had been smiling at Ash in the woods 90 miles from their hometown, and the next instant he was here. It was like someone had sucker punched him right in the gut. All the air had been sucked out of his lungs and all he could see were stars. He also hurt like hell in the arms and legs, like he'd fallen down a long flight of stairs, especially around the elbows and knees, but wherever the nearest set of stairs were, he sure didn't know.
He could also feel himself swelling, like an all-body bruise, and he knew that he was going to pass out soon, but not from the increasing pain. One of the last things he remembered, he could feel the saliva in his mouth starting to bubble, like he'd put an Alka-Seltzer tablet on his tongue. Did they still make Alka-Seltzer in the 31st Century?
A small detail that really didn't matter, unlike the small detail that did. He would have laughed if he had the air for it, forgetting to take into account that the Earth isn't just sitting there -- it's zooming through space at 65,000 miles per hour. He had jumped precisely a millennium into the future to the exact spot where the earth had been a thousand years ago, not where it was now.
A minute later, mercifully, Brandon was dead.
© 2010 Christian A. Larsen
Bio: Christian A. Larsen is a high school English teacher and has been a fan of speculative fiction since watching Twilight Zone and Night Gallery as a child. Prior to his career in education, Christian spent 15 years on the air in radio, including stops at WMVP-AM (1000) and WIIL-FM (95.1) in the Chicago market. He also has worked as a print journalist, and has enjoyed writing since he was 10 years old. He lives in northern Chicagoland with his wife and two sons, who love watching Twilight Zone and Night Gallery as much as their father. His story 'The Last Reflection of the Marionette Man' appeared in Issue #11 of House of Horror; his short story, "The Plagiarist's Wireless" will be appearing in the winter 2011 issue of Golden Visions Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
E-mail: Christian A. Larsen
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