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For Sale For Sale
by ADAM PALMER
Contrary to some reasonable and popular advice, people panic. So is it wrong for me to make a little money off it? There are people in this world who simply can't function without peace of mind, and I provide it for them. That makes me a hero, practically! Doesn’t it? The frigid January chill sunk its icy fangs deep into my thoughts—and face and ears and eyes—as I forced my way through my morning run. I focused on the cold instead of on the gnawing doubt in my subconscious. Bitter stuff. To forgo the deep thinking, I just put one foot in front of the other to warm up, to see where it took me. Yes, I had my normal running route, but I often improvised and took a strange turn here or there. You never know where you might wind up. Good gravy, the cold! I welcomed the little chime in my ear, followed by Io piping up in his too-perfect semblance of a voice: >You are receiving a call, Daniel.< "Thanks, pal," I huffed, maintaining my stride. "I gathered." >Shall I project it for you?< "No," I said. I'd had the doofus for two years already and he still didn't know that projecting a call would trip me up. Besides, the neighborhood was getting more run-down every year. I wanted to take in the natural beauty as long as I could. "Just keep it in my ear, Io." >All right, Daniel.<
The dull chirp of the phone ringing in my ear married with the bright song of a wayward sparrow. A crackle, then: "Hey, Danny Boy! It's me! How you doin'?" A client of mine. I probably should keep his name to myself, just to be safe. You never know who might be listening in. "Good, man," I said. "Where are you?" he asked. "Why can't I see you?" "I'm running. Don't want to trip over your face." "Gotcha, buddy," he said, chuckling. "So, big guy, I've been looking over these charts, and I'm feeling good about 1999 RZ215." "Are you kidding me?" I said. "That's way out there. You might as well skip on out to Andromeda." We both laughed. It was, if I do say so myself, a pretty funny joke. "Seriously," I continued, "why would you want to set up so far away?" "Well, you know me, I'm all for traveling a little farther if I get a better price. I had my eye on 1998 WA31, but it's too much." "Too much, huh?" I said. "What if I could get you that for just a hair more than you'd pay for 1999 RZ215?" "Depends on how thick that hair is, I guess." "Let me get back to my house, crunch a few numbers, and see if I can't hook you up with something we both feel good about," I said. "Sounds great, Danny boy," he said. "And for what it's worth, whatever you come up with? I DO feel good about it."
"Well, your satisfaction is my number one priority," I said, glad I was running and therefore couldn't kick myself for spewing such cheese. "I'll be in touch," I continued. Instead of telling Io to end the call, I just made the hand motion. "How long have I been going, Io?" >Approximately one and a half miles.< "Hey, you didn't tell me the exact mileage. You're learning!" >2.2530816 kilometers.< "No, Io, I didn't want to KNOW the exact distance. And we still use miles, buddy. I know we're more than halfway through the 21st century, but you'll never take miles away from us." >That is why I approximated the distance and relayed it in miles. I am observant of your behavior, Daniel.< The little scamp. "Io, you're practically my best friend." >If I had the ability to feel emotion, I would be honored. As it is, I understand the proper response is to thank you for your kind words.< "Cut it out, man. You're gonna make me cry." I did a wide semicircle and started running for home. It was too cold for any more chitchat. Twenty very difficult minutes later, my lungs heaving out icepicks, I arrived back at my nondescript, hundred-year-old home. The neighborhood was getting worse, not from crime but sheer disuse. But there would hopefully be more people like me in the coming years, people who sunk a few bucks into cheap, old housing in the hopes of revitalizing it, should humanity decide to stick around.
Of course humanity would stick around. All this "moving off" nonsense was a bunch of bunk. Junk science mumbo-jumbo. Everything would be fine. No need to panic. Those of us who kept our heads would come out smelling like a rose. Just not around here. No roses. I hit the front step at a dead run. "Io, unlock the door for me," I said between gasps of iceberg air, jogging in place to keep warm. >I already have.< I twisted the knob and careened into my house, the warmth of the interior embracing me like a prodigal son. >I turned on the shower as soon as I detected the network. It should be at your desired temperature momentarily.< "That's why I love having your around, pal." I hurriedly grabbed some clothes from my bedroom, pausing at the door to remove the omnipresent plastic device from my right ear, placing Io into his charging bay by my bedside. "Stay put, pal. I'll be out in a minute." >That is a humorous statement, Daniel. According to my algorithm, it is mildly funny.< I lingered in the shower longer than usual, letting the hot spray needle its way into my frozen pores. Plus, I couldn't call my client back too quickly. I had to make him think I was doing some deals, working some magic, making some calls. Once I had raised my body temperature back to normal, I turned the water off myself.
>Would you like some music while you dry?< For some reason, when Io's in his charging bay, I look at the speakers when I talk to him. I spoke to the upper corner of the bathroom. "When I'm done--the blowers are too loud to hear anything." >I'll turn them on now.< The deep, whining rush of the jets filled my ears as they forcefully blew hot air from my head to my feet. Thirty seconds later, I was completely dry. I stepped out of the shower as the speaker in the corner once more came to life. >What would you like to listen to, Daniel?< "Surprise me." I had an extensive music library and eclectic tastes; it was nice not to have to think about choosing my tunes and just let Io do it for me, especially since he had such a knack for predicting what I was in the mood to hear. >Searching.< Four clicks of a pair of drumsticks later, I was listening to the opening riff of this super-old song from way back in 2004. I dig the classics. Like I said: eclectic taste. I got dressed into my standard uniform of a hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans. My dad had worn it all the time; same as his dad. I guess my fashion sense was genetic. Besides, it was comfortable, even though it was getting harder to come by. I messed around with brushing my teeth and futzing with my hair, just basically killing time to ratchet up the tension. Finally, after a half-hour or so, I nabbed Io from his charging bay and popped him back into my ear. "Call him up," I said. >Connecting.< "Oh, and put him up for me."
>Projecting.< The holographic screen illuminated about two feet in front of my face, digitally projected from the bug in my ear. The waveform of an outgoing telephone ring danced in front of my eyes as I waited for my client to answer my call. There was a pause, then his beaming face in front of mine. "Danny boy!" "Congratulations," I said. "I got you your very own piece of the Kuiper Belt."
Trans-Neptunian Objects. That's what they're called. A giant circle of rocky trash orbiting way out at the edge of the solar system. These objects--some of them almost as big as planets, some of them just giant orbiting continents--sit far enough out to suit my purposes. And it doesn't hurt that there are plenty of them, and most of them with hilariously obtuse catalog names. God bless astronomers. For an enterprising soul like myself, trans-Neptunian objects are, in the strictest business terminology, a "money factory." Fact is, people have always been skittish about the future. It's the uncertainty that gets 'em. And some of those people let their worry get in the way of their common sense, so they turn to me and my vast collection of transNeptunian objects for a little insurance. I give them a list of possible "destinations," they pick one, I give them a price, they give me money, I give them an electronic deed. Boom. They have their own piece of interstellar real estate. And along with it, the peace of mind that succeeding generations of their families will have a place to run to when everything eventually goes haywire here on Earth, which it inevitably will, given the current state of things and the rate of decline. See? Harmless.
"When can I expect my deed?" my client asked. I looked him dead in his holographic eye and did my best to smile with my own. "I'll send it within the hour," I said. "Presuming," I continued, "that you've already begun transmitting my fee?" "Absolutely." The projected hologram only showed him from the chest up, but I could see him lean forward, and his face took on a green tint. >Transfer begun.< "My guardian angel tells me the money is on its way," I said. "Once it's all there, I'll have him release your deed to you." His face was suddenly illuminated not by lights from his own holographic projection of me, but from sheer joy within, from a satisfied soul. I'd seen that look many times on the faces of my clients. It's the look of a sucker. >Transfer complete.< "And we're good. I'll send your deed as soon as I hang up." "Thanks so much," he said. "My family and I really appreciate it." "Sure thing," I said to him, then, to Io, "Hang up and transfer the appropriate documents." >Processing.< >Documents sent and received.< And with that, I'd just made enough money to buy my little hundred-year-old house all over again. "Now, Io: what's for breakfast?"
I took a moment to make myself some oatmeal and a single French press of coffee--there are some things I just don't trust Io to do. Handle my communication, bank transfers, forge documents? Yes. Make my morning coffee? No way. Whoops. Did I say "forge documents"? I probably shouldn't have told you that.
>I do not forge documents, Daniel. You have misspoken.< >You used me to set up your corporation, The Trans-Neptunian Object Registry, which I did according to all federal regulations.< >When a client makes a purchase from you, their funds are funneled into your account via TNO Registry.< >And they receive the appropriate electronic documentation from me.< >Everything they receive is perfectly legitimate. No forgery has occurred.< "Point taken, Io." So, yeah. I guess Io doesn't actually forge documents. Unless you think of him as some sort of robot document blacksmith. >I have noticed, Daniel, that you have not, thus far, made mention of your lack of legal right to sell or rent the properties listed.< >Do you not feel comfortable exploring this ethical grey area?< "Can it, pal." >Switching to sleep mode.< I finished my oatmeal in peace, sipping coffee every now and then, flipping through an old book on astronomy I'd left on the table. Amazing, the things they thought
they knew back then. But, as is usually the case, I could only stand about twenty waking minutes off the grid, out of the know. Man, that dependency annoys me, but what can I do? What if something major happens? What if they finally announce the end? That thought drives me back into Io's virtual arms. Sometimes even I tend to panic. Except I panic about the right things. "Io?" >I am awake, Daniel.< "Project the grid, please." Instantly Io sparked to life, displaying a multi-paned series of windows in front of me, all the different places where I lurked, all the different personas I inhabited, ready to do whatever I wanted. "Keyboard, please." Io projected the keys and I cocked my arms up to create right angles at the elbows so my fingers hovered just above the hologram. >You are saying 'please,' Daniel.< "Yeah? So?" >This is not your usual method of communicating with me. I conclude that you are subconsciously trying to assuage guilt.< "Maybe so," I said, typing a message onto the holographic keys. It read: OATS AND COFFEE NEVER LET ME DOWN, ESPECIALLY AFTER A RUN. GOOD SIGN FOR A GREAT DAY. All my cohorts in the grid love to read about the seemingly mundane. It lets us all know that life is continuing on as usual.
"Send that out, please," I said, catching myself as I finished sounding out the 'S'. "I mean... just... send it out. Punk." >Sent.< "Any good comments yet?" >27 and climbing. Would you like to comment as well?< "Sure." >Initiating auto-dialogue.< >I am making mildly pithy remarks.< "Good. Don't let it get out of hand. I don't want to look too cheery." I raised my fingertips up to the holographic screen and began manipulating the different windows to organize the morning's information. News up there, checking in on friends over there, paying a couple of bills down here, ordering more oatmeal in that corner, fishing for new customers in a window behind the one where I monitored my vital signs. Just another regular morning.
>You are receiving a call, Daniel.< "Show me." Io projected the new window. I couldn't believe what I saw. She was just beautiful. Not in the high-gloss fakery style so popular in entertainment these days. And not in that old, classical, sculpted-movie-star-look, either, with the pre-formed, molded hair and stop-sign-red lips. When I say she was just
beautiful, I mean it in the literal sense. All she was? Was naturally, purely, unscrubbed, unattended beauty. So why was she calling me? Had to be a wrong number. Still… I glanced at the window that showed myself to the world. I did not like what looked back at me. It was not my best face. "Io. Light." Io clicked on a nearby lamp and softened the harsh lines of shadow and ghostly holographic illumination that were laying across my face. The reds and yellows of the hologram showcased the brown of my hair, and the angle made its spikiness less melodramatic. I reached into the hologram and grabbed a randomly blinking stock ticker icon. I threw it into the bottom of the projection and started it. As it scrolled across the bottom, it created sparkling glints that played across the browns of my irises, giving me an air of... mischief? Devil-may-care suaveness? Rakish charm? Whatever it was, it looked pretty darn happening. >Do you wish to answer the call?< "Go ahead, Io." The window with the beautiful woman grew larger in my field of vision. Her giant blue eyes looked at nothing in particular. >Connected.< Her eyes snapped to the camera and she straightened--ever so slightly--her posture. Lifted that delicate chin one micron higher. She was paying attention to me.
She smiled, an unforced glow. "Daniel Patton?" she said. I tried to look as at-ease as I could manage, but I knew I was botching it. "Yes?" I said, popping an eyebrow. Good heavens? Did my voice really sound that whiny and childish? "My name is Ivy Neptune, and I represent the Lower American Warehouse. According to our records, it seems like we might owe you some money." "Really?" I said. My eyebrow was still popped. >Checking. Search query 'Ivy Neptune.'< "Yes, Mr. Patton. According to our records, we have leased a property from you and have not yet paid this year's annual premium." "Really." I brought the eyebrow down. She was pretty, sure, but I didn't need Io to tell me this wasn't on the level. >Search completed.< >Her comments do indeed correspond with my internal records, Daniel.< Then why don't I remember her? Or this Lower American Warehouse? "Yes, Mr. Patton. And if the address we have on file is correct," she said. "I happen to be in your area at the moment. I can deliver your payment in person. That is, if you're able to welcome me." She blinked several times, not unlike someone ironically batting her eyelashes at me. >Facial analysis predicts an 87% chance she is being truthful.< My address showed up along the bottom of her window. "Is this where you live, Mr. Patton?"
"That's the place," I said. And then, though something told me not to, I followed it with, "Come on over."
Ten minutes of frantic tidying (and three seconds of throwing on my Boston Red Sox cap to minimize the roundness of my face) later, the chime of the doorbell dinged and donged its merry way through the living room. >Your visitor has arrived.< "Oh, is that what that was?" I said. "I thought the gnomes inside the walls were calling everyone to come to church." >The sarcasm of your tone indicates nervousness, Daniel. Shall I adjust the atmosphere to make it more calming?< That was not a bad idea. Sometimes Io could be pretty smart. "Actually, yes." I strode to the front door, suddenly noticing a fragrance of lavender and lime peeking through the normal staleness of my living room. I grasped the doorknob and peered through the peephole. She was definitely out there. >My thermal sensors indicate she is alone.< Good gravy, she was even beautiful through that distorted fisheye lens. "Unlock the door, Io." If I could see my own face, I know exactly what it would look like. Sucker. I opened the door myself, trying to swing it open casually and mostly succeeding. And there she was. In person. Looking oddly different than she had during our call ten minutes ago or through the peephole four seconds ago. She was still easy on the
eyes, but here, in person, more down-to-earth. Perhaps it was her demure stature or the simplicity of her clothes. She wore a t-shirt, leatherprene jacket, pants, and boots, all of them made out of black fabric and right angles. But she didn't look tough or slick. She looked... smart. Intelligent. I glanced into her eyes and felt she was already miles ahead of me. She tucked a lock of her long, straight brown hair behind her right ear. "Daniel?" she said. "That's me." She offered her right hand in greeting. I took it in my own and gave it a solitary pump. "I'm Ivy Neptune," she said. "Can I come in?" >Facial scans and voiceprint analysis indicate she is inclined to be enamored with you, Daniel.< I let go of her hand and stepped aside to give her passage. "Sure thing." She stepped over the threshold and I closed the door behind her, inhaling the scent of wildflowers from her hair. I am one lucky sucker. "Wow," she said, entering the living room, "it smells nice in here." She strolled into the center of the room and did a slow 360-degree turn, her eyes flitting up and down, left and right, surveying. I wished I had cooler furniture, not this ancient, early 2000s junk I'd bought at a thrift store the day I'd moved out of my parents' house. It'd always just done the trick for me. I'd never thought of being embarrassed about it. Until now.
"Your home is very," her voice trailed off, the way you do when you're searching for a way to be honest without hurting someone's feelings. "Quaint," was the best she could come up with. Ivy turned and walked into the adjacent dining room, the back of her head dancing around as she presumably surveyed that room, too. She reached down to the table and gently lifted the dust jacket from the astronomy book I'd been reading earlier. "You still have books?" Her eyes swiveled from the book and locked on to mine. What was going on in there? "I like antiques," I said. She smiled for a split-second. "Cute." She glanced into the kitchen, but apparently nothing was in there that she cared about, because she sauntered back into the living room, the thudding of her thick-soled boots going from sharp to dull as she stepped onto my well-worn rug, face to face with me. Ivy cocked her head to the side slightly, almost imperceptibly. Slowly, with immense control, she panned my entire body with her eyes. >Your body temperature is rising slightly, Daniel. I assume her examination is off-putting? Shall I modify the temperature accordingly?< "That'll be fine," I said. Ivy's gaze broke off, and she blinked twice. "Sorry," she said. "I guess I got a little lost there. You don't exactly look like I expected. A little," her voice trailed off again, "rounder." I reflexively put my hand to the dough in my midsection that I often attempted to shape into a stomach.
"I've been running," I said. "I've lost, like, twenty pounds in the last couple of months." >Actually, Daniel, you've lost 12.4 pounds, or 5.62454539 kilograms.< "Maybe fifteen," I said. This time, Ivy smiled, and the smile stayed, and I wanted to stand there and gape at that smile for the rest of my life. But she just said, "Okay, Daniel. Now. About the reason I'm here." She was a head shorter than me--and I'm no towering inferno myself--but her selfconfidence put her on a equal footing with me. Okay, I'm lying. It was David versus Goliath, and I forgot my slingshot. Ivy reached into her jacket pocket and produced a short, stout, metal rod, about six inches long, with a single button in the middle. "I'm here to give you this," she said, holding it up. I reached forward to take it with my right hand. "You have to hold it on both ends," she said. I adjusted the angle of my right hand and brought up my left hand parallel. The motion reminded me of eating ears of corn when I was a kid. My hands were just within reach when Ivy pressed the button with her thumb. Cords of blue light whipped out from the ends and around my wrists. Except they weren't light; they were some type of forcefield. "What's this?" I said, cocking my head. >The device appears to be a new model of handcuffs.< Ivy narrowed her eyes at me. "You're under arrest."
I barely registered what she was saying as all my attention went to the intense... not pain, exactly... but weirdness in my wrists. I instinctively tried to wrench myself free from the iron grip of blue-banded light, but I found I couldn't move my arms at all. Couldn't bend my elbows. Couldn't flex my shoulders. I tried to protest, but I couldn't open my mouth. Couldn't turn my head. I suddenly realized the awful truth: I was completely immobilized. I closed my eyes (at least my eyelids worked) and focused on what I could do. I felt myself breathing. I swallowed. Tongue and throat still worked. I somehow managed to maintain my balance, even though I couldn't feel myself shifting on my feet, performing those endless tiny muscular movements that help us stay upright. Ivy's clear treble voice rang out, "All right. Let's get a move on." Without warning, my left foot lifted from the floor and stepped forward. My right followed suit, and, completely against my will, I walked. Right out my front door. >This is certainly unexpected.< I unwillingly marched down my front steps, down the walkway, over to the driveway where Ivy's car, a nondescript white sedan, sat. The passenger side door opened, seemingly on its own, and I found myself bending down and climbing into the seat. >Fascinating. I'm showing that you are experiencing some sort of external muscle paralysis. However, your vital signs are perfectly normal. Since you cannot give me voice commands, I am locking down your residence and newly encrypting all data.<
"Whoops, I almost forgot," Ivy said, pouring herself into the driver's seat. She reached behind my head. "You won't be needing this." I felt a dull, faraway sensation in my ear, like someone trying to tickle you through an oversized parka. >Goodbye, Daniel.< Io's voice was faint. "Don't worry," she said, pocketing the sliver of plastic. "I'll keep him safe for you." Ivy laid her fingers on the steering wheel. "Start," she said, and all the exterior light streaming through windows rapidly faded to black. A holographic image sprang from the steering console, setting Ivy's face afire with red, orange, pink, green, and purple hues. She studied the hologram a moment, reached into it and pointed with her delicate index finger, and said, "Reverse." My weight shifted slightly, the only indication I had that we'd started moving. Then I realized my eyes hurt from straining to see all that Ivy was doing, so I shut them and silently hoped I wasn't going to die. "You're in big trouble, Daniel," Ivy said. "Made a lot of people pretty upset." She drew out the "o" sound in "lot," making it musical. I wanted to say something smart, or witty, or cunning, or charming, but I couldn't speak at all. Probably for the best. “And those people," Ivy continued, "hired me to bring you to them." She reached over and took my chin in her hand, gently twisting my head so I was facing her. I opened my eyes and fell into hers.
"You're gonna pay, darlin'," she said. "And it won't be pretty." Ivy flipped my head back around to face the window. Well, where the window would be, if it wasn't blacked out. There was my reflection, backlit by Ivy's holographic display and warped by the curvature of the glass. I looked like a criminal. There was a delicate sound, half chime, half whistle, and then Ivy spoke again, but not to me. "I have him," she said, "and am en route." She paused for a moment, listening. "No, he was remarkably easy to subdue," she said, then paused again. I squinted to try to see her reflection in the dark glass, but all I could make out was ambient light and her distorted profile. Yep, still beautiful. I am such a geek. She's hauling me off to God-knows-where, talking about how easily I was subdued, leaving me literally petrified, and I'm still obsessed. I looked myself in my oddly shaped eyes. Come on, man! Pull yourself together. "We should be arriving in, say, point-oh-two-two revolutions," she said, apparently communicating with someone using some baffling jargon. I wished I could shake my head in resignation. I was so very, very doomed. "Roger that," she said. "I'll contact you when we're almost there." I heard another chime-whistle, this one lower in pitch, and then: "Okay, Daniel, I think he bought it. We're in the clear."
I felt her hand underneath my chin and involuntarily closed my eyes as the interior of the car spun before them.
"Sorry to be so rough with you," she said, "but I didn't want my boss to get suspicious." There was a snapping sound in front of my face. From her fingers. Snapping. "You still with me, Dan?" I opened my eyes and found myself looking directly into Ivy's eyes, those bright blue planets shining gloriously even in the dim light. "Blink once for yes, twice for no." Blink. "Great," she said, smiling. "So, okay. Sorry for the big show, but you never know who might be watching during a pickup. But now it's just us." I felt my arms being lifted up and my light-bound wrists rose into my field of vision briefly before lowering and revealing Ivy once more. "I want to take these off you, but I need to know I can trust you. Can I?" Blink! "You're not going to try anything stupid?" Blink! Blink! "All right." Her eyes flitted down and the cabin got just a little less blue. It was the perfect opportunity to make my move.
Unfortunately, I was unable to seize that opportunity. "You may have some residual paralysis," Ivy said. "It'll wear off in a few minutes. In the meantime, I could use your help. I've looked at your file and I've been watching you. You have skills I need. I've kind of gotten myself in a jam, and I was hoping you
could get me out. Figured you knew how to talk your way into great gain; maybe you could talk my way out of great... pain." She flashed a wincing smile. "Sorry. Lame joke." "Mmt's mmkay." "Hey, you're getting some feeling back! Wait just a minute longer and then you can talk." "Mm." "So," she said, shifting around in the car to face me directly, lowering her chin and raising her eyebrows. "Will you help me?" Those clear blue eyes, visible even through the murkiness of the car's interior, twinkling with multi-colored reflections. I couldn't resist them. So I closed my own. It was like hitting a pause button on my life. What was the safest play here? How could I get out of this and still be alive? Surely she was up to something. Surely she was playing me for some sort of fool, laying on the cutesy come-ons. So, what happens if I resist and say no? She takes me on to whatever "not pretty" destiny awaits. And if I say yes? Who knows what could happen? Could be worse, even. But it could be better. And now that my mind had its say, I tried to turn it off and listen instead to my gut. The little man in there? He knows all. The little man sent a little message to my little brain. "Go for it," it said. Seemed to be the best chance of wiggling out of this. I opened my eyes, then managed to open my mouth. The next sound I heard was a voice very similar to my own croaking out the words, "What's in it for me?"
Ivy laughed, and not in a merry way. It wasn't cruel, but... well, she wasn't watching a standup comedy routine. "What isn't?" she said. "Huh?" I said. I am not eloquent sometimes. "What isn't in it for you?" She chuckled again, this time more politely. "What else are you gonna do? Let me run you in?" "You're just asking me so nicely," I said. "Well, darlin'," Ivy said, "here's what's in it for you: you get to avoid certain death-like punishments, at least for a little while." I widened my eyes slightly, waiting for her to add something a little peppier to the deal. She didn't. "The end," she said. I wondered how fast we were moving. It didn't feel like we were on a highway or anything. Could I just throw the door open and jump out? Could my body handle that? And what would I do about Io? I couldn't leave the poor guy behind. He was expensive. Ivy's eyes flitted up to the corner of the car's cabin, as if she was listening to something. "Don't even think about it," she said. "You'd never survive." "Survive what?" I said. "Trying to bust out of this vehicle while we're en route. It's impossible." "Yeah, I bet," I said. She was bluffing so hard she could be a canyon. "Seriously," she said. "You wouldn't survive, and neither would I. So don't think about it." "Wait--you wouldn't survive, either?" I said. "Why not?"
"Show him," Ivy said, not to me, apparently. The light from the dashboard faded; the windows lost their blackness and turned transparent. It wasn't residual paralysis that kept me rooted to my seat. It was glorious, awestruck fear. All I could see, all around me, all around us, was the blackness of space.
"Where d’you plan on going?" Ivy asked. "Unless you like hanging out in a whole lot of nothing." I leaned back, into the seat, pressing my suddenly very heavy cranium into the headrest. Was I dreaming? Was this actually happening to me? Was this even possible? We'd certainly come a long way in space travel over the past few decades, but we were nowhere near this. I was in a car, for crying out loud! "It's a lot to handle, I know," Ivy said. "A lot to handle?" I said, normalcy gradually making its way back into my voice. "This is impossible." “It used to be impossible," she said. "But not anymore." I refused to let myself panic. That would really, really be uncool. "So where are we going?" I said. "That's up to you, darlin'," she said. "We're headed to the Kuiper belt right now. But you say the word, and it's back to Earth." Well, that decision pretty much made itself, didn't it? Back to Earth it would be. Except, wait: "Did you just say the Kuiper Belt?" "Mm-hmm." "That's impossible," I said.
"Yeah, you keep saying that." "No, I mean--it'd be impossible to get there anytime soon. It's too far away." "And yet you've been selling real estate within it," she said, with both a disapproving air and a conspiratorial wink. She's very talented. "Because that 'real estate' is just a bunch of bullroar," I said. "No one's getting out there to claim it." "Mm-hmm," she said. "Right." “They can't claim it, because it would take years to get there!" "Yeah. Exactly." She was so patronizing it almost made me not love her anymore. "So..." I trailed off, realizing I had no more to say. I couldn't talk my way out of this one. If I started to cry, would that damage my chances with her? Or would she feel sorry for me? Okay, okay: what do I want here? What's the best course of action? I took a deep breath, in through my nose, out through my mouth. Before I'd emptied my lungs, I knew what needed to happen. "I'll help you out," I said. "Great!" Ivy said, reaching out and playfully punching my chin. "Reverse course," she said, and immediately the dashboard lit up. "Plot new coordinates," she said. Then she rattled off four numbers that I couldn't make out. Wait. Four numbers. Why did that seem wrong? "Hey," I said, "since I'm helping you, can I ask one small favor?" "Shoot." "Can I get my computer back? I'm kinda lost without him."
"Oh, sure thing," she said, reaching to retrieve Io. "In fact, you'll probably need it." She found the little nugget of plastic and handed it to me. I installed Io back into his rightful place in my ear and clicked him on. >Did I miss anything?<
Blackness. Not the blackness of space, but sheer, enveloping, candle-snuffing blackness. A shroud of heavy velvet on my consciousness. Slowly, light trickles in at the corners of my awareness. Muted ocean waves come crashing into my eardrums. A crisp saltiness wedges into my nostrils. A breeze on my cheeks, as gentle as dandelion fluff. Slowly, the light congeals into something solid. Blue. Are my eyes open? Am I standing or sitting? Am I even alive? A dark spot enters into my patch of blue light, and my brain fights to make sense of it. >You are awake now, Daniel?< I accomplish it. The blue patch is the sky; the dark spot is a bird flying overhead. >You appear to be orienting yourself well.< "Where am I? What happened?" "You're in Los Angeles." Ivy's voice. Suddenly, her face--hallelujah, that face--roared into view, just inches from mine. "You okay there, Cowboy?" she said. "You just kinda fell down." "I think so," I said.
"Why are you asking where you are?" "Because I don't know where I am," I said. "Well, I didn't. Until..." Wait--what'd she say? "Los Angeles?" "Yeah," Ivy said. "At the beach, actually." She looked off into the distance and pointed. I rolled my head over in the same direction, and that's when I realized I was lying on my back, in the sand, on the beach. I realized it because I saw the water from the Pacific Ocean crashing onto the sand that I was lying on. Probably thirty feet away. I felt a small pressure on my back and realized Ivy was helping me to a sitting position, and it'd be nice of me to do my part. I slid my elbows back and, between the two of us, I got up. And that's when my head exploded. >I am detecting a severe headache, Daniel. Is this accurate?< "Yeah," I grunted. >I am running diagnostics but cannot seem to determine a cause.< "Too bad." "What, you don't like the beach?" Ivy asked. "How did I get here?" I said, opening my eyes as much as the pain in my head would allow. >We traveled via Ivy's vehicle, first through space, then into a low Earth orbit, then into the atmosphere, then here.< "I brought you," Ivy said. "Remember? Our agreement?" "I don't."
"Wait," she said, a look of dawning recognition in her eyes. "What's the last thing you remember?" "Getting Io back. In your... car, or whatever that is." "Ah, makes sense," she said. "What with the paralysis, and then the time curvature." She trailed off. "You're not used to it." "Used to what?" "Look around, Dan," she said, gesturing to nothing in particular. "Notice anything?" The pain had begun to subside in my head, enough to survey my surroundings. Beach. Birds. A few people. There was a street near the beach, with cars— Wait. Those were... cars? Every vehicle was gigantic and boxy. Giant pods of metal on wheels. I looked back at the people. In addition to being tan, everyone was clean-cut and modest. "What in the world?" I asked. "Am I out of the loop or does this look... old?" "It is old, Dan," Ivy said. >This is the year 1955.<
I couldn't help it. I burst out into a raucous, boisterous laugh. That kind of laugh where your cheeks hurt. That kind of laugh where you have to hold your sides. That kind of laugh where you really might pee your pants. >Is everything all right, Daniel?< There I was, on the sand, curled up in a fetal position. From laughter. This was just too absurd. 1955? Give me a break.
"Danny?" Ivy said, lightly laying her electric fingertips on my shoulder. "You okay?" I was finally able to subdue my quaking body and tame the involuntary spasms of chuckle. After a few false starts peppered with guffaws, I finally managed to stammer out, "I'm fine." "What hit you there?" I leaned back on my elbows and let the warmth of the sun calm me down. "It's just so ridiculous," I said. "1955?" “Yes, Danny." >All my assessments indicate that she is telling the truth.< "Come on," I said. "What, you don't believe me?" Ivy said, standing up and offering a hand down to me. I reached up, grasped her hand, and let her pull me to a standing position. "Time travel?" I said. "Yes." "What are you trying to pull?" "What's that supposed to mean?" she said, and not in the way that makes you contemplate how adorable she is. "I mean," I said, "that's pretty farfetched." "Do you want me to go get a... a..." her eyes glazed over and she flipped her wrists around as she thought. Then the light: "A newspaper?" "No, I--"
"'Cause that'll have the date on it, you know," she said. I threw my hands up in the air. "It's fine," I said. What's her game? What is she trying to pull? "I believe you," I said. "I believe that we have traveled back over a hundred years into the past and that then is now." >Daniel, she is telling you the truth.< "You don't have to be sarcastic about it," Ivy said. "You'll see soon enough." She gestured to a sidewalk and we set out for it.
"So what are we doing back here, in the past?" I said. "We're here because you agreed to do something for me." "I did, that's true," I said. "Which is what, exactly?" "You're going to talk to someone for me, and get him to change his mind about something, and then you'll fix everything." "Change his mind?" "Yes." "And then everything will be fixed." "Mm-hmm." "Because then the future will be changed." "Now you're getting it," she said, rewarding my intelligent questioning with a broad smile. "I don't think it works that way," I said. "I've seen that movie before." Ivy flashed me a wink. "I know."
"So who is this guy we're going to see?" I said. "An old friend of mine," she replied. "That's not mysterious at all," I said. "And it isn't in the least bit obvious. Of course he's an old friend--he's a hundred years old!" A symphonic melody of laughter poured forth from her honeyed larynx. It was so beautiful it made me think with lofty vocabulary. "Oh, the things you don't know," she said, trailing off like an all-knowing, battleweary mother scorning her little child. I felt both chagrined and delighted. I'm pretty good at multi-tasking. "What about the things I don't know?" I said. "Oh, nothing," she said, gesturing wide and incidentally brushing my arm with the back of her hand. "They could just fill... the universe." And then she laughed again. A laugh like... a big… laugh. It was now having the opposite effect on me. "Well," I said, regaining composure as her melodic trills died away, "why don't you shrink that universe a bit and tell me this guy's name." "His name is Charles," she said. "There. Happy?" I would've been happier if she hadn't suddenly stopped and thrust her arm out sideways. I wasn't prepared and walked right into it. It felt like walking full-force into a stair banister, or one of those fiberglass bars that go across the entrances to parking lots. The point is: it hurt. "Ow!" I said. "What was that about?"
"Sorry," she said. Then she pointed to a nondescript second-floor apartment. "We're here." I say “nondescript” because there really was absolutely nothing memorable about it at all. Just your standard apartment building. I wish there was more to say about it, but its almost as if it had a mutant superpower to render it completely forgettable. I looked around for a buzzer panel, figuring we'd need to ring dear Charles ahead of time to let us in. Plus I wanted to know his last name. Then I remembered we were in a kindler, gentler age. This thought occurred to me when Ivy simply opened the door and walked in. The interior was as forgettable as the soda cracker that passed for an exterior. The whole building seemed sculpted out of vanilla frosting. Ivy located a staircase and we ascended the steps to the second floor. She paused. Cocked her head. Continued to the third floor. We were greeted by a long hallway of doors, doors, and more doors. Just a straight corridor with a paneled, wooden door every few feet. "Do you know where you're going?" I asked. "Of course," Ivy said. "I always know where I'm going." She pointed down the hall. "There." I followed her lead because, well, what else would I do? She kind of had me on the ropes, here. You know. 'Cause of the 1955 thing. I didn't really want her to take off and leave me stuck at the soda fountain. Ivy strode confidently down the hallway; I followed closely behind, striding, yes, but with less confidence and more meekness.
"Here we are," she said, suddenly stopping. She pointed to the door, which, in addition to a great supply of cheap lacquer, also held a cheap brass plate with "AA2" stamped lazily into it. "Apartment A-A-2," Ivy said. "Just the place." "You think Charles is home?" I said, hoping he wouldn't be. She flashed me another wink. She should really consider filing those with the patent office. "He always is," she said. And then she knocked.
Nothing happened. We just stood there, in the eerie quiet. I strained to hear the shuffling of footsteps beyond the door. Nada. >Thermal scanning indicates there is a human life form present in this residence. If it is this Charles person, he was in motion before the knock, and upon hearing it, he suddenly ceased motion. The logical progression would indicate that he does not want to be heard. I suspect our presence is unwelcome.< Ivy knocked again, this time harder, and with her fist. "Come on, Charles," she said. "I know you're in there." >He remains immobile.< Ivy pounded again. "Charles? It's Ivy. You know what that means, don't you?" >Charles's heartbeat has just increased rather rapidly.<
"Charles, I'm coming in there one way or the other. If you don't let me in, you're not going to your deposit back on this front door." >Charles is now moving toward us. I suspect he has made the correct decision.< Seconds later I heard the dull scratch of a metal latch being undone, and then the door swung open quietly. You know how doors make noises when they open? Hinges squeak, jambs creak, that sort of thing? This one did nothing. For some reason, that really weirded me out. The door swung wide to reveal a smallish, bug-eyed gentleman who looked disheveled, like he'd just rolled out of bed. A bed he kept under a rock. A rock he kept in an old pair of sneakers. Sneakers which he stowed in the crawlspace of a derelict house. It's impossible to offer details of what I could only assume was a person underneath the stale odor of cigarettes and bug spray, but here are the highlights: dingy bathrobe; stringy, greasy, matted brown hair, red-rimmed eyes, unlit cigarette behind ear, dress socks, bottle of Pepto-Bismol in left hand; shot glass in right; three days' worth of patchy beard. "Charles Tannen?" Ivy said, "This is Daniel Patton." Charles extended his hand, remembered the shot glass, pocketed it in his bathrobe, then re-extended his hand. "Charmed," he said in a voice that sounded like the worm in the bottom of a bottle of tequila. I forced myself to shake his hand and not shudder at the clamminess of his palm. "Hey." "Daniel," Ivy said, "Charles is going to help you change history." "Help me?" I said.
"Yes," Ivy said slowly, shooting me a warning look. "Who else would help you with that?" "Of course I'll help you," Charles said, mercifully letting go of my hand. "I'm a writer." I couldn't help but laugh--again--at the ridiculousness of it all. I tried to stifle it, but the guffaw exploded through my closed lips and out my nose in an extremely unattractive manner. "What," said Charles, "I don't look like a writer to you?" "No, no," Ivy said, nonchalantly gripping my arm and pulling me into the hovel. Charles backed away to allow us clearance. "He's just sick." "Oh," said Charles, "let me pour him a shot of..." his voice trailed off as he considered the contents of his hands. I was through with my giggling fit and had regained my composure, though my nostrils burned slightly. "No need," I said. "I'm better." "Great!" Charles said. The apartment was bare except for a plush, natty sofa and a striking mahogany coffee table that did not in any way resemble their owner. Charles gestured toward the sofa. "Have a seat?" We accepted and seated ourselves on the crushed purple velvet. "So," Charles said, "how can I help you?" I had no idea. Ivy sprang this on me last-minute and now I was fishing for words. This was a new feeling for me. "I. I--" I said eloquently. "Daniel," Ivy said, "is writing a screenplay."
Charles's eyes lit up and his mouth spread into a wide, Cheshire-cat smile. "Excellent!" he said. "My specialty!" "Mine too," I said. It was not. "Have you written anything I've seen before?" Charles asked. "I love pictures." "Daniel is working on his first one," Ivy said, "but there are a lot of people interested in it." "Oh really?" Charles said. "You know, I've done quite a bit of work myself. Still waiting on that first big success, but..." Ivy turned to me. "Charles is writing an alien invasion picture." She patted Charles on the knee. "Aren't you, Charlie?" Charles's eyes got even wider. "I am, I am," he said. "It's gonna be huge. Everyone wants them these days, you know." I narrowed my eyes involuntarily as my brain suddenly snapped to. I had found a thread and decided to follow it. "Yeah," I said, "everyone's nuts over The Day the Earth Stood Still still." "Yes!" Charles said. "Isn't it crazy? Intelligent beings from outer space? Gimme a break!" "I know!" I said, glancing sideways at Ivy. "What a crock!" She smiled and nodded. Go on. "I mean, I know we're supposed to tell tall tales out here in Hollywood," I said, "but at least ground 'em in reality, you know?" "I couldn't agree more," Charles said. "But alien invasion--that's what the studios want now, so that's what I'm trying to give 'em."
"Well," I said, "I think they'll change their tune when they see what I've got up my sleeve." "Do tell," Charles said. I leaned back on the sofa, stretched my legs out, and rested the heels of my anachronistic sneakers on the hardwood floors. "Two words," I said. "Underground invasion." Charles got still. Very still. I'd be lying if I didn't say his jaw dropped a millimeter or two. "I love it!" Charles said. "Instead of the aliens coming from above, they come from below!" "Something like that, yeah," I said. "Just think of all the possibilities!" Ivy said. "Like..." here she faltered, unable to conjure even one of these supposed possibilities. Which was great for me, since I got to be the hero and rescue her. "Like a super-advanced race that has been evolving at the earth's core," I said. "Yes!" Charles said. "And they can come up in giant silver suits that generate the heat they're used to at the center of the earth!" "And instead of destroying major landmarks with death rays," I said, you can have them being heaved up from below!" "I know I'd pay good money to see that," Charles said. "See?" Ivy said. "It practically writes itself."
"What a fantastic idea," Charles said, eyes alight with desire. Then his shoulders stooped a few noticeable degrees. "Really... great." He looked down as if he was suddenly very interested in the physics of crushed velvet. Ivy looked at me with a mischievous smile. She gave me a thumbs-up and mouthed the words, "Well done." Then, with the Empathy knob cranked to eleven, she said, "Charles?" He grumbled unintelligibly. "Everything okay, Chuck?" she said, laying a hand on his shoulder. He shrugged. "I just wish I had ideas like that," he said through barely moving lips. "What?" Ivy said. Charles stood up in a huff. "I want to make my mark; do something different," he said. "That's a perfect idea. I just wish it was mine." Ivy shot me a glance. Now. "Dude," I said. "It's yours." "Really?!" Charles said, looking like a nine-year-old boy who was just told he could run the bases at Fenway Park. And then get ice cream. "Sure thing," I said. "I got other ideas." "This is fantastic!" Charles said. Without standing up, he leaned over and gave me an awkward half-embrace, using only one arm. His hair smelled like moldy oranges. Fortunately, the hug was over as quickly as it began, and before I knew it we were all following Ivy's lead as she stood up.
"Okay, Charles," she said. "Daniel and I have some more meetings this afternoon, so we'd best get going." "Sure, sure." Charles said, enthusiastically grasping Ivy's hand and shaking it. "So nice of you to come by." "See ya, Chuck," she said, extricating her hand from his and heading for the door. "Yeah," I said. "Take care, pal. And treat that story right, okay?" "Oh, you can count on me!" With a wave from Ivy and a reciprocated one from Charles, we were out the door and closer to some well-needed fresh air. When we got outside, Ivy whirled suddenly, took me by the shoulders, peered deeply into my eyes, and said, "Thankyouthankyouthankyou!" I was too puzzled by the gusher of thanks to be overly entranced by those eyes of hers. "Thank you for what?" "We just changed everything," she said, "and I couldn't have done it without you." "Changed everything?" I said. "I don't really see how." "Daniel, come on. That was brilliant!" "Brilliant." "Yes!" "Seriously? Brilliant?" I didn't know it was possible for her eyes to open any wider. "Yes!” "All I did was convince the guy to change the premise of his movie,” I said. “And it wasn't even a good premise. And also, when was the last time a movie changed the course of history?"
"Daniel, what you told him was irrelevant--all you needed to do was dissuade him from his alien invasion movie." "What, you don't like the genre?" I said. "As a matter of fact," Ivy said, adopting a look that made me feel like I just got detention in third grade, "I don't." "Well," I said, "I'm happy to have accommodated your tastes next time you go to the theater." I looked around. Oh yeah, we're in the 1950s. "Or drive-in.” I drew in a big lungful of ocean air, the briny scent pleasantly scalding my nose. It made me homesick. "Speaking of drive-ins," I said. "Where'd you park the car? I'm ready to go home." "Not so fast, cowboy," Ivy said. "You aren't done yet." "What?!" I said. "But we had a deal!" Ivy's face broke into a pleasant sunrise that doubled as a smile. "Yeah, I'm just kidding." She pointed her thumb down the street. "Let's get going!" she said. Ivy set out at a brisk trot down the street, and I adjusted my pace to keep up. >I am not certain she is being honest with you, Daniel.< "What?" I said. "And where've you been this whole time?" >You have not addressed me. I did not see a need to offer my input until now.< "What's that?" Ivy said, speaking at the same time Io chirped in my ear. "I've been here the whole time." "Not you," I said, tapping my ear. "I'm talking to my robot sidekick." "Ah," Ivy said. "Carry on." "So, what were you saying there, Io?" I said.
>Facial scans and thermal imaging indicate that she is not being honest with you. My logic sensors show she might be hiding something.< "Are you serious?" >This would be a poor time for me to be humorously deceptive.< We rounded a bend in the road, where Ivy stepped up to a car that looked nothing like the one we'd come in. She opened her door. "Get in," she said, jerking her head toward the passenger side. "This a rental?" I said. "No, it's my car," Ivy said in a tone that added a parenthetical "Duh, stupid" to the end of the sentence. "But I--" >In this instance, she is being truthful. Let me show you.< For a handful of seconds, Io sprang to life, projecting his screen into my field of vision. >Adding holographic filter now.< The projection took on a reddish hue, becoming simply a square of light in front of my face. All the surrounding vehicles in my field of view remained the same, but this car suddenly took on the appearance of the sedan that Ivy had driven to my house originally. That felt like months ago now. As soon as I registered what was going on, Io clicked off his projection.
So, what to do? Ivy was hiding something, but here was my only ticket back home. Should I get in and hope for the best? Or should I make a run for it, grease my hair back, and settle for a career as a jukebox repairman? Decisions, decisions...
I got in. >I agree.< Ivy was already well ensconced behind the wheel by the time I closed my door. "Let's get a move on, cowboy," she said. "I don't have all day." "This is a time machine," I said. "You have all eternity." Ivy narrowed her eyes and shook her fist at me playfully. "Why I oughta..." That was as far as she got, though. Soon we were under way, simply driving down the street. "Boy, you really saved my bacon back there," Ivy said. "Yeah, how exactly is that?" I asked. "Well, see," Ivy said, staring intently at the road, "before we came, Charles was all set to write an alien invasion movie." "Okay..." "I mean, there've already been a few by this time, but, well, his was going to revolutionize the genre." "Anything I've heard of?" I said. "Probably not," Ivy said. "His script never got made. But it got seen all over town, and ripped off over and over."
"Why's that?" I asked. "Because it's great!" Ivy said. "Really great." My head started to hurt. "But if it's so great, why do you want him not to write it?" Ivy exhaled long and slow. "Because he got the idea from me, and I wasn't supposed to give it to him." Now my head was really starting to hurt. "So, wait," I said. "You've been here before, and gave him a great idea for a movie?" "Yep." "But now you don't want him to have that idea any more?" “Nope.” “Why?” "Because I slipped up. I didn't know it would catch on as well as it did," she said. Under her breath, she continued: "Ruin everything." "So a bunch of people copied his stuff," I said. "It probably happens all the time. Big deal." "You aren't getting it, Daniel," Ivy said. "For the next hundred or so years, movie after movie is made with the same story: aliens invade." "Yeah," I said. "What's wrong with that? Harmless enough." "It's not!" Ivy said. "It messes everything up! It makes humanity consistently aware and resilient! It strengthens your resolve!" "My resolve?" I said. Major pain in my head now. I shifted in my seat to face her. "What resolve?"
"It means you people actually fight back," Ivy said. "when we invade you."
I had nothing to say. Not because I couldn't think of anything, but because I thought of too many things. I couldn't decide on the right one; the wheel of responses was spinning far too quickly. Plus, my head was really hurting now. Like a giant was giving it a big hug. And that's when I realized I was going to black out. Just as Ivy said, "You won't tell anyone I said that, will you?"
The first thing I noticed was the sweet chirp of birds. Then came a leafy rasp, wind tousling trees. Then a smell, a pleasantly earthy musk. I reflexively took a deep breath, inhaling the delightful scent. My eyelids felt warm, and I started to notice that I was prone again, the hardness of flat ground pressing against my back. >Welcome back, Daniel.< "You passed out again." Ivy's voice filtered unfettered through my perfect ears. I reached my hands up to rub my eyes, then opened them, only to shut them quickly when they were bashed by a baseball bat called sunshine. I groaned. >This method of travel is not conducive to you, Daniel. Biologically speaking.< "You really gotta stop this, Danny-boy," Ivy said. "I can't keep carting you around." After many tries and failed connections between my brain and my mouth, I managed to stammer out a question. "Where are we this time?" "You really don't remember?" Ivy said.
"I really don't," I said. "Should I?" "Look around," she said. "See if it rings any bells." I managed to open my eyes enough to take in my surroundings. Verdant hills dotted with tall trees. The blue in the sky was so brilliant it would soon be heading off to grad school. To teach. No signs of civilization anywhere. It was just plain old countryside. "The country?" I said. "You say that like you don't recognize it," Ivy said. "That's 'cause I don't." "Well," Ivy said, reaching down to take my wrist and hoist me to a standing position, "'the country' is putting it mildly." As I rose, my head tried to shatter into a million pieces, but with some serious willpower and a few mental curse words, I kept it together. "So," I managed to say, "would you care to be more specific?" "Can't you tell?" she said. "Doesn't this place speak to a part of your soul?" I shook my head. My soul had received no such transmissions. "Daniel," Ivy said, smiling. "This is England!" "England," I said. Not asking, just affirming. She nodded. >She is correct. As far as the first three coordinates of spacetime are concerned.< The first three coordinates of spacetime? "Ivy," I said, "setting aside the fact that we're in England instead of my driveway..." I started getting a headache. "Yes?"
"When are we?" Ivy cast her glance downward. "I'm not sure, exactly," she said. >It appears to be circa 1540.< I sat back down in a movement as graceful as a highway embankment being hit by a cement truck. Driven by Gerald Ford. There is no accurate way to describe the turmoil in my mind, my heart, my emotions. Actually, there is: think of all three of those things being in between the embankment and the cement truck. I don't know how I kept it together. No tears, no anguished wailing, no rending of garments or "Khaaaaaan!"s directed skyward. Just me, hanging my head, my eyes as blank as the blue screen of death. I love those antique computers. "You... okay?" Ivy said, kneeling down and gently laying a hand on my shoulder. I just let it sit there for a moment before I blinked the rainbow pinwheel out of my gaze and settled it on her. "What. The heck. Is going. On?" "Well," she said, "I think you're feeling a little disoriented from our recent travels, and—" "No!" I said, shrugging her hand off my shoulder. "First you have me stop some movie being made, and then you tell me you're invading earth, and then you bring me here, to England in the 16th century, and I'm the one with the problem?!" "I never said you—"
"You never said anything! You're talking in riddles and half-facts, and just when you say something interesting, I wake up flat on my back in a new time zone! This is getting old!" I had locked my eyes on hers now, and for the first time since I'd met Ivy, I was immune to the tractor-beam quality of those baby blues. Something in them told me that made her afraid of me. And intrigued. Which makes two of us, I suppose. "So what do you want from me?" she said. "Answers!" She looked around, the way you do when you're scouting out the best table at a crowded restaurant. Except we were in an open field. Then she folded her legs underneath her in some complicated and graceful maneuver until she was seated directly across from me. "Okay," she said. "I can give you some answers." She stared directly at me. "But I have to be quick about it." "Okay," I said. "Why?" "Do you want answers or not?" "I do," I said. "I really do." I studied her cute little upended nose. "The first thing I want to know is: why do you have to be so fast?" "Because they're coming, Daniel," she said, "and we have to be in a position to stop them." "They're coming," I said. "Who's coming?" "Some people I know." "Aliens?"
She narrowed her eyes, thinking. "Not really," she said. I didn't say anything. Just sat there and waited for her to close off whatever ellipsis was in her head. My strategy paid off, because after a few long seconds, she started back up. "We're still human," she said. "Still?" "Yeah. We're human and everything. We're just not from here." She made a quick circle with her index finger. "Not anymore, anyway. We were, awhile ago." She scratched her chin absent-mindedly. "But not anymore." "Well, I'm not really from here, either," I said. "Not the 1500s, or wherever we are." "Right!" she said. "So you and me, right now? We're the same." "You're from the future, just like me?" "Yes." "Let me guess, though," I said. "You're from *farther* into the future than I am." "Now you're getting it," she said, her eyes and smile simultaneously coming alive, intensifying each other into supernovae. "So why come back?" I said. "Are you trying to change the past in order to change the future? Have a better life or something?" "That's precisely it," she said. "But why? What went wrong?" She paused a moment, then sighed. "I knew this one was coming," she said under her breath. "Thought I'd be ready."
Uh oh. "Daniel, you know how you've been selling off Trans-Neptunian Objects?" "Uh..." "Well, that's where I come from," she said. "Except not right now. And not in your time, either." "Okay..." "And you made a lot of people mad when we discovered what you were doing." "Why, exactly?" "Because," she said, "you've been selling our homes out from underneath us." I'd always heard that phrase where people say "my blood ran cold," but I'd never experienced it until that moment. Numbness overtook my entire being, and I literally felt the blood rushing out of my face, surely leaving it an ashen stump. "What?" I managed to whisper. "Whatever you've been doing," Ivy said, "has been working." "But," I said, not thinking about how I was going to finish the sentence. My tongue tripped over my brain and fell flat. Ivy cocked her head and looked me dead in the eyes. "Let me ask you this: where'd you get the idea to start selling those objects?" My mind was freefalling through the various connotations of all she was saying, but on the way down, it couldn't come up with an answer. "I honestly don't know," I said. "It just came to me." "Hmm," she said, cutting it off tersely at the end. "Interesting." She narrowed her eyes. "Daniel," she continued, "in your very near future, someone that you sold a Trans-
Neptunian Object is going to believe you, is going to believe that whatever paperwork you gave them is real, and will take a trip to their new property." She folded her arms. "And that will make things very difficult for us." "Why?" I managed to eke out. She gathered a breath, preparing to explain something that sounded like it would be long-winded. She didn't get any words out, though. Or maybe she did. I wouldn't have been able to hear them over the deafening crack that split through the sky, sounding like thunder being shot out of a cannon in the midst of an exploding star. Ivy whipped her head around in the direction of the sound, looking skyward. "Hold that thought," she said. "They're here."
Without another word, Ivy grabbed my hand and began running toward the sound. Seeing that I was firmly in the grasp of a person who was running, I also began running. We covered the terrain surprisingly fast, the springy, rolling grass making for easy propulsion. We ran up a low, rising hill, topped by a single oak tree and the seemingly never-ending blue of the sky. As we crested the rise, we were met by a steep-by-contrast downward slope. Without pause, Ivy continued down. As I came over the hill, I first noticed the steep grade that would become my immediate future. Beyond that, I saw a magnificent fortress. It was constructed of earth and brick, smaller than a castle but still impressive. People-like forms were swarming inside and around it. It was still off in the distance, maybe four or five hundred yards away, but even from where we were I could see random flashes of light. Some red, some blue, some
orange. As we got closer, I began to separate the colors from their sources. The red and blue flashes appeared to emanate from some sort of handheld weapon, wielded by those outside the fortress. The orange flashes came from weapons being used by the people inside. We got closer and closer, gaining ground far more rapidly than I anticipated was even possible. And why was I not out of breath? That question would have to wait for another time. We were close enough now that I could see details. The orange flashes were reflections of sunlight off highly polished shields and swords. The red and blue lights were muzzle flashes from pistols firing laser bolts. Lasers vs. swords? Come on. A blue bolt crackled just past my ear, sizzling as it went by, singing my already short hair. Okay. Lasers vs. swords it is.
"Ivy!" I said, "What are we doing?" "We're changing history again!" she said, reaching into her jacket. "Oh!" I said. Even though my legs were quickly turning up earth as I ran down the hill, I kicked myself for sounding so cloddish. We reached the fortress and found a blazing-hot battle already in progress. The English... knights, I guess? ...were in fine form. Sure, let's call them knights. They were battling well, their highly burnished shields actually absorbing the blasts from the lasers.
The interlopers were obviously not ready for such resistance and just kept firing away. A few of the knights were slashing at the bolts, and one of them, in full and shining armor, made swinging contact with the blue beam of light and sent it--reflected it, really-into the wall. The stone exploded from the heat of the bolt, and the shooters, all dressed in militaristic black uniforms--looking like cavities in the surrounding greenery, like the landscape had forgotten to brush-- yelled and started firing at the fortress walls instead of at the knights. Ivy found what she was looking for in her jacket, Crouching down behind a wall, she produced two grey cylinders that fit neatly in her palm. She handed one to me. "Here," she said. "Point it at the bad guys and push the button." Without any further tutorial, she stood up and started shooting. I stood up to see what these things were. Death ray? Stun gun? Taser? Brain scrambler? Magic wand? A crackle of green energy left the cylinder in Ivy's hand and spurted haphazardly toward one of the black-suited pistoleers. The energy leapt out like a poison-green whip and enveloped the soldier. Instantly, he disappeared. Ivy wasted no time, firing again and again, taking out two more of the soldiers. "Help me out here!" she said, firing once more. I gave the cylinder in my hand a quick once-over. Grey, not much to it. A small black button on one side. Seemed easy enough. I held it at arms' length with both hands, aimed as best I could, and pushed the button.
The green energy sped from my weapon with no recoil, but I had aimed poorly and instead it struck a knight. Who remained unscathed. "That's okay," Ivy said. "Not bad for a first try. Just don't hit me!" She got a couple more. "Or yourself!" The soldiers had finally wised up to what was happening and took cover behind some of the rubble their own weapons had created. They began firing directly at us. A blue bolt sizzled into the wall inches from me, evaporating it into a thick cloud of dust pebbles. "Try again!" Ivy said, pointing and shooting as quickly as her cylinder would allow her. She was obviously well-versed in its language. I tried again and landed a direct hit on the soldier who had clogged my nose with wall dust. I coughed. It went on like this for what seemed an eternity, the two sets of combatants exchanging fire. I hit the bad guys mostly, but occasionally hit a good guy and saw nothing happen. He wouldn't even notice it. The battle started dying down. The soldiers were no match for the way we were thinning their ranks. It finally got quiet enough for me to ask, "Why don't the knights disappear?" "What?" "When I shoot the knights with my gun, they stay here," I said. "Why is that?" "Because that's not a gun," Ivy said. "It's a time machine. It sends anything back to the time where it belongs."
I stopped. Almost all the soldiers were gone now, and the melee had settled to a mere happening. Sends anything back to the time where it belongs? I didn't hesitate. I looked down, stared down into the black, empty hole of my cylinder, closed my eyes, and pushed the button.
My senses were invaded by the color green, penetrating through my sealed eyelids to envelop me. For a second, my body pulsated with green energy, and then... nothing. I opened my eyes and saw desolation. Nothing but the empty, brown husk of a formerly verdant land. Flat, ridged brown. Burnt-out land. An unappealing, retchinducing pie crust of earth, stretching out in all directions. The brown was made all the more appalling by the thick yellow haze that hung in the air, noxious toxicity made visible. I had been instinctively holding my breath since pushing the button, and I didn't dare let it out now. I still held the cylinder. I pointed it at myself once more and pushed the button, hoping, willing it to send me back to the fight. All it offered was a dull click. As my senses awoke to my new situation, I began to feel warmth on my skin, quickly intensifying from pleasant to uncomfortable to painful. Through the fumes I glimpsed the sun, enormous and hanging high in the noonday sky. Scorching me even through my clothes, my hair.
Where had this thing sent me? I had to find out. I wanted to know where--and when--I was going to die. I spun around, searching for a tree or overhanging rock--something to provide shade from the torturous rays of the sun. But there was nothing. There was just the featureless landscape, notable only for its lack of distinction. Remarkably bland. My skin was already pink, on its way to red, every nerve on fire. My lungs countered with a burn of their own. I closed my eyes and let despair climb on my back, heavy enough to bend my knees and force me to the ground. My mind was paralyzed by the choice of which would kill me more quickly: the sun or the air? Would it be worse to burn to death or to be choked out by unbreathable air? Should I let them work in tandem and end it all the sooner? The despair was pushed back momentarily by a flash of green hope. The intensity of the burn went away. Shade passed over my closed eyes. My nerves screamed in fear as something heavy laid upon them, and then there was another green flash. Dark. “Breathe," came the voice. Ivy's voice. I obeyed. And then went to sleep.
>Daniel. It is now time to revive.< "Daniel?" >Daniel. Wake up.< "Come on, Danny Boy. You've been unconscious long enough."
The first thing I noticed when I opened my eyes was the light. Artificially white and eerily dim and indirect. Focus came quickly and I saw a flat, even space above me. A ceiling. >Do not try to move, Daniel.< "Hey there, cowboy," came Ivy's voice, soothing and maternal. "That was a close one." "Where am I?" I asked, clumsily pushing the words through my parched throat and out my mouth, where they landed inches away. "What's that?" Ivy said, suddenly entering my field of vision, turning her ear to listen. "Where am I?" I repeated. "Oh!" she said, turning to face me and lighting up the room naturally and directly with her smile. "You're in the hospital." "No," I croaked, speech coming more easily now. "Where am I?" Her eyebrows wrinkled in confusion. "Just a regular hospital, Daniel." I tried to pivot my body, to lean forward, to make a physical connection with Ivy to help her understand, but my body shrieked with pain at the slightest motion. I cried out, and the instant the sound left my lips, Ivy's countenance went from confusion to worry. >Do not try to move, Daniel.< "Danny boy, it'd be best if you just laid still," Ivy said. "You're pretty badly burned." "What happened?"
"I told you not to shoot either of us. There was a reason for that, Daniel." "It was supposed to send me home. Back to my life." She absentmindedly wiped at her eyes, the way a parent does when they're talking with a petulant child. "No," she said. "It sends you back to wherever you're from." I stared at her, trying to figure her out, searching for a way this all made sense. "Daniel," she said, "it wasn't going to send you back to your old life, because that life is not really where you're from." She gestured around. "You're from here." So where was here? >I have no algorithm for calculating this distance into the future.<
What really sucks is that, when you want to pass out, you don't. I was just done with all this nonsense. I was done with pain, with jumping around from time to time, with all the unknowns. I was tired of blacking out unexpectedly and waking up flat on my back with Ivy leaning over me and Io saying strange things in my ear. I was exhausted, burned, and completely unsure of where I was and who I was, and so the bliss of unconsciousness sounded nice. But my consciousness refused to un-itself, so I was stuck in a strange, white room with this beguiling woman and a robot sidekick. Which led me to do the next best thing: Fake it. I closed my eyes, let my head loll back, and slowed my breathing. It wouldn't fool Io, but it might give me a moment's peace at least. "Daniel," Ivy said, "I know you're faking it." >On the exterior, you’re very convincing.<
I opened my eyes again and looked into hers. "What?" "You were just faking it. Just now." I tried to continue my ruse. "Did you say something? I didn't hear..." "Come on, cowboy. You can't fool me." Ivy leaned in closer and narrowed her eyes mischievously. "A mother can tell." My eyes popped wide open. "What, exactly, do you mean?" I said. Ivy leaned over to square her face with mine and looked deeply into my eyes. "I can tell when you're faking," she said. "Son." >I did not predict this course of events.< The honesty poured out of her eyes and into mine, and I believed her. For a moment. "You're my mother," I said. She nodded slowly. >Her vital signs and my facial recognition software indicate she is being truthful, Daniel.< "Then why are we the same age?" I said. "Why do I remember my parents? How come you found me in 2060 and not in... whatever time this is?" She took my hand in hers and stroked it gently. "Peace," she said. "All will be explained to you." "When?" I said, raising my voice in frustration. "When will you stop being so enigmatic and vague and start giving me the total truth?" She cocked her mouth into a half-smile. "How about now?"
Ivy punched a button and the back of my hospital bed began raising me to a sitting position. Then she carefully adjusted my legs, moving them to one side of the bed, creating an empty space where she could sit down. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as if to gather her thoughts, then opened them, looked into mine, and told me this story: "I was young," she said. "That much you should know. Only about 16 Earth-years old. Your father was the same age. We were just friends who got carried away one night-and yes, these things happen out here beyond Neptune, just as much as they do on Earth." She took another deep breath, the mists of regret passing in front of her eyes. Of course we didn't plan on..." she gestured to me, "you. I don't suppose anyone does, but you can't fight biology. I told him I was pregnant and he told me how excited he was, and then, a couple of days later, he disappeared. I still don't know where. And honestly, I don't really care. It was for the best. We would've been terrible parents. "I didn't know where to turn. I had a promising future as a programmer and had a better rapport with my computer," here she tapped her ear, than with any human being-your father excepted. His absence left me so... alone." She heaved a great sigh and her eyes drifted away, as if she was looking for a cue card or teleprompter to tell her what to say next. "And then it was my computer who helped me find a solution," she continued. "She hacked into the government mainframe and made a discovery." "The invasion?" I asked. She nodded. "She discovered their plans for the invasion, for the retroactive cultural awareness, for the repeated takeover attempts... she discovered it all and
downloaded it discreetly into my mind. And then I knew where you could go, what you could do." "You decided to send me back to the past," I said. "It seemed like the best idea," she said. "You could live a long life, unaware of your true nature, of the prison you'd escaped." I looked around and took in the ultra-white room, with its distinct lack of features. "This doesn't look so bad. A little boring, but--" Ivy cut me off. "You haven't seen the rest of it," she said. "You wouldn't want to grow up here. Trust me." I took her at her word. For the moment. "I meant to send you far, far back," she said. "As far back as we can reach, but these things aren't always exact. After I'd given birth, I was so, so proud of you. You were absolutely perfect. Quiet, healthy. Gorgeous. I didn't have much money, and the banks here are too secure to hack into or steal from, so I sent you as far back as I could afford." "It costs money?" I said. "Not if you're government," Ivy said. "But for back-alley time-travel? Absolutely. I'd been saving up as long as I could, and I wanted to save a little longer, but I knew the more I waited, the more I'd bond with you. I didn't want to take that time away from the people who would raise you, so I just used the money I had and hoped it would be enough." "So you just... what, zapped me or something?" I said.
“I took you to an unauthorized time-travel office where, yes, they sent you to the year you were born. I had enough to send you to 1800s, but I chose to upgrade three things. One, I had to send you not just back in time, but also to Earth. Two, I wanted to send you to the United States, because that's where my ancestors are from. And three, I had them put a tracker on you so I could find you if I ever needed to." "Which you just used," I said. She nodded. "So, I got shot back to Earth," I said, "on, like, a beam of light or whatever, and just happen to wind up where I wound up? Why didn't you send me to George and Martha Kent's farm while you were at it?" She took my hand and chuckled. "Oh, Daniel," she said. "Who do you think came up with that story?" "So why did you decide to come find me?" I said. "I didn't," Ivy said. "I was sent." "Sent?" I said. "By whom?" And yes, I really did say "whom," because I paid attention in English class. Ivy took a deep, quiet breath, as if saving up enough air to unwind a long story. "Our government," she said, "doesn't like you. "It's my fault, really. I sent you to a time and place where technology could converge with your instincts and point you this direction. "It only makes sense that you would want to reconnect with your home," she said. She absentmindedly drew a circle in the air with her forefinger. "Out here."
"Wait," I said, "are you saying that... wait. Okay. Uh..." All right, maybe I *had* dozed off a time or two in English. "Daniel," Ivy said, "you started selling Trans-Neptunian Objects because that's where you're from. It's your psyche trying to come home." "So," I said, "in trying to get back here, I wound up breaking some law of yours?" "Yes." "And that's why you came back to fetch me?" "Right." "Because your government is mad that I sold some of their territory out from under them." "Exactly," she said, smiling. "You've been paying attention!" "And they sent you because you're my mother." She cocked her head. "Actually, no," she said. "They sent me because I volunteered for it. Even in the government version, time travel can be a little tricky, so they tend to let the newer employees go through with it." She was new at this? "You're new at this?" I said. She nodded vigorously. "Oh yes," she said. "I've only been in this line of work for about a week." "What've you been doing in the years since I was born?" She smiled again, and I noticed her smiles had stopped being so magnetic and had taken on a maternal warmth. "I guess I forgot to mention," she said. "I gave birth to you ten days ago."
The klaxon blare of an alarm shot through my brain, rendering any ability I had to process Ivy's newest revelation. The lights began to pulsate in brightness, creating a tremolo strobe effect on her face, making it difficult to see her instant panic. "No!" she said, gripping my wrist. Her panic was now contagious, spreading from her whitening fingers into my bloodstream. "What'd I do?" "They know you're here!" Her eyes danced back and forth, looking at nothing, telling me her brain was running like a hamster wheel. Then her eyes snapped forward and looked deeply into mine. "Danny," she said, "you have to leave." Too many questions flooded my mind, and all I could force out of my mouth was one word: “Where?” "Anywhere but here," she said. "If they find you, they'll kill you for sure." CLANG! A sudden noise on the other side of the wall. Or the door. I couldn't tell anymore, not in my state, with the alarm and the light. Ivy's eyes went wide. "They're here!" She put her finger to her ear, swabbed the inside, and then held it out to me. On it was a silver disc, about the size of a shirt button. "Take this," she said. I hesitated. "But it's from your ear," I said. "And I don't have a glass of water to wash it down." She smiled. "It's jokes like that that have gotten you in trouble out here." She reached over and placed it cleanly in my left ear.
I smiled back, despite the invasion of personal space. I probably shouldn't be too mad about it, though, what with her being my mom. "You good?" she said. I nodded my head, while, at the same time, a voice spoke in my ear: || I am ready. || >It appears we have company, Daniel. An advanced version of my own circuitry, as far as my scans can devise.< Great. Two voices in my head now. Ivy looked into my eyes. "I love you, son," she said. "Remember that." I nodded. "I... love you, too?" I think? "Mom?" The corner of her mouth turned up in a wry smile, and then she said, "Go." I was just about to ask where again when I heard: || Sequence begun. Departing. || And then I fell.
I didn't pitch forward, nor did my foot slip on a banana peel and send me reeling backward. I fell into the bed. Through the bed? I can't really describe it other than to say it felt as if nothingness had appeared beneath me and I began a cord-free bungee jump. Into the bed. Despite the sudden lurching of my stomachular area, I was very aware of what was happening. I looked around, took it all in. It was shimmering blackness, like I was surrounded by a sequined curtain or an undulating mamba.
A circle of light, rimmed in green, quickly receded above my head into nothingness, and then all was curtained mamba. "Io? Any ideas?" >You appear to be falling.< "So no, then?" || I have initiated the escape sequence at my master's request. || "Okay," I said. "And where am I escaping to?" || It will reveal itself at the appropriate time. || "Appropriate time?" I said. "Is this more time travel stuff? Because that's really starting to get on my nerves." Also, it was a little far-fetched. But I wasn't going to tell that to the computer in my ear that had just ripped a hole into the unknown. || Sequence complete. || And just like that, it was over. I was suddenly standing on firm ground, looking around. And around. And around. "Oh boy."
I saw myself. And myself. And myself. And, yet again, myself. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me... You get the idea. It felt like I was surrounded by an army of myselves. I stood motionless, taking it all in, worried that I was about to attack me. I felt something behind me, but I didn't want to take my eyes off me. I didn't trust myselves.
Unfortunately, the tension was unbearable, and the presence behind me so strong, that I just had to take a quick peek. I turned my head. There had to be thousands of me, stretching as far as I could see, and every single one of me turned their head away in unison with me. I had just enough time to notice this out of the corner of my eye when I locked on the presence I'd felt behind me. Another army of me, this time turning around to face me as I faced them. No way around it: I was surrounded. I froze. They just stared at me, doing nothing. I really creeped myself out. Slowly, I kept turning until I'd done a complete circle and was back the direction I'd started. And no matter where I turned, the army turned to face me. Puzzling. A bead of sweat trickled down my forehead and into my right eye. Involuntarily, I reached up my hand to brush it out. Every one of me facing me did the same thing. I froze again, then leaned in closer. They reciprocated. It hit me, and I laughed. And so did the army of me, chortling in perfect concert with my own guffaws. I wasn't in danger from an army of people. I was surrounded by thousands--millions, probably--of mirrors. "Mirrors?" I said. >They appear to be so. However, I cannot ascertain their purpose.< "Can you scan them, Io? Figure it out for me?"
>I have scanned them since we arrived. Their purpose is incalculable beyond my capacity.< "Great," I said, in a voice that was the opposite of chipper. I took a few tentative steps forward on the ground, which was a flat, soul-dead grey color, spongy underneath my feet. I chose one of the mirrors at random for closer inspection. Its border was not framed--it simply ended at sharp right angles. I slowly circumnavigated it and discovered, as I approached its side, that it was extremely thin— so thin it practically disappeared. >It appears to have no depth at all. This is a two-dimensional object.< I snorted out an onomatopoeia of acknowledgment and kept walking. The mirror had no back—instead, it was more mirror, reflecting me with extremely high definition. It was so clear and sharp it was as if I was really looking at myself, not a two-dimensional representation of me. I reached out my hand to touch it. || You would regret such an action. || Oh yeah! Her. Ivy's computer. I'd forgotten about it. "Why's that," I asked. || This is not a mirror. It is a dimensional portal. || "Oh," I said. "Well. That explains everything." || I am advanced enough to recognize your sarcasm. Do you wish clarification?|| Smart mouth. And it didn't even have a mouth. "Yes." || These portals are the results of your decisions. Each one represents a choice you have made at some time in your life. || "All my choices?"
|| That is correct. || "So... where I went to college or who I dated?" || Correct. || "Or any time I decided on a whim to get a burrito for lunch instead of a the taco platter?" || Also correct. || I gestured toward the portals. "Those are all here." || Yes. || "So... where am I, exactly?" || You are standing outside the universe. Each decision you made spawned a separate universe that ran parallel to the first. Here, you are outside all those universes. You can now see into each of them. And join them. || "You mean I can walk into one of these portals...?" || ...and resume that life, yes. || "And if I don't want to?" || This universe will cease to exist, and you along with it. || "Io, what do you think?" >I cannot think, Daniel.< "You know what I mean." >My scanners are not functioning in the exterior environment, but the probability is high that the situation is as stated.< Okay, then. Tough choice. And how would I even know which one of these mirror portals to choose? I stared into the eyes of my nearest self, trying to figure out
what to ask the all-knowing voice in my ear, when something clicked in my brain. I knew that guy. I knew what had happened to him, where his life was at this point in... time? Slowly, his memories became mine, and the reality of all those mirrored portals began to slip into non-reality. This version of me had decided to stay put on top of that medieval hill, instead of charging down it with Ivy. He had stayed while Ivy finished her mission and left without him. Now he was camping out in a lush forest, happily living off the land. Except "he" was seeming more like "me" every second. Who was I? Where was I? What makes me an "I" anyway? I closed my eyes, and my other, original memories came flooding back. I flicked my eyes around, taking in the multitude of mirror portals, taking care not to make eye contact with myself too long. The task was too big, the choices too numerous. How could I make a rational decision? Was there even a right choice? "How am I supposed to do this?" I pleaded. "Where should I go?" || You are responsible for the choice. I cannot choose for you. || My mind started crowding with thousands, millions of different memories. Was I reaching out to myself? Had my panic called out to me? Barely comprehensible flashes of past decisions whipped through my mind faster than light speed. A lie told here, a truth told there; going to bed at 9:00 one night, going to bed at 8:59 another night. All the millions of tiny decisions I'd made throughout my life, all of them creeping into my mind. Every turn of a car, every article of clothing, every shave, every scratch... all of it was there at once, all of it demanding analysis.
My head was going to explode, and there was nothing I could do about it.
And then, miraculously, in the midst of my intense panic, there settled a warmglass-of-milk kind of serenity. It quickly spread through my mind, calming everything it touched, until my brain was cozy and collected. I knew what to do. "Will I remember anything?" || Yes. You will carry all your memories with you through the portal. || That settled it. I knew where to go. There was no right choice--only the choices in front of me. One foot in front of the other, just like always. Instead of being paralyzed by the thousands of choices, I just had to pick one and keep going. Might as well pick one that made sense. I took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then exhaled. Then I reached up to my ear, hooked my finger into it, dug out Ivy's computer, and tossed it to the ground. Wouldn't be needing it. I searched the portals, but didn't really need to. Now that I'd made my choice, I subconsciously walked straight to the one I needed. "All right, Io," I said. "This is it." For once, he was speechless. I walked up to the portal, sized up my reflection, and jumped. I expected some sort of loud zap, or flash of light, or weird stretching of my body, but all I got was a quick blink and then the breathtaking cold that accompanies a morning run in January. I was back. There was a chime in my ear, and I knew it would be a client calling about 1999 RZ215. I will call off the deal, and he'll probably be mad, but so what.
And after that? I'll just keep going, keep moving forward, and see where life takes me. One choice at a time.