Guy usually thought of himself as a ‘code monkey’. He enjoyed his job well enough, although at review time he often got handed ‘improvement plans’ for his bad attitude.
He wasn’t bitter, but in his darker moments he told himself he had reason to be. If it’s true we only have one great idea in our lives, then Stalker was Guy’s. A first-person shooter for phone or tablet, it used the camera and painted in bad guys as the user moved around, making it look like serial killers lurked behind bushes or shower curtains. Frighteningly real, an instant hit, and Guy looked set to make millions.
Except his lawyer had monkeyed very creatively with his contracts. Said lawyer was now living in Key West, sipping Mai Tais on the verandah of his mega-beachhouse. While Guy lived in a small apartment furnished in post-modern cardboard box cheap.
When at home Guy sometimes dialed into the office network to log overtime, but mostly he played Doom. Not Doom II or III or Ultimate Doom or player-altered versions, but the classic. He figured he held the world record for getting through Doom. He’d refined his skill until he could get through all the levels and out the back side in 47 minutes. Flat.
On this particular evening he was preparing to challenge that personal best. His home-built, optimized Game Monster pc was fired up and ready. This was the moment he loved best, when the air was full of possibilities. He felt the rush, the tingling in his fingers that told him this would be a record-breaker. He was gonna break 46 minutes this time, he knew it.
A knock at the door. Damn. He ignored it.
Another knock. He ignored it more sternly. The only people who came to his door were Jehovah’s Witnesses and canvassers.
A third, more insistent knock. Double-damn. He could feel the tingle draining from his hands. The moment was gone. With a deep sigh he got up and crossed the floor. He passed the ‘dining area’ with its flimsy card table, strewn with comic books and pizza boxes. He opened the door and saw himself on the other side. He yelped and slammed the door shut, pressing his back against it.
“Come on. I know it’s hard,” said a voice through the door. His voice.
Guy snuck a peek through the peephole. He mumbled incoherently and flattened against the door again, as if holding off a mob.
Another knock. “Look, I’m you. You’re me. Why would I hurt you?”
Taken by the logic, Guy slowly opened the door. He stepped back, slowly, his mouth open. This had to be a dream.
The other version of himself sauntered into the room and sat down at the table. “Close the door and come sit down,” the other ‘Guy’ said. Alternate Guy, Guy decided.
Like a man in a dream, Guy did as he was bid.
“Now close your mouth.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” Alternate Guy said. “I’ve been there.” He looked appraisingly around the room. “It’s more fun on this side of the table.” Alternate Guy went to a kitchen cabinet, grabbing a bottle of whiskey. He took a glass off the counter, looked at it suspiciously, then shrugged. At the table he poured out a little and handed it to Guy. “Get that down. It’ll help. It sure helped me when I was sitting there.”
Without taking his eyes off his double, Guy downed it.
“So. Obviously I’m you,” Alternate Guy said. “Offset a bit. No, no, just let me talk. I’m going to show you where there’s a hidden cave. Inside you’ll find an alien time machine. I know, I know. Sounds nuts, but look at me. Here I am, from a year in the future.”
Guy poured himself another drink and slugged it back. Then he looked his double up and down. This second Guy wasn’t exactly the same. He looked better. Nice clothes, expensive haircut, tan, healthy. “Looks like I’m doing well up there,” he said, his voice a bit slurred now.
“Oh yes. We are,” Alternate Guy said. “Which is why I’m here. I’m going to live with you while you invest in certain stocks and make a killing. Then you go back in the time machine and become me.”
Guy reached for the bottle again.
“I think that’s enough,” Alternate Guy said, taking the bottle.
Alternate Guy strolled over to the couch and pulled a pad of paper out from under it.
“Hey,” Guy said, “I’ve been looking for that. How’d you know it was there?”
“Because last time I was you watching me do it.” He tossed the pad to Guy, then got a pencil from the kitchen. “Makes a hell of a demo, too. Believe me now, I bet. Write this down. These are the stocks you need to buy, starting tomorrow. National Teleconferencing, symbol is NTSC, you want to buy it at $29.97…”
A little later, Guy had a list of stock symbols and prices.
“Now, about the time machine,” Alternate Guy said. “It’s up in the hills. Looks pretty ancient. Here’s the operating instructions.” He pulled out an old, yellowed, much folded piece of paper and handed it to Guy.
“This is really faded,” Guy said. “I can’t make out half of it.”
“I think it’s a copy. You have to recopy it.”
Suddenly there was a loud banging on the door. They stared.
“No one came calling when I was me,” Alternate Guy said, a hint of accusation in his voice.
Guy tiptoed to the door and opened it a crack. An old derelict was standing there.
“Stupid bastard!” the man growled and pushed into the room. The resemblance was obvious.
“Holy crap,” Guy said, “you’re me too.”
“Don’t remind me,” Derelict Guy said. “It isn’t something I’m proud of.”
Guy turned back to Alternate Guy. “Hey–” but Alternate Guy had vanished. The evening was really not turning out the way he had planned it.
Derelict Guy stalked over to the table and grabbed a slice of cold pizza. Chomping loudly, he swung the yellowed paper around on the table and pointed to a spot on it. “See that?” he said.
Guy bent down to see it better. Derelict Guy smacked him on the back of the head.
“That’s an eight, you moron, not a six!”
“Ow!” Guy yelled. “What are you talking about?”
The old man pushed Guy’s head toward the paper. Guy pushed him off, glaring at him, then looked closely at the spot indicated.
“Looks like a six to me,” he said.
“I cannot believe you were me,” Derelict Guy said, pouring himself a tall drink.
“What are you talking about?”
“You typed the settings wrong, imbecile. You went too far back in time. I’ve been living on the street for years, waiting for tonight.” He knocked back the drink, poured another.
“Why?” Guy asked.
“Why the streets?”
“Where the hell else? I’m nobody here. When I dropped into this timeline you were ten years old. How’m I supposed to get a job? No papers, no job, no apartment, nothing.”
“Sorry, he says. Repeat after me: I am an idiot, and that is an eight.”
“Okay, you’ve made your point,” Guy said. “I won’t make that mistake.”
And Derelict Guy promptly faded away, having excised himself from the timeline. With a faint and fading “Oh, damn!” he was gone.
The whiskey glass dropped to the carpet. Guy picked it up and turned back to the table to find Alternate Guy back again, scrutinizing the instructions as if nothing had happened.
Guy stood with his mouth open for a moment. “I need another drink,” he said. He sat down wearily across from Alternate Guy. “I can’t make out half of that paper,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” Alternate Guy told him, “I did everything right, you’ll be fine. Just recopy it.”
“Yeah,” Guy said, “especially this bit. Looks like a six but it’s an eight.”
Alternate Guy peered at it. “Eight? Looks like a six to me.”
“Trust me, it’s an eight. What’s this smudge?”
“Sorry about that, mustard. Yeah, definitely recopy it.”
“What’s this bit?” Guy asked, pointing at a line of squiggles.
“Ah, that’s the combination for the lock. It’s a weird alien form of code; you have to hit these symbols, and in this order.”
“So I hit this spiral first?”
“No, no, that’s not a spiral,” Alternate Guy said, “it’s a starburst. Don’t hit that, it’ll set off the self-destruct.”
“You sure?” Guy asked, rapidly losing confidence in the whole scheme.
“Or maybe it’s the spiral that sets off the destruct? Lemme see…”
Alternate Guy turned over the sheet, squinting.
BANG BANG! A loud pounding on the door. The two versions of Guy looked at each other across the table. Before either could move, the door burst open. A battle-scarred, ferocious Warrior Guy burst into the room.
Guy leaped up, the glass flying from his hand. He barely registered the fact that Alternate Guy had vanished again before his entire attention was taken by the formidable laser death-ray mega-gun Warrior Guy was pointing at his head.
“Let me guess,” Guy said, starting to get the hang of messed-up timeline scenarios. “I hit the wrong button?”
“Got it in one, numbskull,” Warrior Guy said, in a too-many-cheap-cigars gravelly voice. He backed Guy against a wall, giant gun muzzle to his head. “You hit the self-destruct, took out the side of the hill, set fire to the city. Government thought it was a terrorist attack. Invaded the usual suspects. Next thing you know, goddam World War Three. Going on fifteen years now. Everything’s gone to hell because you pressed the wrong damn button. You know how long it took me to put the damn time machine back together?”
Guy screwed up his face, shut his eyes and whimpered. “I’ll press the spiral.”
“Starburst, you idiot!”
“Starburst, starburst, I’ll press the starburst!” Guy stood, squished against the wall, his face scrunched up, eyes closed, waiting for the worst.
“Spiral, you definitely press the spiral,” Alternate Guy said from across the room.
Guy opened his eyes one at a time, looking about with relief to see that Warrior Guy had vanished.
“What are you doing against the wall?”
Guy sat down heavily, and eyed Alternate Guy. “Starburst,” he said, head in his hands.
Alternate Guy looked at the paper skeptically. “Really?”
On another pad Guy studiously rewrote the operating instructions, realizing there was a bit more at stake than with the usual coding problems or his own personal future. “What’s this?” he asked, pointing.
“This squiggly glob that looks like an alien octopus.”
“I think that’s the time weevol modulator coil?” Alternate Guy twisted up his face.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, do you?” Guy said.
“No, not really.”
There was a crisp, polite knock at the door.
Guy opened it slowly, dreading to see what version of himself would be on the other side.
In walked a tall man, with a razor-sharp salt and pepper goatee and a dark, impeccably tailored suit. He reminded Guy of his erstwhile lawyer. Pausing in the entryway, he looked Guy over with some disdain.
“Hey,” Guy said, “you’re not me.”
The man sniffed faintly, went around him, and with an air of authority strode to the table and picked up the paper.
“Hey!” Alternate Guy yelled, trying to grab it back.
The man slapped Alternate Guy’s hand. He held up the paper, shaking a stern finger in their faces. “Confiscated!” he said, barely raising his voice. Then he tore the list of stocks and copy of the instructions off their pads, turned sharply on his heels and paced out, closing the door quietly but sternly behind him.
“But … but …” Guy said. He turned back to the table, mouth open.
Alternate Guy was gone. Guy looked sadly around the room, almost feeling the whoosh as the timeline healed itself. He slumped into a chair and put his head on the table.
All that money. A time machine. Gone.
Suddenly his head came up. He reached out, hooked the pads of paper and slowly drew them close. He peered at the pages below those that had been torn off, then started to gently rub the edge of a pencil over one of them, smiling.
“Got Time” © Lee Rutty. This is its first publication.
Lee Rutty is Canadian by birth. Currently he lives on the beautiful coast of Maine with his wife and three children. He has recently returned to writing after spending time away earning a living by more conventional means. His first novel is a post-apocalyptic horror story entitled Mad World, due out in 2018.
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