For the Present

Published by Lindsay Wardell on 12/06/2018

Note: This story touches briefly on suicide.


“It’s ready!” I hear from above, the shout of my mentor clear amidst the banging of hammers and stream of curses. I rise from my station, leaving the schematics and programming behind, to witness what has transpired. As I climb the spiral staircase, the shape of the capsule fills my vision. Standing atop its long roof, Professor Cornelius McAfee rests his hands on his hips, smiling wickedly.

“Are you sure?” I ask, disbelief creeping into my voice.

“Quite sure,” he responds, brushing locks of golden-gray hair from his brow. His eyes remain fixed on the capsule, as if the surrounding laboratory – parts, tools, computers, everything – has already faded into a distant past. The capsule itself doesn’t seem to notice the attention poured on it, remaining fixed in place as it is inspected by its creator, its copper hull reflecting brilliant light in all directions.

“Has the software finished compiling?” Professor Cornelius asks, his mind at last returning to the task at hand.

I nod. “Yes, professor,” I say, the moment drawing me in more than I expect. “Everything is ready to be loaded into the capsule’s memory.”

The man nods, staring once more into the surface of his invention. “Then I believe it’s time for a test.” He jumps from the roof of the capsule to the floor, landing gracefully on the platform below. “Proceed with uploading the program to memory. Set the target for five minutes.”

“Yes, professor.” I return to the staircase, my feet moving as fast as I dare. At the console, I enter the final commands for the target, then begin the upload. A bar appears on the screen, indicating the time remaining for the procedure. I force myself to take a breath – I hadn’t realized that I had stopped. Excitement swells at the thought of the first successful test.

The computer chirps when it is finished. “Ready!” I call out, my voice echoing through the lab. No reply came in return, typical for the professor. I double check the terminal, then return above to the landing pad. I reach the capsule in time to see the professor clamber inside, the bulky, almost comical suit concealing his body. While only a few stairs to the capsule’s entrance, the suit makes climbing much more difficult.

I run to the professor’s side, placing my hands on his arms to give leverage. With a grunt, the man raises into the capsule, offering no thanks. His voice rings through the chamber’s comm, “Seal the door. I’m in.”

I dutifully seal the door, swinging it shut with a loud, echoing thud. The platform shakes gently at the sound, jingling a series of screwdrivers that had been dropped earlier.

“Initializing the engine,” crackles the professor’s voice. A burst of static shocks my hand as I pull away from the capsule. Across its surface, tiny sparks cascade towards the platform. I move away, heading towards a viewing room. Its lead walls should protect me from any further harm.

“Engaging the thrusters.” A high-pitched whine bursts from the capsule’s innards. I cover my ears as I duck into the viewing chamber, slamming the door shut with a kick. Lowering my arms, I watch in awe as the entire frame of the capsule begins to glow a soft light. It’s working.

“Preparing for liftoff.” The whine reaches an apex, shaking the windows of the room and threatening my ear drums anew. The capsule is shaking now, bucking back and forth as if it were a bull throwing a rider. Not a sound more comes from the speakers. I begin to worry whether the professor has been shaken from his seat, but no – we prepared for this. Everything is ready.

At once, the sound stops. The shaking stops. The whining, unfortunately, does not, its pitch augmented by the absence of anything else. The capsule, eerily still, then appears to recede into the distance, as if it were traveling away at a great speed. It shrinks quickly, as if it were approaching a horizon line, yet never leaves the chamber – there are no exists here. A blue flash comes from the spot where it should be, then in an instant the light, the whine, and the capsule are gone.

It’s gone.

It worked.

I find a stool, knocked down during the chaos. I sit down, and begin to wait. A clock hangs from a nearby wall. I watch it idly, waiting for five minutes to pass. The lab is silent, a reminder of those former coworkers missing from this historic moment. The clock’s ticking fills my hearing, a pulse that has become familiar over the past years of experimentation. Now, in this moment, the value of those years is at stake.

Three minutes.

Four minutes.

Five.

With the stroke of the clock, the whining noise returns, bursting through the air with a vengeance. Not even the isolated chamber is safe this time. As I cover my ears, I turn to face the platform. There, in the center of the room, the blue light has returned, showing the room with an otherworldly light. A bang, then a crash, then the light grows brighter. I cover my eyes, allowing the screeching to reach me in return for shielding my vision.

And then, it stops.

I dare not look for a moment, too afraid of the results. Instead, I run a hand through my hair, nervously twirling the edges as I go. The room continues to shake, but much less than before. At last, I look, curiosity winning out over fear. Through the window, seated awkwardly on the platform, sits the capsule.

Its pristine copper surface is scarred, as if it had been placed in a fire. Burns and scratches are spread across its surface, following no obvious pattern. In many places, the metal has been rent away from the frame, revealing the more delicate materials within, but not quite reaching inside the capsule to its occupant. The hinges on the door are broken away, leaving the door merely resting inside its frame.

I run out of the chamber, heading towards the door. I try to pry it loose from its position, but its no use; whatever took place welded the door to its frame.

“Amanda, are you there?” Professor McAfee’s voice seems ragged, harsh. What happened inside, I wonder?

I move to the closest intercom. “I’m here, professor.”

“What happened? What did you see?”

I take a deep breath. He’s alive. I begin to explain, with as much detail as I can in the moment, what took place from my position. The professor remains silent, only his breathing audible as I relate what happened.

I finish my report. The professor is still silent. What happened to him? What happened inside? Is it rude to ask?

“Then it worked,” he finally said, breathless.

“Yes, professor,” I agree. “It worked. You traveled in time.”

The next hour goes by too fast to remember. I help the professor out of the capsule, admiring the scarred surface of the machine. His face is ashen, his eyes filled with thoughts and reflection. He says nothing, merely ensuring that all is well in the lab. At last, when he is seated in our makeshift break room, coffee in hand, he looks at me and says, “I saw something.”

I lean in closer, my hair falling over my shoulders. “Yes?” I ask hesitantly.

He sips his coffee, then sets in on the table. “It was midday,” he said. “My instruments confirmed that the capsule had not moved in relation to the Earth, yet all around me was a forest. Strange creatures moved about, such as I had never seen. The trees were different, as well, with massive trunks and leaves of the deepest greens.”

He pauses, reaching for his coffee again. Something is troubling him, I can tell. “What else did you see?” I prompt him, wishing that I had been there.

He sighs. “It was what I didn’t see,” he whispered. He sips his coffee again. “No buildings. No roads. No sidewalks. No people. There was not a man or woman within my sight. I checked my instruments three times to be sure I had not moved. The entire city was gone, without a trace.”

I frown. “Perhaps the city was destroyed in an earthquake, and not rebuilt?”

“Perhaps.” He sips his coffee again. “I scanned the skies for any satellites. Nothing. Not a single one. I don’t know for certain how far I went into the future, but one thing is for certain: an advanced human civilization was not present.”

He sets down his cup, rises from his chair, begins to pace the room. “All my work, all my life, I’ve sought to secure mankind’s place in the universe,” he muses. “Now, I know for certain that I have failed.”

“Professor, no,” I say, but he waves me off. I know better than to keep trying. His steps keep rhythm with the clock, tapping in uncanny unison.

He sighs. “I’ll take care of closing the lab today. You go on home.”

“Yes, professor.” I gather my things, then leave. I see the professor standing just outside the capsule, staring at it, coffee in hand. I hope he’ll be all right.

The train ride home is uneventful. Those around me stare into their phones or tablets, or talk softly among each other. None of what they say reaches my ears. I reach my stop, exit the train, then walk the short distance to my apartment. My key enters the lock, but before I can turn it, the door swings open. Behind it, the smiling faces of my two children greet me.

“Mom! You’re home!” Thomas cries, grabbing my hand. He pulls me into the room, while calling out my presence to the rest of the apartment.

“Did he do it? Did he?” Sofia asks next to him, keeping a safe distance as I stagger into the room under Thomas’ pull. “Did the professor go to the future?”

I smile, pushing my hair out of my eyes with my free hand. “Hold on, you too!” I say. I set down my bag as my wife comes in. She kisses me on the cheek. I smile wider. “I missed you,” I say to her.

“I missed you too,” she says. I can see in her eyes the same question Sofia was asking. I nod. Her eyes open wide, excitement and anticipation overflowing. “All right, you two, settle down. It’s time for dinner.”

We had already planned for dinner to be takeout tonight. A new pizzeria had opened recently, and Thomas had begged us to try it. Mandy had already placed it on a serving plate in the center of the table. Smaller plates are handed out, along with a knife and fork for Sofia. Before I’m peppered with questions, I ask the children about their day at school.

“Come on, mom!” Thomas answers. “We learned the same boring stuff we always do!”

“Yeah, tell us about your day!” Sofia chimes in.

I try to dissuade them, my cooling pizza taunting me. At last, I give up. I tell them about the morning of preparations, the triple checks, ensuring that every single variable was accounted for. I describe the scene as Professor McAfee climbed into the capsule, and the sight of it vanishing into the event horizon. Their eyes fill with wonder as I try to describe such an impossible thing. Then, I tell them about the capsule’s return, and helping the professor back out of the capsule.

“What did he see?” Thomas asks.

I hesitate. “He didn’t tell me,” I lie. My hand moves to fiddle with the tips of my hair. Mandy frowns, knowing my tell, but says nothing. “We were too busy observing the data to talk about it.”

“Come on, mom! Didn’t he say anything?”

“Not that I remember,” I insist. “Now, tell me about your boring school day.”

After dinner was finished and cleaned up, Mandy and I put the kids to bed, then tuck ourselves in. Drifting off to sleep, I feel Mandy’s hand on my shoulder. “What did he see?” she asks.

I sigh. I can’t avoid telling her. I roll onto my back and sit up. I can’t look her in the eyes. “He said the capsule hadn’t moved in space, but that the city was gone. An old forest had replaced it, with animals he’d never seen before. There was no sign of human civilization.”

“Oh,” she says, sitting back on her heels. After a moment, she adds, “is that what you didn’t want the kids to hear?”

I nod. “The professor is certain that humanity doesn’t survive into the future.”

“And what do you think?”

“I don’t have a reason to doubt him,” I answer, unsure what else to say.

She wraps her arms around me, holding me tight. I feel the warmth of her body, and I smile softly. Then, she adds, “I guess it doesn’t matter what he saw.”

I pull back to look at her. “How so?”

“Everyone dies eventually,” she says. “It’s not like we were going to still be alive thousands of years from now. I guess for me, the fact that there was a forest, and that there were animals, means that we didn’t screw up the planet too much. So not seeing any trace of humanity doesn’t sound all that terrible.”

“The professor thinks that he’s failed,” I whisper. “He thinks that he should have been able to keep humanity alive on his own.”

“That’s ridiculous, and you know it,” Mandy says, laughing. “I bet we could find tons of people that thought the same thing.” She claps her hands together. “Hey, you have a time machine now! Want to have a wager? Who would you visit first?”

I laugh. “I’ve already told you, it can only go forward in time.”

Mandy sighs. “That’s probably for the best, anyway.” She bends over to kiss me, then says, “Well, I’ll let you get some sleep. I’m sure Cornelius is going to keep you busy for the next few days.”

The next day, as I arrive at the lab, the entrance is surrounded by police cars and an ambulance. An officer stops me as I approach. “This area is off limits,” he says.

“I work here,” I tell him. “My name is Amanda Williams.” My eyes drift over the scene again. “What’s going on?” Worry seeps into my tone as I speak.

He looks over the rims of his glasses. “You didn’t read the news this morning, did you?”

“No, why?”

“Professor Cornelius McAfee hung himself last night in his office.”

I gasp. What? “What?” I stammer.

“He left a note on his computer, stating that he had seen the future, and that humanity was doomed. The lab itself was completely torn apart besides that.” He pulls out a small tablet and stylus. “When did you last see the professor?” he asks.

“Last night, after an experiment,” I answer. My mind still can’t process what is going on. My body decides the best course of action is to sit down. It turns more into a fall, but the officer catches my arm and helps me down. He calls over another officer and asks her to bring a wet towel. Something about shock. I’m not listening any more, just imagining the professor’s face over and over.

A glass of water and a series of questions later, I’m told that I will be told when I can come back to the lab. I wander aimlessly, until my feet bring me back to the train. I board slowly, seating myself away from the others. As the doors close and the train pulls out of the station, I look around at the people sitting around me. The train is less occupied than at night, yet somehow the people around me seem more vivid, more real. I shake my head, but the feeling remains.

I bury my face in my hands. I know why he did it. He saw that everything he had worked towards was in vain. He saw that his life had been wasted in a lost cause of raising humanity above itself, becoming master of its own fate. He knew, without a doubt, that it would fail. Why go on when you know how it all ends?

I watch, again and again, the moment that the capsule vanished into the event horizon. I think about every step that it took for the professor to get to that point, every sacrifice. By the time a prototype had been built, I couldn’t even say he was the same man. His friends had abandoned him, his family had long since died or moved away. All that was left to him was his work. And what a work it had been! But, I think ruefully, it was nothing at all, in the end.

My mind swirls in destructive thoughts, imagining the professor destroy his lab, his work, his masterpiece. Perhaps he even held out hope as he did it, that if no one else knew the truth it could still be prevented. No, I decide. That’s not how time works, and we both know that. The capsule wouldn’t have worked otherwise. Humanity’s fate was sealed from its inception. At best, the future was unwritten until the capsule tore a hole in reality. The course of history is now set.

How can I go on, when he could not? How, when my work was his, can I continue to strive against hope? When I know that everything I hold dear will eventually fade away into dust, how can I decide to keep going? When nothing matters, in the end, what is the point in trying?

The train pulls into my station. I walk off, sullen, depressed. The professor may as well have destroyed my hope, my optimism, when he destroyed the lab. I walk to my door, fumble the keys out of my pocket, and open the door. Nobody’s home, either at school or work. I sit on the couch, bury my head in my hands, and cry.

As the tears fall into my palms, time seems to fold away. I can see in my mind the capsule, but more than that. I see the professor, as he had once been, before starting his attempts at time travel. Before he’d lost all of his funding, and had to lay off his entire staff but me. I see my colleagues also, smiling and cheering as he enters triumphant into the capsule. We watch as one as it vanishes, and cheer as one when it returns. While the professor is shaken when he comes home, we embrace him.

By the time my children and wife return home, my tears have long since dried, but I haven’t moved from the couch. My stomach rumbles with hunger, my legs moan for movement, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. They hug me, they kiss me, they tell me I am loved. I smile, I tell them that I love them too. At last, I am able to stand again, and I walk slowly towards the bathroom. I look back and my son and daughter playing, my wife taking over dinner preparation (it was my turn).

In my mind, the capsule once again vanishes, but this time it doesn’t return. I feel a weight lifted from my shoulders, that I hadn’t realized was there. Mandy was right; it doesn’t matter what will happen. It doesn’t matter if there is a humanity in the future. There is a humanity now. What matters is here; the rest will follow.

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