David Fountain was a self-educated genius. Still single at age thirty-five, an inheritance allowed David to dedicate himself to his real passion, the study of chronophysics, and his creation, the chronographic loopback engine.
He lived in a two-bedroom house just off the university campus. The chronographic loopback engine prototype took up the better part of his garage. This was the day he finally mustered enough courage to activate his prototype. He set the time loop to terminate after 12 hours, and went to watching the red numbers on the digital atomic clock installed in the front panel. When the clock read 15:00:00, David closed his eyes and pressed the button.
Nothing seemed to happen. He didn't expect much now, so he decided to walk across the university campus and into town. Spanning a small river, there was a wide footbridge joining the campus with the town proper. As David started across the bridge, he noticed a woman standing with an easel at the middle of the span. She was sketching the scenery. As David approached he slowed up, trying to see the sketch over her shoulder.
It was a magnificent sketch of the river view. From what he could tell, the artist was just as lovely; long strawberry blonde hair, wavy enough to be full over her shoulders, yet not so wavy as to look unkempt. The hair fell over shoulders that topped a flawlessly curved body. "It's lovely," David said.
The artist set her pencil on the ledge of the easel as she turned to face David. As her face revealed itself, David was instantly in love. Her face held baby blue eyes, a cute little nose, and full lips that parted to say, "Thank-you." Her eyes lingered on his face a little longer than they should, then she turned back to her easel and picked up the pencil.
David's heart raced. He stood paralyzed for a moment, but found the courage to speak. "Do you mind if I watch?"
She started sketching details of the river, waiting an excruciatingly long time before she said, "You may watch me, or my sketch – your choice."
Although he could not see her face, David could feel her smiling. He watched a little of the sketch, and a little of her. She spoke without putting down her pencil, continuing to draw as she said in a playful tone, "What's your name, art critic?"
She set down her pencil and turned around. "I'm Vera," she said. "No last name, just Vera. How do you like the sketch?"
If the likeness was striking before, now it was brilliant. "Amazing," David said.
Vera folded her sketchbook, then her easel. "Since you liked my sketch so much, I'll sell it to you for a cup of coffee." The sketchbook went inside the easel, and then she slung the easel over her shoulder with a strap.
What great timing. Of all the days to test the chronographic loopback engine, he met a fabulous woman. If theory holds, David could live this day again and again. If the theory was wrong, she would still be there. "There is a coffee shop just a block past the river."
Vera smiled, putting her hand inside David's right elbow as they walked to the coffee house, making small talk all the way. When they arrived, they sat at a cozy table and each ordered a cup of decaf.
After more small talk, and long after the coffee was gone, Vera held both of David's hands and looked into his eyes from across the cozy table. "David, do you believe in love at first sight?"
"I never used to," he said, "but I'm pretty sure I do now."
"I'm glad, because I think I'm feeling it." She flashed her baby blues and David felt a tingling in the nether regions.
"Me too," he said.
After coffee, David and Vera were officially a couple. They stashed the easel at David's house, then relaxed in a movie, had a steak dinner, browsed for almost two hours in the used book store, then went dancing at one of the local college clubs. They left at two in the morning, stopping at Davidís to pick up the easel before continuing to Vera's apartment.
She invited David inside, and they sat on the couch together. The small talk started, but softly fell away as their eyes met. They kissed with eyes closed. A passionate kiss it was, as two lovers separated for a year might kiss when reunited. He placed his hand on her breast.
The air was cool, and the warmth of Vera's body vanished. He stood in front of the chronographic loopback engine. The atomic clock read 15:00:17.
His time with Vera never happened. He never kissed her, never looked into those baby blues. Then it hit him. The experiment was a success. The loopback engine worked, and Vera was sketching on the bridge. David ran out the door.
He could see her at the center of the span, drawing on her easel. He picked up his pace, scrambling over a small hill to save a few paces. By the time he got to the bridge, he was winded, but couldn't let anything keep him from getting to her.
"Vera!" he called as he approached. He used short steps to slow himself. "Vera. Dear God, I thought I lost you." He couldn't wait to see those baby blues.
David's breath was heaving from the exertion. Vera turned toward him, eyes under a furrowed forehead. "Do I know you?" she asked.
She didn't have the same memories; David had to force himself to remember that. "Sorry, I thought you were somebody else."
"No," she said, "You called me Vera."
"I suppose I did." This was a clumsy beginning.
She did not go back to her drawing. Instead, she remained focused on David with that furrowed brow. "How do you know my name? I don't know you." Her tone was accusatory. "Are you stalking me?"
"No." It was a mistake to run. David had walked the first time. Time to change the subject. "I am a big fan of your sketches. May I see this one?"
Vera turned back to her drawing, snapped the sketchbook closed, and folded the easel. She put the sketchbook inside and slung it over her shoulder. As she walked away, she said, "I've never displayed my work in public. Keep away from me, you creep!"
Creep? From my Vera? "Wait!"
David started to follow, but checked himself. He had the chronographic loopback engine at his disposal. If he set the loop, he could find her and try again and again, until he finally won her back. When he won her back, he would turn the chronographic loopback engine off and stay with her.
David spun about and raced back to his garage. It was still set to twelve hours. He decided to leave it alone for his first try. The atomic clock read 15:45:51. David pushed the button.
He walked back to the bridge to discover that Vera had returned with her sketchpad. This time, he walked across the span to her easel. "I'm sorry for the way I acted before."
She must not have heard David coming, for when he spoke, Vera was startled. She inhaled sharply, then exhaled slowly. "Oh, it's you again. Can't you take a hint?" She folded her sketchpad and was reaching for the easel. This might be David's last chance. He grabbed Vera's arm and said, "Please—"
Vera struggled to pull her arm away. "Let go of me!"
"Let me explain!"
Vera's face turned bitter. "Let. Me. Go."
His response was cut short by a very large hand grabbing his forearm and squeezing very hard. "The lady said to leave her alone," said a booming voice. David's eyes followed the heavily tattooed arm to the source. At the other end, he found a very large and very mean-looking biker type, long hair under a bandana and tied in a ponytail.
David released Vera's arm.
"Thank-you," she said to the biker. "This loser keeps harassing me."
The biker turned to look David in the eye. "He won't bother you again."
Vera packed her sketchbook into the easel and again slung it over her shoulder. As the biker and Vera walked away together, David heard Vera say to the biker, "Want to go get a cup of coffee?"
David stood on the bridge with his mouth agape, watching as the biker and his girl disappeared behind a building. Without knowing what else to do, he went home and turned on the television. When he got hungry, he ate. When he got tired, he went to bed.
The atomic clock read 15:45:57, and David pushed the button. This time he decided to try a different tactic. Knowing that Vera returns to the bridge, he detoured to the local flower shop to purchase a dozen roses. During the walk to the bridge, he struggled with how to hold the flowers when he approached her on the bridge. Should he hold them proudly in front, or should he conceal them behind his back? All too soon, he was at the bridge. He made his decision: behind the back.
Once again, David made his way to the girl with the easel. He walked slowly, stopping ten paces short. She did not look away from her sketchpad.
As she turned to look, David brought the flowers to the front, timing carefully so she would see the gesture.
"I'm sorry if I frightened you," David said.
Vera smirked. "I'm not frightened of you."
David moved a few steps closer. She turned to face him with her hands behind her back. When he got within a few feet of her, Vera said, "I'm not frightened. I'm pissed. Leave me alone." She brought her hand around and sprayed some kind of aerosol into David's eyes.
It burned, Lord, it burned. Pepper spray, damn her! He tried to open his eyes, but couldn't. The light hurt. Flowers dropped to his feet as he brought his hands to his eyes. Eyes burning, David dropped into a crouch.
"Serves you right, you sicko." He could hear Vera packing her easel.
"I wasn't trying to do anything, I swear!" There was no answer. "Vera?" Still nothing. David used his shirt sleeve to dab the tears out of his eyes, then he opened them to look for Vera. With blurry vision, he could see the bridge was empty.
After another ten minutes of dabbing he eyes, David decided to walk home and take a nap on the sofa for a few hours, but he couldn't sleep. Thinking about Vera made him angrier and angrier. What was that woman's problem? Why had she been so sweet and gentle the first time, but a raving lunatic bitch now? He walked to his home office, took a ceramic monkey from his desk and hurled it against the wall, where it shattered with a less-than-satisfying ker-thunk.
The eye drops in his desk drawer help a little, but the membranes inside his eyelids were still swollen like engorged pretzels. Maybe it wasn't worth it.
How long? He looked at the clock on his desk, it read 5:23. Over nine and a half hours before loopback. Aargh. He put his head down on his desk and drifted off to sleep.
It was dark when he woke up. After fumbling to find the lamp on his desk, he switched it on and looked immediately at the clock. 9:13.
His eyes felt better, but now he had a splitting headache. He wiped the patina of sweat from his brow using the back of his hand, then wiped his hand on the breast of his shirt. With a deep sigh, he got to his feet and walked to the garage, where he passed the chronographic loopback engine with its atomic clock still ticking away the time. He didn't know where he was going, but he didn't want to stay here.
David wandered across the bridge and walked past the coffee house where he and Vera never had coffee. The shop was dark, tables pulled across the inside of the door. It probably wouldn't stop a thief, but perhaps made the owner feel better. As he sauntered by, he peered at the table where they never sat, not bothering to stop for a better view, yet not able to look away until he passed the window.
He kept walking until he stumbled upon a tavern that his intuition told him to enter. Inside was dark. The lighting consisted mainly of beer signs and gaudy stained glass lamps hanging over the pool tables. David walked past the tables and sat on a barstool. Elbows propped chin on the bar while the bartender dried mugs, dipping the tops in water before placing them into a freezer. Pansy-ass way to make frosted mugs.
The bartender glanced at David, put down the mug he was working on, and walked over. "What'll it be, pal?"
"I don't know," David said. "Surprise me."
"You want beer, wine, or something harder?"
"Harder is better."
The bartender focused his attention on mixing the surprise cocktail as David buried himself back inside his hands. What a way to spend a life, repeating mistakes. No, not repeating, making them worse. Every iteration of this experience had spiraled out of control, yet he couldn't get Vera out of his mind. Of all times to . . . oh, hell. He looked up at the bartender and watched him add some brown liquid to his glass. When he finished, he poked a toothpick through two cherries and dropped it on top, then added a straw and set the glass down in front of David.
He plopped ten bucks on the bar and said, "What is it?"
"A variation of a Long Island iced tea." The bartender set his change in front of him, but David didn't bother to collect it. Instead, he took a rather long sip from the straw.
The bartender nodded, then went to work on his assignment. David tossed his straw on the bar and went back to work on his own assignment, stopping only when he ran out of money. The beauty of it was that the money would soon be back in his pocket.
He tossed back the last of his last drink and noticed that the tavern was full of people now. When did they arrive? He decided he didn't care. He didn't care about much. In fact, all he cared about was sleep.
David decided to walk home and spend the rest of the night in bed. He rose from the barstool and fell to the ground. The floor was a place to sleep, too.
The drunk was gone, and he was back in the garage in front of the chronographic loopback engine. The atomic clock read 15:46:05, and David felt fine. Did he want to push the button again? He decided to push the button, but he also decided not to go to the bridge this time. To hell with Vera. Try something different.
David decided to drive to the Indian casino. His mind was returning to the experiment. What better way to test the chronographic loopback engine than with games of chance? He started at the slot machines and began his day with a lucky combination that spat out fifty quarters. That should be easy to remember.
He played for hours, winning a little and losing a lot. By the time he ran out of money, he didn't have long to wait before he was whisked back to the lab. He repeated the experiment three more times. In his second try, David broke even. In his third try, he lost all his money quickly and wandered around the casino watching other patrons to kill the time. Neither iteration repeated his fifty-quarter early success. He wondered why, but not for long. There would be time for that later.
On the third time he repeated the casino experiment. He not only repeated his early success, he hit the sweet spot. The machine spilled quarters on the floor and they kept pouring out. Lights flashed and sirens blared. A crowd gathered around, and the casino staff rushed over to pat him on the back. He was the day's biggest winner. As the casino staff gathered his quarters, he saw one man pull a ticket from the front of the machine. The employee looked up at David and said, "It is your lucky day, sir."
David looked around the floor where the other employees were still gathering coins. A few bystanders snatched up an occasional quarter, but David didn't care that much. "I certainly won a decent pile of quarters."
"It's not just the quarters," the casino employee said while holding up the ticket. "This ticket is worth three hundred thousand dollars."
David's jaw fell open as if to say something, but no sound emerged. Three hundred thousand dollars? It was still early. He could turn off the chronographic loopback engine and stay in this timeline. He wasn't rich, but the money would go a long way toward raising his standard of living and helping him to forget Vera.
The casino insisted that David stay for photos, to sign papers, to file a tax form, and to be the guest of honor at an impromptu celebration. It was after ten o'clock when David finally managed to get out of the casino.
He decided to go straight home, but had to stop for some gas. To hell with Vera, he was rich! He had to turn off the chronographic loopback engine to stay in this timeline, but the tank was running on fumes. Gas first.
The station was closed, but the pumps were equipped with credit card readers. As he put the hose back on the pump, David felt somebody grab the collar of his shirt from behind, clothes-lining him.
Lying on his back away from the lighting, he couldn't make out the assailant's face, only the shadow of a large man holding a pistol. The figure aimed the pistol at David and fired. The entire world was pain. The only other thing he noticed was the shadow rifling through pockets, and ultimately taking the check from the casino. Every cell in David's body wanted to protest, but didn't have the strength.
Weaker and weaker, he lay bleeding from his chest. His assailant was long gone, and in the dark, it would be a miracle if anyone found him. Mercifully, he lost consciousness.
Alive and well, David stood in front of the chronographic loopback engine; the atomic clock read 15:47:12. He felt his chest where the bullet never penetrated. He was whole and without pain.
Should he push the button again? Physically, he wasn't tired in the least. David felt the same as he did before the first experiment, the one where he met Vera. In reality, he had been in the garage for under an hour.
Should he push the button again? Every time he pushed that button, things got worse. What if he didn't push the button and things got worse. How could things get worse than being shot? Then, he realized that the thesis wasn't true. The first three trips to the casino had mixed results. It was only on the fourth try that he won, and then was shot. What if he just stayed in the garage? By staying in the garage, he would have almost instant access to the chronographic loopback engine, and could switch it off if nothing happened.
He pressed it, then sat to ponder why the results varied so much each time. The iterations involving Vera had different outcomes because he tried different actions, but the casino should have had identical results each time. Yet they were very different.
What was the difference? He looked up at the atomic clock. It read 16:01:46, and while watching the seconds figure change to 47 to 48 to 49, and 50, he figured it out. The initial conditions always changed. He could never start the chronographic loopback engine trials at exactly the same point in time because he could not freeze time. Chaos theory dominates any complicated system, and the world is about as complicated as a system gets. You can't go back, and the results in any given trial would always be radically different from the natural time stream – the time stream in which Vera loved him. David was no longer a part of that time stream. He was here. What was he now a part of? Would he step outdoors into nuclear war? Would an asteroid collide with the earth? Would he rescue a lost puppy?
Each world seemed worse than the one before, and in the last, he was shot and maybe even died. There was no way to be sure. If this was worse . . . David didn't want to think about it. He suddenly felt the urge for a cup of coffee. To get coffee, he had to walk across the bridge, past Vera and her easel. Well, he didn't have to stop.
As the bridge came into view, he could see Vera and her easel, but something was wrong. She was struggling. David sped up to a jog, and as he got closer, he could tell that Vera was struggling to get free from the biker. It was the same biker that stole her away a number of iterations ago. David went into a dead run.
Racing across the span, David made for the easel. He heard Vera screech. Almost there. Hold on, Vera! David ran as hard as he could and slammed head-first into the biker.
Both men tumbled along the sidewalk. David felt himself lifted to his feet just before he felt a fist meet his face. Down he tumbled again. As he struggled to stand, he caught sight of an incoming boot, then felt a sharp pain in his ribs, synchronized with a cracking sound.
It had to be a rib. It hurt to move, much less try to stand, but anything he could do to keep that biker away from Vera, David would try. After all, he would be standing in front of the chronographic loopback engine if he never turned it off.
David managed to get to his knees and wondered why the biker let him get that far. What happened to the biker? What happened to Vera?
Looking to his right, David found the handrail of the bridge. He used it to pull himself to his feet, then looked around to find Vera and the biker. He found Vera standing over the biker's unconscious body, her shattered easel still tightly grasped in her fists. Shards lay scattered about the biker's head. The paper with her sketch skittered across the pavement. Vera let it go.
David staggered toward her, and when she noticed him, the easel fell to the ground. She ran to him, but thankfully, stopped short and didn't touch.
"You saved me," she said.
"I cou—" Talking hurt like hell. "I couldn't let anything happen to you."
She stared at David for a moment, but not long enough for David to say anything. "I was wrong about you," she said.
"It's okay." David leaned back against the rail and grasped his ribs, wincing from the pain.
"We need to get you to a doctor."
Vera took a step toward him, but he suddenly shouted, "No!"
The outburst froze Vera in her tracks. She looked at him with a curious expression. "You need a doctor."
"That can wait," he said. "I need your help. There's something I need to do first."
"You need a doctor." She dialed her cell phone, speaking too softly for David to hear. He hoped it wasn't a 911 call. Despite his injuries, this was the timeline he wanted to keep. It was the closest he was likely to get to the original. He had to get home.
David took a step, a painful step that shot pain through his entire body. He grabbed for the bridge rail and sank to his knees. Eyes closed to combat the pain. He felt a hand on his back.
"Don't try to walk," Vera said. "You'll only make your injuries worse." She helped David to sit. He was grateful for the help.
"I need to get home."
"An ambulance is on the way," Vera said.
"No time for that." David tried to stand, but again the pain shot through his body. It was no use. Vera was right: he needed a doctor. "I'll see the doctor if you'll do something for me."
Vera took his hand. "What is it?"
There was hope, then, but would she do it? "There is a machine in my garage. It must be turned off."
"I don't understand," she said. "You probably have broken ribs. Why can't it wait?"
"I can't explain. It just has to be turned off now." She had to believe. No more looping back, no more losing her.
Vera's face softened. "After I see you to the hospital."
David reached into his pocket. With pain, he brought out his keys and dropped the ring into Vera's hand. "The address is 1847 Juniper. Inside the garage, you'll find a machine with a digital clock. Just unplug the machine."
The faint wail of a siren pierced the air, growing louder every moment. The ambulance would arrive soon. Vera kissed David on the forehead. "I'm not leaving you."
Vera clearly didn't understand. Never mind; she didn't have to understand. The only thing that mattered to David was staying in this timeline. "Please, I don't want to lose you again."
Vera shook her head. "You aren't making any sense. I don't even know you."
"But I know you, and I know how I feel about you."
The paramedics wheeled David into the emergency room with Vera on their heels. They pushed him into triage, where he was directed to the waiting room with the other non-critical cases.
"What time is it?" David asked Vera.
She looked over her shoulder. "It's 8:35."
Seven hours. David fidgeted despite the pain.
"What's the matter?" Vera asked.
"Why don't you run over to the house while I'm stuck in the waiting room?"
Vera took his hand in hers. "I don't want to leave you until they let you see the doctor." She released David's hand to stroke his hair. "Try to get some rest."
David closed his eyes, but he couldn't sleep. How could he? Besides the pain shooting through his chest from broken ribs, there was also the stress of not knowing whether Vera would cooperate and turn off the chronographic loopback engine. It felt good to have Vera in the hospital by his side. That was why he wanted to stay in this timeline.
"I'll be fine, and at this rate," David said, "I'll still be waiting when you get back."
Vera shook her head. "I can't leave you."
Vera took David's hand, then sat back in her chair, planting herself for the duration.
David closed his eyes. Would nothing go his way?
It was 2:50 in the morning before the nurse came to wheel David into the back. Vera tried to let go of his hand, but David wouldn't release her.
"Vera," he said, "Please, go now. It has to be done now or I'll never see you again."
"That's crazy, David," she said. "I'll be right here waiting for you."
"I'll be gone."
"Let go of my hand," Vera said, "the nurse is getting angry. I'll be waiting for you." David loosened his grip and Vera pulled her hand free.
As the nurse wheeled his gurney through the double doors, David tried one last time. "Please do it? If you care about me, shut the machine down!"
The clock on the wall read 3:54. David's eyes glanced at it regularly. Only about five minutes before he would be snapped out of this timeline and lose Vera yet again. She was a loyal woman, but it didn't matter if she stayed at the hospital. She was about to be taken away. Again. A trace of a tear formed in his eye as he glanced at the clock. 3:55.
The doctor came into the room with a large x-ray film. "Let's see how your ribs look." He slapped the film into the holder before punching the light switch. The x-ray flickered into view. David glanced at the clock. The second hand had moved by twenty seconds.
The doctor spent another minute and twelve seconds looking at the film. 3:57. The doctor turned around to face David, who glanced at the clock yet again.
"It could be a lot worse, Mr. Fountain." The doctor opened a drawer to remove a small pointer, and used it to point to the x-ray. David glanced at the clock. 3:58. The doctor traced a line on the image of David's ribs, then repeated the tracing on two other ribs.
"You don't have any broken ribs," the doctor said, "but three of them are cracked."
David moaned. "They sure feel broken." He glanced up at the clock again. 3:59.
"You seem to be something of a clock-watcher," the doctor said.
"Something is about to happen."
"Oh?" The doctor had a look of disdain on his face, as if to say he was too busy to deal with the delusions of a patient. If only it were a delusion. "I would offer to wait for the special event with you, but I still have many patients to see." He took a step toward the door. "Now that I've seen the x-ray, I can give you something for the pain. I'll be back in two minutes."
"That might be too late." David said it under his breath, and if the doctor heard him, he didn't acknowledge. Instead, the doctor simply rushed out the door into the hallway. David glanced at the clock again. 4:00. Vera's time in the waiting room was almost at an end. In another minute, David would be standing in front of the chronographic loopback engine inside his garage, once again a victim of ruthless chaos. When would he again have the gift of initial conditions allowing Vera's favor?
No more tries. It's not worth the multiply broken heart. That hurt far more than multiple cracked ribs. David looked back at the clock. 4:01 came and went. David watched the second hand rotate around the dial, waiting for the pain to disappear and the hospital room to change into his garage – waiting for the dial of the wall clock to change into the red digital readout of the atomic clock.
The second hand passed the twelve, making the time 4:02. The hospital room didn't disappear. His ribs still hurt. A smile spread across David's face. Vera did it after all.
Just then, the door opened and the doctor walked in. "You're still here, Mr. Fountain."
Despite the pain, David laughed. "Yes, I'm still here, and cracked ribs never felt so good."
Story Copyright © 2007 by Rick Novy. All rights reserved.
About the author
Rick Novy has flown satellites, manufactured surgical implants,
tested integrated circuits, and mathematically simulated binaural
Rick is a graduate of Orson Scott Card's Literary Bootcamp. His fiction has appeared in Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Alien Skin. Forthcoming material will appear in Tales of the Talisman, Vortex Temporum, and several other venues.
Rick writes from his home in Arizona (it's a wry heat). Learn more at www.ricknovy.com.