Speed Run

Here’s one from the trunk.
I wrote Speed Run in summer 2009. I sent it out to a few publications and received my first set of bona-fide rejection letters. How formative! I’ve honestly avoided looking at it too close while formatting it for this page to avoid the inevitable scathing self-criticism writers tend to level on their older works.

It’s a time travel story.
…what more explanation do you need?

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Chicago, Illinois. July 8th 2016. 10:57

On a chilly October day in 2031 I received a time machine in the mail. It arrived in a plain cardboard box that was addressed from me to myself. Within there was a letter, in my handwriting, that simply stated, ‘Correct what is wrong.’ The Device itself is fashioned like a slick, metal stopwatch, only about twice as big. The face is a bright screen (touch controls) that defaults to displaying the local time and global coordinates. Three buttons sit along the top labeled Previous, Reset, and Next, from left to right. A smooth, delicate metal band connects to the bottom and clasps around the user’s wrist.

After a few hours of internal debate, I reminded myself that I was still a scientist, if a failed one. I attached the Device to my wrist, worked up that last bit of courage, and pressed the Next button.

I stare down at the time machine in my left hand. I turn the Device over in my palm to the reflective underside. My forty-seven year old face gazes back at me from behind a laser etched logo of my initials, V.O. The V is inside the O, the forks of the V made to look like lightning bolts: An idle teenage sketch that stuck with me. It was the final proof I needed. I never showed that design to anyone.

“Dr. Oliver? It’s almost eleven.”

I look up across the table from my musings. My past self, fifteen years younger, waits patiently. We’re in the cramped makeshift office that connects to our old (current) makeshift workshop. Pages of schematics and aborted theory litter the room, now topped by elaborate notes and observations from countless jumps across time. When I first activated the Device it dropped me here, in my basement lab, Chicago 2016. Here, where I slaved away for years pursuing the near-mad dream of inventing a means of physical point-to-point teleportation. It turned out to be possible and word of my research leaked out. My lab was raided, my plans stolen, and I was beaten to the punch. I ended up with nothing.

Clearly I sent myself the time machine to remedy this.

“Right,” I said and flipped the device back over. “This is attempt number, ah, sixty-three?”

Vance shrugs. “If you say so. The last one yesterday was attempt fifty-seven. Any changes?”

I fiddle with the collar of the stereotypical white lab coat I’m wearing. “No. The run is the same. The focus now is to keep my duration of interference to a minimum and ahead of their response rate.”

“So you could say that it’s all just a matter of time?” my past self asks with a smirk.

“You know you’ve made that same joke the last thirteen attempts?”

“Have I?” He looks thoughtful. “At least I’m consistent.”

I smile at the repetition of the exact same routine. New to him, reruns for me.

The clock hits 11:00. I place my right hand onto an unplugged computer mouse on the table. An ink outline surrounds it, evidence of numerous adjustments noted along the edges. With my left, I tap the Next button on the Device and the world of 2016 winks away.

Brooklyn, New York. September 27th 2017. 23:47

Time traveling is seamless and devoid of sensation. I go from my origin time and location to my destination in less than the blink of an eye. According to my younger self, I merely disappear and reappear without warning or fanfare. No brilliant flashes, no thunderous sound, no rips in reality. It’s rather disappointing.

A tastefully decorated home office appears around me. I’m sitting at an insufferably neat desk, bathed in the glow of a widescreen monitor. Framed family photos flank the monitor, seeming to look upon my intrusion with stern disapproval. An architectural design document is open on the screen, titled ‘Expansion Final Version’. From the hallway, the creek of footsteps upon a wooden floor and the gentle closing of the bathroom door cut through the quiet ambient electronica playing from the computer’s speakers.

My right hand already rests upon the exact same model of mouse I just left behind. With well-practiced speed, I adjust the width of a utility gap along the south and east walls of a specific room a mere but critical three inches. Normally any architect worth his drafting tools would notice this change. Shame he’s in such a rush. Deadlines are a harsh mistress. The space between those particular walls would be just enough to allow passage of a human being, if they were properly motivated.

I restore the design doc’s position to how I found it, centered on the entry hallway.

Ctrl-S.

I draw a note card from the top of a pristine stack below the monitor, making certain to leave the rest undisturbed. Behind me I hear a toilet flush. I tap the Next button on the Device and I’m gone without a trace.

Time of incursion: 32 seconds.

Birmingham, England. October 25th 2025. 16:44

One of the few curious rules of time travel I soon puzzled out was what I call the Two Item Rule. A traveler can only carry through jumps the clothes on his back and a single item in each hand. It’s unfortunate that the Device itself counts as one, forcing me to forage the needed tools for my plan within the run.

I should really start calling it the One Item Rule.

I sit in another office at another desk, this one a chaotic mess of papers, coffee mugs and office supplies. Rain pounds against the window, a typical gray English sky visible between office buildings beyond. The terminal before me is unlocked, its user out of the room on a break. Not locking your terminal is a (convenient) policy violation at Kepler & Garrison Securities. I open a search window and query exPCDsOct2025.csv and shake my head, smiling at how many times I had to come here to just figure out what the file name was. Being caught in the act of research never gets any less awkward.

I only have to glance at the five codes on the fourteenth row of the spreadsheet to know which are actually valid for this timeline. There are multiple possible codes for each of the five, a quirk of the subtle variations between these time travel runs. I’ve long since committed to all of the codes to memory. I close the document, grab a pen from the desk and write the pass codes on the borrowed note card.

The computer’s clock ticks over to 16:45 as I finish writing and lazily toss the pen to more or less where I found it. The door handle begins to turn. I pick up the note card with a flourish, and hit the Next button.

Time of incursion: 49 seconds.

Flawless so far.

Berlin, Germany. August 31st 2021. 01:51

Altering the timeline is best done like setting up a series of standing dominoes. Each individual step must be a small portion of a chain that ends in the desired result or design. Otherwise someone will come along and knock over your plan before its ready. Only by making events seem as natural as possible can you get slip under the radar and get away with something dramatic or substantial.

That’s why I can’t just prevent the theft of my designs. Apparently it’s an important event. However, I can finish my prototype ahead of schedule. In theory.

The seat below me changes from corporate cushioned to hard government-issue plastic. I’m sitting in a darkened break room. I stand, and blindly walk to the nearby wall, stepping over a small displaced trash bin. Numerous trilingual posters listing employee rights and laboratory regulations adorn the walls. Between two there’s a single sheet of paper titled ‘Week’s Schedule: 31 Aug – Sept 6’. I tap the Device’s screen, and use it as a makeshift flashlight. With the edge of the note card, I scan down the list of planned tests of the teleportation system until I come to ‘September 2nd @ 10:00’. Doctor Roth is a brilliant scientist, a ruthless competitor, and a thief. But at least he keeps a schedule.

I tap the Next button.

Time of incursion: 27 seconds.

Lille, France. January 10th 2025. 14:14

I’m in the washroom of a café. Quickly, I remove my lab coat and drape it over the sink countertop. It would be much too out of place here. The Device is slid into my front pocket on my trousers, hand and time machine leaving an awkward bulge.

Leaving the washroom, I stride across a café that feels familiar, a place I’ve visited two hundred times, once, or never depending on your point of view. If it weren’t off-peak hours, the café would be considered cramped. I scan the room, making sure everything is as it should be. The barista (Madeleine) gives me a puzzled look when I smile warmly at her. A young couple (Claire and Jean) sits at the front window, flurries of snow floating through the air outside. A thirty-something man (Xavier) sits alone at a small table along the rear wall, alternating between watching the door and checking his watch. The second chair has a heavy winter coat draped across the back in an act of keeping the seat reserved.

I take the seat across from him. Sitting across from me is one of the greatest modern thieves. In an age of instant information and high tech law enforcement, he has not been caught. But even the greatest need help at times.

Good afternoon,” I say to him in French.

“Who are you?”

I set the note card upon the table face up. “You have a plan that will make you very rich if you succeed.” It’s like reading a branching script for me. Every possible call has a proper response. I have a flow chart back in Chicago ’16.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Indeed. However, your plan has only a one in four chance of success, even with certain…architectural advantages you have recently discovered.”

He’s silent. Excellent. Left most branch.

Motioning at the card I say, “Those are pass codes for all relevant security and monitoring systems for the week of October 19th to the 25th. My gift to you.”

“Oh?” He drops the ignorance act. “K.G.S. assigns weekly pass codes on all contracted jobs the day before. Not ten months in advance. There is no way you can know this.” He flicks the note card back towards me, bluffing disdain.

“Of course there is. I’m from the future.”

He laughs. “Leave me then Future Man.”

“British Airways flight 455 will make a controlled water landing tonight in the English Channel. Fifty-six of one hundred thirty on board will die, mostly due to hypothermia.”

His mirth vanishes.

“We will see about that. But how do I know this isn’t some trap, eh?”

Good he’s staying on course. That part was risky. I don’t know enough about the effects of giving out foreknowledge of events yet, so I keep the time intervals short.

“Because you haven’t told a single soul your plan yet,” I continue. “One can’t set a trap for something utterly unknown.”

His eyebrows rise up, surprised and suspicious, but I know he’s convinced. He reaches across the table and takes the card, glancing down at the pass-code strings.

“What do you have to gain from this…gift?”

I barely hear him. Across the room something is not right. There’s a man who looks to be in his 50s, clean-shaven, white hair, green sweater, sitting alone at a table in the corner across from us. He’s quite focused on his drink. I’ve never seen him before. Not in two hundred visits to this location. Nor was he here when I arrived.

Future Man?” I’m returned to the task at hand.

Ah. Revenge,” I reply, the word bittersweet, and technically inaccurate. Pre-emptive revenge would be right.

This seems rather elaborate for personal revenge,” he says while tucking the note card away. I can’t help but smile every time I’ve heard that from him.

“You have no idea.”

“I shall consider this. Thank you.”

Strange, he only says that when still skeptical and needs a little extra proof. I stand and make an obvious show of checking the clock perched above the cashier counter.

“No, thank you. Oh, Marie will be seven minutes late. Good day.”

I hurry back to the washroom, feeling the eyes of the out of place man every step of the way. As soon as the door closes behind me, I blindly tap the Next button of the Device within my pocket.

Time of incursion: 5 minutes 17 seconds.

Berlin, Germany. September 1st 2021. 23:51

From my practice and research runs I’ve observed that each destination can have variables. The pattern of clouds in the sky, what shirt a woman is wearing, how many candies remain in a bowl. All minor details, but never a wholly new person present.

This run is at risk.

I’m in a supply room. Spare parts and tools sit neatly sorted into trays upon metal shelves. The harsh white light of government-issue bulbs spills in from the open door to the hallway. Careful not to make too much of a sound, I lift the toolbox in front of me from the shelf. I move to hide the Device in the left pocket of my lab-coat and realize something is wrong.

“Oh hell I forgot my coat,” I whisper.

I needed it to blend in and slip past the occasional (65% of the time) passerby in the hallway. Instead, I crouch near the doorway and wait, listening for the passing footfalls. A minute bleeds away and is lost. I’m going to spend too much time here. Footsteps approach, a man-shaped shadow passes across the room, and departs. I slow count to five and dart into the hallway. Pipes and wires run along the top of the bare walls, occasionally broken by a doorway or intersecting hall. I follow the trilingual sign labeled “Chamber Shell Access” hoping for no more surprises.

Right on time, the automated P.A. announces the approaching midnight shut down of the lab. In spite of all of my practice, I jump, startled and the toolbox slips from my hand. The vicious clatter of spilled metal tools may as well be an alarm.

A voice calls out from a room ahead on my route, the door slightly ajar. A balding head pokes out. He doesn’t recognize me and begins a questioning tirade in German.

Swearing, I pull out the Device and tap the Previous button.

Another set-back.

I’m in a supply room. I repeat my actions, this time with extra caution and without error. I make it to the exterior of the test chamber unnoticed. The chamber lies within a thick concrete dome anchored to which is another dome of metal panels. Support beams and wires crisscross the space between the two domes and red utility lights give the area a sinister, bloody cast. Through the narrow gaps between the shell panels I can barely make out the teleportation test machine in the center of the chamber, hidden in shadow.

I pick my way along the panels to number fifty-four, kneeling before it. Drawing my weapon of choice from the toolbox, a heavy wrench, I go to work adjusting one of the hundreds of reflector panels that encase the test chamber. It’s a short but significant fix and it pains me to aid Roth’s project in any small way. A loose panel would be noticed and the test postponed. I can’t have that.

I leave the toolbox as evidence of a careless or rushed technician whom could be blamed for any sort of debris during a test firing of the chamber. I stand and take a deep breath to steel myself against the next destination. Tightening my grip on the wrench to make sure it doesn’t slip away, I tap the Next button.

Time of incursion: 9 minutes 16 seconds.

Too damn long.

Berlin, Germany. September 2nd 2021. 10:09

I stand in the charged and active teleportation test chamber, bathed in harsh white light. The hairs on my arms stand upright, and a deafening hum fills my ears. The test machine in the center pulses with power. It’s not much to look at, a hodgepodge of lenses, wires and metal reaching fifteen feet tall. Six arms rotate smoothly around the top, each arm descending to about seven feet and ending with a bright metal orb. The design is odd, but effective. I should know, it’s my design and I have one just like it in a basement in Chicago. This one is just much larger and better funded.

Arcs of energy flow from the orbiting orbs to a central focus point, a golf ball sized diamond, my goal. Two dinner-plate sized platforms flank the core, white flows of painfully bright power linking them.

With all my strength I throw the wrench towards the delicate substructure of the device, just below the crystal focus. A black clad figure appears in front of me, snatches the wrench out of the air, and vanishes. A Timeline Enforcer, in and gone and stopping my attempt in the space of a blink. Forgetting where I am, I dumbly stare ahead, shocked by the efficiency and speed of the Enforcement.

Then the teleportation device reaches its full strength, the white light suffusing the chamber becoming a blinding brilliance. Arcs of electricity begin to leap to me, tearing at my clothes and burning my flesh. I scream and tap the Next button right as a shockwave erupts through the chamber.

Time of incursion: 8 seconds.

London, England. October 18th 2025. 03:41

There is a brief second of relief, but then patches of my skin resume howling in pain from the burns. My ears are ringing, and standing is proving a challenge. I grit my teeth and fight through it. I’ve had worse.

A newly built temporary exhibit hall of the British Museum looms around me. Even the utility lights are out, the hall dark save for the single light hanging around Xavier’s neck. We stand at opposite sides of a display. The protective security glass case has been removed, and he’s lifting an exquisitely cut blood red gemstone from a stand. He gasps at the sudden appearance of the so-called time traveler, now burned and ragged. I’ve made quite an appearance this time.

He says something to me that sounds like a distant buzz, most likely a chain of profanity.

I ignore him and frown at the gem. It’s not the unique and bizarrely cut white diamond, sold to a collector after a German research group changed their designs due to a ‘destructive incident’. It’s not my invention’s desperately needed core focusing prism.

“Keep it,” I manage to say through the escalating cloud of pain.

I tap the Reset button twice.

 

I’m nowhere. Instead of an unnoticeable shift, I’m violently yanked into some manner of temporal limbo. Physical sensation drains away (thankfully) and my vision bleeds into a kaleidoscope of alien colors and shapes, pausing momentarily for visions of each location I visited in the run. I see every detail of my actions in reverse, the attempt undone and erased step-by-step.

Then there is dissolution. I’m ripped into a million pieces and watch, helpless, as they flare into points of light and drift away into the swirling chaos. Memories assault me. My life plays before my eyes in a manic medley of moments. Each displayed and disintegrated in excruciating detail. The specters of past failures, sins, and disappointments haunt me, feeling as fresh as when they first occurred. The betrayals and thefts that lead me down this road shine harshest among them like hot, angry stars. The barrage ends with the memory of receiving the Device on a chilly October day in 2031.

This happens with every Reset, this reliving of the sad wreck of my life. It’s horrible. It keeps me motivated to change it.

Chicago, Illinois. July 8th 2016. 10:57

“Dr. Oliver? It’s almost eleven.”

I sit across the kitchen table from my past self. My burns are gone, my clothes and body are as fresh as they were at the beginning, and I remember everything. The Reset button doesn’t transport your body. It transports your consciousness to the designated point. I prefer not to think about the version of my consciousness residing in this body seconds ago.

“No more for today Vance. We need to make some changes to the run.”

His eyebrows quirk up, curious. “Again?” As far as he knows, I’ve done nothing today.

I sigh. “Yes. Run sixty-three ended with interruption by a Timeline Enforcer. Mistakes were made…and I’m sure there are some places to refine it.” Despite all their monitoring and impressive stewardship of the ‘proper’ timeline, this place is a sanctuary from them. Or they simply don’t know I’m about to try something. Yet.

“Well, here’s hoping the sixty-fourth will be the charm,” Vance says with that stubborn optimism that I lost somewhere over the years.

I nod. I’ll set things right. It’s only a matter of time.

 

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
Copyright © 2014 by Michael L. Watson