Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


 

 

Originally published in Perihelion Science Fiction. Free science fiction stories, science articles, comic strips, reviews, and more, on the Internet. Every month, Perihelion presents solid stories with strong plots, intriguing characters, with a sense of wonder reminiscent of the classic science fiction pulp magazines from the ’60s and ’70s. Artwork is by award winning illustrators. Articles are by experts in their fields. Established in 1967, originally as a print magazine, by Sam Bellotto Jr. and Eric M. Jones, the magazine was revisioned in 2012 as an online publication, and has been published regularly every month since. For the best in entertainment and information, bookmark Perihelion on your favorites list.

Copyright © 2014 by David Steffen.

 

A Switch in Time

By David Steffen

FRED PLUGGED HIS EARS in an attempt to block out the ceaseless noise. An explosion momentarily drowned out the distant chatter of gunfire and shook a fresh cloud of plaster dust from the ceiling inches from Fred’s face. Why oh why did he have to choose the top bunk? As he stared up at the ceiling, Fred composed a list of the terrible things he would do to the makers of “Call of Duty” if he ever met them in person.

He pounded the wall three times with his fist, more to vent his anger than in hopes of stopping the noise. Nothing he did ever made any difference. Unlike the stupid sons of bitches next door, he had to go to work in the morning. Running a cash register at the Shell station was unpleasant enough without fighting to stay awake throughout the day. After his shift he had to work on a research paper for Political Science. As if that weren’t enough, it was also his first anniversary with Vicki and he’d promised to take her out to eat. Of all days he couldn’t afford a nap tomorrow.

The noise disappeared completely, and he wondered for a moment if he’d lost his hearing. But no, a hand against the wall confirmed that there was no rumble. Had they actually listened to him? He glanced at the clock: half past one. If he fell asleep right now, he could get four and a half hours. He closed his eyes and tried to keep his breaths slow and steady despite his pounding heart.

An explosion shattered the silence, louder than ever. His head snapped up, smashing against the ceiling. He put his hand to his forehead, and it came away bloody.

That was the last straw. He would get those bastards to shut up, no matter what he had to do. He climbed down off the bunk. He was wearing only his boxers and he could feel the blood running down his face, but he didn’t care. Maybe the sight of blood would register in their tiny brains where nothing else made any difference. The machine guns began to fire again.

And there was his roommate Stu sprawled over the lower bunk, drool running down his face, oblivious to the noise. How did he sleep through this?

Fred flung his door open, and standing outside, waiting expectantly, was a large balding man in a blue suit. He looked familiar.

“Who the hell are you?” Fred demanded. He could feel his anger ebb away from sheer surprise.

“That’s not important right now.” The man’s voice was smooth and assured, an oily politician voice that raised Fred’s hackles. “What is important, no, absolutely vital, is that you do not confront your neighbor.”

“What? Why? How do you know about that?”

While Fred reeled in confusion, the man stepped past him into the room. He gently removed Fred’s hand from the door and closed it. The room shook with another explosion.

“I know more than you can imagine. I wish I could tell you everything, but that would only make matters worse. But I can tell you this: every action has a reaction, and not always equal and opposite. An avalanche begins with the shift of a single pebble. An empire can crumble under the weight of a song.”

“Fine, fine, whatever, I don’t care. Just get out of my room!”

The man opened his mouth to speak, but just at that moment, the noise from next door stopped. Fred put up a hand to silence him. Despite the intrusion, he couldn’t help grinning like an idiot. “Do you hear that? Finally, I can get some sleep.”

The man in the suit opened his mouth to speak again, but the door to the hallway swung open forcefully, knocking him aside. In stepped another man dressed all in black, a ski mask covering his face. He locked the door behind himself.

“Fred?” His voice was gruff, deep. “Thank God I made it in time. Tonight a man in a suit is going to push his way in here. Whatever you do, don’t—”

“Who are you?” the man in the suit said.

“Oh shit.” The man in black glanced at his watch. “Damned watch stopped again.” He gestured at the man in the suit. “Fred, this man is you from the future. He’s here to change what happens.”

Fred looked more closely at him. So that was why the man looked so familiar. “Is that true?” He’d really let himself go.

The man in the suit said “I can neither confirm nor deny—”

The man in black pushed the man in the suit. “Can it, fatty. Fred, he’s here because he’s trying to prevent a war.”

“What—” Fred began.

“I don’t—” the man in the suit tried to cut in.

“He has the right to know!” the man in black shouted at the man in the suit. “If you would’ve just told me the truth when you came back to change things, maybe everything wouldn’t have gone wrong. Fred, this man means well. He is here to prevent World War III, and they’ve calculated that the trigger point of the war happens at this space and time, when you go next door to confront your neighbor. But he’s in over his head. Time machines are still just prototypes and his people are meddling without understanding the consequences.”

“A war?” That was ridiculous! Wasn’t it?

Fred turned away reflexively from a bright flash of light in the center of the room. At the same time he heard a sound not unlike a cork popping free of a bottle. When Fred looked again, there was a girl in bright green coveralls staring at him. She looked about twelve years old, with short purple hair that was missing clumps. Her mouth moved constantly, smacking her chewing gum.

“Who the hell are you?” the man in black demanded.

“Let me guess,” Fred said. “You’re from the future?”

“Yup!” she said, and blew a bubble.

The man in the suit gestured at her hair. “What’s wrong in your future? Nuclear fallout?”

She rolled her eyes. “Nope! It’s the baffest ’do. If you don’t show scalp, you’re unworthy to converse, suboptimal to the power of S.”

Fred was the first to break the silence. “What do you want then?” he snapped.

“Whoa, Pop! Minus one for brusqueness!” She shouted, her face squinching up with anger. “Jesus on a cracker, I can’t believe you spawned me! I’m scratching a paper for history, and I clacked on the title My Dad the Hero but if you’re going to be obtuse I’ll just go snag Shakespeare like everyone else.” She touched hand to wrist and with another pop and a flash she was gone.

They all stood there for a moment, no one speaking a word.

The man in the suit was the first to break the silence. “Fred, I’m sure this is overwhelming for you. Time travel is distressing at the best of times—”

The phone rang. Fred held up his hand to shush them.

“Hello?”

“208, we’ve received several noise complaints about raised voices coming from your room. We shouldn’t have to remind you that this is, first and foremost, an academic institution. You might be here to party, but please respect your more scholarly peers. Understood?”

“Uh ... yes.”

“If you don’t keep it down, there will be consequences. You have been warned.”

Fred moved his mouth, but could think of nothing to say that wouldn’t involve yelled obscenities. So he hung up. He tried to put the ridiculous phone call out of his mind and turned back to the intruders.

“Why should I listen to you? You broke into my room wearing a ski mask. Why shouldn’t I listen to my older self? I must have my best interests in mind.”

The man in black sighed. “You’re not going to want to see this, but I suppose there’s no other way.” He pulled the ski mask off, to show another face that he recognized as being a variation of his own, but the nose had flattened against his face and the skin was covered in green scales. His hair only grew in thin, sickly patches, where it hadn’t gone away entirely. “This is the result of your changes in the timeline. You prevent international war but end up causing an interstellar war instead. The Krudgegar conquered the Earth in a day, and for the last two years have been turning us into something different. Soon we won’t have any trace of humanity left. This was a one-way trip using the last of our resources. It was too late to do anything in the future, but if you do exactly as I say, you can prevent it from ever happening.”

“How do you know your changes will work any better than mine?” the man in the suit said. “What if you just make things worse?”

“Worse? The future can’t get any worse. Humans are extinct! Your wars must be going well for you.” He fingered the other man’s lapel. “They can certainly afford to dress you up nice.”

“This isn’t about money!” He shoved the man in black.

“It’s about survival!” The man in black shoved him back, both apparently forgetting about Fred.

“It’s about—” the man in the suit began, but he was interrupted by a flash of light from the window.

Outside, a small blonde man in a Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts crouched on the window ledge, peering through at them. He looked at the screen on the back of his camera, and then gave them two thumbs up. And, with no hands left to keep his balance, he tipped, eyes wide, and fell backward off the side of the building.

“Who was that?” Fred asked.

“No clue,” the man in black said.

“Time tourist,” the man in the suit said. “Time machines must become consumer products some day, at least in some possible future. God help us all.”

“I suppose I should make sure he’s okay.” Fred unlocked the door and opened it.

The moment he opened the door, a loud chatter of voices assaulted him. People packed the hallway from wall to wall. Most of them were alternate future Freds, fat or muscular, pale or tan, old or young. He even saw a robot near the back with an antenna sticking out of its head. They all waved to grab his attention and shouted out their advice.

“Drop out of college!”

“Look both ways before crossing the street!”

“Don’t eat pork!”

“Propose to Vicki!”

He slammed the door shut in their faces. “Well, then. I’m going to lay down. It’s time for you two to leave.”

“But—”

“But—”

Fred was proud at how cool his voice sounded, while his stomach boiled and his heart hammered in his ribcage. “You’re going to leave. The hallway’s blocked, but the window is free. You can jump, or I can throw you.”

The older Freds exchanged a knowing glance. The man in black opened the window and jumped out without another word. The man in the suit straddled thefreds sill clumsily, apparently trying to preserve his dignity even as he made his awkward way out of the window.

“Get out!” Fred yelled, and the man in the suit overbalanced, tumbling out the window. Fred slammed the window shut.

The babble of voices in the hallway continued to rise in volume, growing louder and louder as the night went on. Fists pounded on his door every few seconds, mixed with shouted demands.

Fred stared at the ceiling, willing himself to lose consciousness, but his body stubbornly refused to listen. If only he could sleep through anything like Stu could. Finally the noise died down bit by bit and his eyes slipped shut—just as the alarm clock shrieked out its morning call. He slapped it once. One snooze couldn’t hurt.

In what seemed like mere moments later, the alarm blared and he slapped it off again.

“Jesus Christ, will you shut that damned thing off!” Stu’s voice called from the lower bunk. “Some of us are trying to get some sleep!”

Grumbling and bleary-eyed, Fred hauled himself out of bed, and got dressed for work. He spent the morning in a sleepy haze, using all of his effort just to keep his eyes open. He downed coffee after coffee and stayed on his feet, hopping from foot to foot.

While he was grabbing a quick bite to eat, the door chimed and he looked up to see the man in black entering, wearing the ski mask again.

“Get out of here!”

“I just want to help.”

“I don’t care. I’m dead tired and I’m going to fail my test because of your so-called help.”

The man in black raised his hands defensively. “You’re right, you’re right. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gotten worked up like I did, but that guy just irks me, you know? So self-righteous, so certain his way is the right way. He’s the reason I’ve got scales on my ass. My brain’s going next. I saw a gecko the other day and I thought it had a sexy tail. A gecko! Anyway, I’m sorry.”

Fred said nothing, hoping he’d go away.

“I shouldn’t have come to you. Of all people, I should’ve known it wouldn’t work. But I thought you’d want to know I figured out a way to change things.”

Fred’s heart raced. “What did you do? Is Vicki okay?”

“Relax, kid. Vicki’s fine. I didn’t hurt anybody. Well, nobody that exists yet, anyway.”

“So what did you do?”

“I said some things to Vicki about you so the two of you won’t likely conceive a child tonight.”

“What!” Fred spluttered. “We’ve never—!”

“Well, you would’ve tonight. It would’ve been beautiful. And you would’ve made little baby Brayden, who’d be the lead scientist on the team that sent the signal into space that attracted the Krudgegar. He was a good kid, but a little nutty.” The man in black slapped him on the back. “I don’t know what your future will be like, kid, but just be happy you won’t end up like me.”

He turned and walked out of the store. Just as he did, a police car screeched into the lot, lights flashing but no sirens. Three others followed close behind. Half a dozen cops hopped out and aimed their guns at the man in black.

“Freeze!”

After they’d cuffed and hauled away the man in black, one of the officers asked Fred a few questions. He was a tall, thin man with a salt and pepper pushbroom mustache and a deep voice.

“Do you know the suspect?”

“Yeah, I do. Uh, I mean, as well as I could since I just met him last night.”

“Did he threaten you or draw a weapon?”

“No.”

“He didn’t try to rob the store?”

“No, he just wanted to talk.”

“About what?”

Fred’s mind raced, trying to come up with something, anything, that didn’t sound completely insane.

“Well?”

“He just, uh, he just wanted to sell me some timeshares.”

The cop’s eyes narrowed a bit. “In a ski mask?”

Fred swallowed. “Yeah.”

“You’re sure that’s the statement you want on the record? Whether you’re involved or not, your future will be smoother if you tell me the truth.”

Fred nodded quickly.

“Uh huh. Mind if I see your ID, and get some contact information? I might need to follow up with you.” Fred wrote his phone number on receipt paper and gave it to the cop with his license.

Finally the evening shift arrived just as the cops left. The moment he punched out he dialed Vicki. Straight to voice mail. He left a message, and cursed. He stopped by her apartment. No one answered the door.

He’d told her he’d meet her at their favorite Italian restaurant. It was early, but maybe he’d find her there. He sped across town and arrived forty-five minutes before their reservation. The minutes crawled by, and finally they seated him.

He waited, tapping his foot nervously. And waited. And waited. He tried her phone twice more, with no better luck. Two hours later he gave up, and went back to the dorm. Stu was leaving, wearing his typical holey jeans and a t-shirt with an ad for The Clash.

“Dude,” Stu said, “what did you say to Vicki? She was bawling! I asked her what was wrong, and she just about bit my head off. Said that she hoped you burned in Hell.”

Fred felt a rush of relief that she was alive mingled with anger at the Fred in black for screwing everything up. Fred didn’t feel up to speaking, so he shrugged and shook his head and headed into the dorm, stumbled in, and climbed up his bunk to collapse. There were two envelopes on his bed, apparently left there by Stu. Fred groaned.

The first one was from the dean of students and marked “Urgent!” He tore the envelope open:

Dear Mr. Frederick Vogel,

We have received reports of loud noise, excessive drinking, suspicious costume play, and rumors of lewd acts being performed in public spaces (that last allegation is admittedly unproven, but combined with the other accusations they paint quite a picture, don’t you think?), all associated with your particular dorm room and to your person in particular.

The administration has gone above and beyond the call of duty trying to resolve these conflicts amicably, but it seems that our attempts have fallen on deaf ears. The time has come to escalate our response.

Due to your prolonged incursions with utter disregard to campus peace-keeping provisions, your status as a registered student has been revoked, and you must leave campus within forty-eight hours and never return. You are a destructive presence on campus, not only a danger to yourself, but to everyone around you, and this action is the best consequence for all involved.

We regret to inform you that the final add/drop day has passed so we will be unable to issue you a refund. Rest assured that this decision was reached only after careful thought and deliberation. We tried to give you the benefit of the doubt, but you pushed the boundary one too many times. We have the best interest of all of our students in mind. For the sake of your own future, we advise that you seek professional help.

We cannot in good conscience omit this from your permanent record. Every school has the right to know about this sort of unstable history in students when considering applicants. As they say, one bad apple spoils the bunch! Be advised, as well, that if you choose to reproduce, your offspring had best seek their education elsewhere. One bad apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and suchforth.

We wish you the best in all your future endeavors.

Best wishes,

Samuel Wentworth, Dean of Students.

Fred was too exhausted to be surprised or angry, so he looked at the second envelope. This one had no sending or return address marked on it, only one word, written in red marker: “FRED.”

Inside was a folded photocopy of a textbook page, showing portraits of all of the Presidents of the United States going from George Washington to the present day and further, to unfamiliar faces with future dates. One of the photos near the bottom was circled in red. It was a photo of Fred with wings of gray at his temples.

Written below the photo: “You can do great things! Stay in school! Sincerely, Fred." END

David Steffen lives in Minnesota where he works as a software engineer, writing algorithms for traffic cams. He also writes speculative fiction with sales to dozens of publications, including “Daily Science Fiction” and “Stupefying Stories.”

 

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