When coerced into being party to, or rather the center of, a time traveling misadventure, one would imagine that the simplicities of normal life would be forgotten to the curiosity of such an adventure. However, in Candace’s case, her body remembered only that she had been at the end of a long, mentally taxing day during which she and Kal had been in the midst of dealing with a client who didn’t understand that her crude hand-drawn logo that was, allegedly, a crown encircling a globe but more closely resembled a child’s hand turkey was hardly useful when designing an actual website. That along with the understandable stress of having your very life being the plaything of a sadistic bunch of clones of your same coworker resulted in Candace being quite exhausted. She snored from where she was sprawled out on the sitting area’s loveseat.
This was the situation Kal found herself in, her frustration with the past couple days’ events leaving her unable to sit in uncomfortable silence beside Calvyn, who dutifully, or fearfully, puzzled over the license coding he’d been charged with affecting. His fingers tip-tapped over the keyboard of the notably up-to-date laptop in the way that Kal liked, when she knew that Calvyn was focused and relaxed, unraveling the secrets of whatever piece of technology he had been given. Except this was a license, and they were sitting in a peculiar cave in a peculiar jungle in a peculiar timeline waiting for a truly dangerous individual to come along and do
Kal paced in the way she did when she was angry or bothered. As it would turn out, she was both. Her head still pounded from where the would-be snitch had brained her, and the headache wasn’t helping her figure a way out of this situation any faster.
“Kal, you’re pacing,” Calvyn said.
“This is terrible luck,” Kal said. “If this is what was going to happen, then we should never have gotten our licenses in the first place.”
“It’s distracting when you’re pacing.”
“I mean, not every version of a person is going to be normal or decent, but this is ridiculous.”
“I can get us out of this if I could just focus for a few more minutes.”
Tip stomp tap stomp.
“There isn’t a way out of this anymore. We’re screwed.”
Calvyn gave a little sigh in the way Kal knew he did when he was frustrated with her and trying to find a way to diffuse the situation. Rather than continuing her tantrum, Kal stomped her way to the bed at the back of the apartment. She and everyone else had made a point of avoiding it simply because Brigstein seemed to be ignoring its existence, and if the most threatening member of their party was disturbed by something, then that thing was to be avoided at all cost, thank you very much. Except, the smiling one wasn’t there, and Kal was starving for information like a reporter itching to speak with a serial murderer.
The bed itself was nothing interesting, aside from the still undisturbed petals. On the bed stand, in the midst of the jungle of disturbingly tailored paraphernalia, was the framed picture of two people. One, clearly Brigstein, and the other Candace Styles.
Kal absently picked up the frame and inspected it, but all she could glean was that this particular version of Candace had the same gleefully cold smile and mirthless, calculating eyes as the man with his hand around her waist. She was wearing the kind of tight clothes that Kal’s Candace would never dream of wearing. Upon closer inspection, Kal noticed that she had something poking out of the bottom of her sparse red dress. Something that reminded her of a knife holster, but perhaps she was imagining that. Perhaps all of this was a terrible dream, and she was just wishing that she could go back in time and stop all of this from happening.
Time travel has many little jokes like that.
“We should just leave,” Kal said, returning to Calvyn’s side.
Calvyn paused and gave her a textbook wide-eyed stare.
“We’d be killed. I don’t know by who, but we wouldn’t go back home. Not ever.”
“It’s better than being here with these deathtraps.”
Calvyn’s fiddling with the code resumed. “Maybe?”
“We’re hidden now, from the Protectorate. If anything that one has to say is true. We could find our own quiet little timeline and be there away from all this mess and just be left alone.”
“He’d find us.”
“Why would the king of contingency let two witnesses go back to life as normal?”
Kal decided that she didn’t like not having a pleasant answer for that question, so she took to leaning over Calvyn’s shoulder and inspecting the screen of jargon.
“How’s this going?”
“I found a permissions loophole to exploit. Download the modification and we can punch through any blockade the Protectorate puts up until they change their definitions.”
With that admittedly simple explanation, Kal stood and glared at Calvyn. “If it’s that simple, then why couldn’t the master hacker figure it out for himself? He did all that other garbage.”
Clavyn shrugged and gave her a frown, as if the assortment of symbols and characters had spat on him in the process of him inspecting them. “Maybe he did. Everything in the code he gave me looked . . . done already.”
Kal’s stomping resumed.
“That’s it, Calvyn. I’m not dealing with this for the rest of my life. The first chance I see, you and I are getting out of this mess. You hear me? We’re leaving.”
“Just try not to get us shot in the back.”
Kal was not completely surprised when Cal and Brigstein returned with the escaped version before night had settled over the jungle. By this point, Candace had awakened, so she and Kal had set about looking for something edible in the apartment. If the dead rose petals were any indication of when Brigstein had last entered this particular chamber, that would be more than enough to allow an informed reader to understand the state of the food. When Brigstein, a bound Brigs before him, stepped over the threshold, he had a knowing look in his eye, a look that Kal didn’t appreciate in the slightest.
“I presume your work is complete?” Brigstein said in that obnoxious, clipped tone he always used.
“Much sooner than I would’ve thought.” There were times Kal loved the adorable little stammer that Calvyn spoke with when he became flustered. There were other times, such as this, when she wanted nothing more than to slap some confidence into his voice. “I’m surprised you wanted my help to do it.”
Brigstein’s smile widened just a fraction. “Oh, great minds still like a little outside perspective. Perhaps I was looking so closely I couldn’t see what was right in my face. We’ll begin the update immediately then.”
As this conversation progressed, Cal had mutely taken charge of an equally subdued Brigs and meandered closer to the kitchen. Candace, in a fit of bravery, deigned to only eye them suspiciously as she attempted to work out how to save an oddly colored pair of steaks.
“How’s it going?” Cal asked. His voice sounded unconvinced that he cared to ask that question.
“I’m watching a bunch of time travelers play with my life,” she replied. Her voice was layered with disgust, more with the rancid meat than her situation. “So as well as anyone could be. I’m starving too.”
The three of them watched briefly as Kal approached Brigstein and started interrogating him. It was a sight to behold, someone actually standing up to the man. He smiled all throughout.
“So who’s license are we using to do this?”
“Where’s my license anyway?”
“Here. You may want to wipe it off.”
“So if we’re using your license, who’s going with you to take Candace back?”
“Oh, I imagine we’ll all need to make the trip.”
“So we can work out the details of the aftermath together.”
“And what happens after this is all done? It’s not like I can just stay there and go back to normal.”
“Oh, I’ve figured out some of it.”
When Brigstein fell silent and refused to elaborate more on his intentions, Kal threw her hands up and retreated to Candace’s side. She gave the doomed woman’s hand a squeeze before slamming around in the fridge for some time.
“So that’s it, then?” Brigs said. He’d lost most of the smarmy edge his voice normally carried with it, but there was still a touch of defiance in his eyes. “You mess around with your license some more, and it’s done?”
In a smooth motion, Brigstein stepped over to Calvyn and picked up the laptop, cradling it on one arm while he scrolled with another. His voice was soft and distracted as he inspected Calvyn’s work.
“As much as anything is ever done for our sort.”
And that was that. Brigstein spent the rest of the evening toying with his license and the laptop, refusing to answer any further questions over the proposed logistics of breaking through the blockade and what would presumably come afterwards. He only paused in his fiddling to wander off into the jungle, only to return with armfuls of rations for the rest of the party to pick over for their supper.
All things considered, Brigs was beginning to wonder if it wouldn’t have been a better idea to remain in the village.
. . .
“You’re called Cal, right?”
It was the first time Candace had ever sought him out in conversation.
She was standing over him. He’d chosen a secluded corner in the kitchenette to lean up against and sleep, although he hadn’t planned on doing much of that. Not considering the sadistic grin Brigstein had given him when it was clear the license was ready, and the plan for the next day would unfold. She looked skittish, like she was on the verge of running away like he wanted to so badly.
“When we leave in the morning,” she said, and then she stopped in the sort of way one stops speaking to avoid bursting into tears. “When we go back to my home, I’m going to die.”
Cal looked up at her with weight. All the time he’d spent looking for a way to end up in this very situation, and now he was going out of his way to deliver her back into the same old cycle.
“I suspect so.”
“Kal and Calvyn,” she said, and then she dropped her voice to a whisper. “I think they’re going to try and run. Get away from the other you. The scary one.”
“Then they’ll die.”
She opened her mouth as if to argue, but then her understanding of the last few days kicked in, and she nodded understandingly.
“So there’s really no way around this?”
“There’s always a time when everything turns out okay,” Cal replied with a shrug. “I’ve just never been able to find it.”
“But you tried.” She hovered in silence for a beat. “I haven’t been handling this situation very well. I mean, how could I be expected to. But. I think I’m beginning to understand why you took me. And. I guess I should thank you.”
“Why? You die tomorrow. All I did was drag it out a bit longer.”
With that glowing comment, Cal drew the hood to his sweatshirt low over his face, shutting himself away from the subdued apartment and hiding the suddenly very real emotion that was spreading across his face.
Come morning, Candace would be dead once again.
And he will have killed her.
But when morning did indeed come, as all things dictated it must, it was a confusing blur that Cal had trouble following. Brigs was no longer bound, and yet he hadn’t attempted to flee again in the night. Candace was jumpy and looked ill. Kal was eyeing everyone and everything with the kind of stare a professional soldier gives the horizon before a firefight. Calvyn clung to his duffel bag as if it could save his life.
And Brigstein smiled serenely.
“Come along, now,” he said, holding his freshly modified license aloft. “We’ve got a timeline to correct.”
After, with understandable reluctance, the rest of the group had gathered around him, Brigstein adjusted the coordinates and got them on their way.
The first stop, the one that would put them in the proper location, namely the intersection of Pike and Weston, went off without so much as a hiccough.
The trip that would bring the party to the twenty-third of June, thirty-four minutes past five in the afternoon, however, proved more turbulent.
At this point you’ll understand that, from Brigstein’s perspective, it was a necessity to shunt the extra three off into an alternative timeline. Specifically, one where Kal, Calvyn, and Brigs would be apprehended by the Protectorate. They were, after all, expecting three travelers involved in the recent Candace Styles case to be passing through that time, due to a helpful tip from a concerned version who suspected they had something to do with tampering with licenses. In fact, Kal and Calvyn would both be in possession of such licenses upon capture, and Brigs would be operating in blatant disregard for law, having lost his license and continued piggyback time traveling without reporting it.
It was a neat haul, and quite a simple matter.
Cal and Candace didn’t become aware of what had happened until they were quite firmly in the locked down timeline, staring into the busy street at a spot directly in front of a fully loaded vegetable truck.
Neither of them, however, would care since at this point, Brigstein had pulled out his handy gun and was directing it at Cal.
“You’re going to kill me now?” Cal said. He could feel the barrel pressing at the base of his skull.
“After all this, you’re just going to shoot me?”
“I’ve become bored with our little game. Months of this, Cal. Months. You act as if you’re the only one of us to lose her.”
“We could have saved another one. Or found a timeline where she lived. You didn’t have to torture yourself.”
“She lives so often. There are timelines upon timelines where she survives. That was never the point. You know, it’s a simple task, to block a timeline as a destination. You never even noticed the manipulation.”
Cal was searching Candace’s frightened face for some clue as to what was going on behind him. In his time as Brigstein’s traveling companion, he’d yet to encounter a time when he’d expressed genuine emotion, and yet here he was, on the brink of witnessing yet another iteration of the worst day of his life, listening to what could’ve been mistaken for misery dripping from Brigstein’s ever-smiling lips.
There was no clue in her eyes. Only a grim certainty.
“Why should I help you find peace that I can never have?”
The bullet making short work of the frazzled contents of Cal’s brain made it difficult for him to answer that question.
On the twenty-third day of June, around half-past five in the afternoon, many versions of Candace Styles died on the intersection of Weston and Pike. Many lived. Many had no reason to be in that part of town at that time of day.
In one particular subset’s series of events, Calvin Brigstein, who went by his last name as it best suited his personality, walked along Weston with his prized girlfriend and partner in crime. They were a vicious couple, feeding off of each other’s taste for blood, and they were coming down off of a good heist. It was the pickpocket’s misfortune that he picked them as his target, especially considering Brigstein’s propensity for shooting those he disagreed with.
It was Candace’s misfortune to be standing behind the pickpocket as he ducked out of the way the moment Brigstein had raised the gun to fire.
At that point, in a newly formed subset of time, a new dance began.
Brigstein, standing behind Cal, pulled the trigger and killed him. He was crying when he pushed Candace in front of the truck.
Candace pushes Cal away in a fit of terror and is shot herself. Brigstein collapses to the ground, wailing.
While Brigstein is still crowing his revenge, Cal whips around and knocks the gun away. There’s a scuffle, and Cal is pushed away. Just far enough that he can only watch as Brigstein pushes Candace in front of the truck before turning back to finish the job.
The scuffle is more evenly matched since Cal isn’t quite so shocked. They fight until both men fall in front of the truck. The glitch in the system caused by Brigstein’s tampered license unfreezes the timeline as soon as anyone, not just Candace, occupies the space in front of the vehicle. They’re both crushed, but not before Brigstein’s license comes free from his other hand.
Eye-witnesses to the accident claim that there was a woman there at some point, but she disappeared as suddenly as she appeared. There were two men in the street now instead of the one who’d been there before. Some could’ve sworn there’d been a gun.
Brigstein’s hands were clearly shaking as he held the gun to Cal’s head. He wasn’t even looking at his would-be victim. His eyes were fixed on Candace, the Candace who now couldn’t make sense of what she was looking at. Cal, searching her eyes for forgiveness. Brigstein, openly grieving. And now another Candace, a license in one hand, and a gun, Brigstein’s gun, in the other.
She’d swept forward out of the frozen crowd of people, and in a hurried motion, pointed the gun at Brigstein’s back and fired. There was something like admiration in his gaze as he bled out on the sidewalk.
Cal looked around at her with a questioning look, but the armed Candace shook with terror and determination.
“I don’t know where the others are, but I can help you.”
Cal had what almost looked like a smile on his face when he shrugged and looked back at the original Candace. He only had a moment to wonder how he was going to work this all out when the armed Candace strode forward, clumsily shoving the gun in her pants and hissing as it burned her, and pushed her original self in front of the truck. All at once time rushed back on them, and people screamed in horror at the suddenness of bodies surrounding them.
Cal stared with real horror at this new, murderous Candace.
“We can’t have more than one copy traveling with us,” she said, striding back to him. Those two seemed to be the only ones unbothered by the gunshot Brigstein and the truck-crushed Candace. “That was the problem before, right? With the others. There were too many of you. You were all too different.”
She grabbed his arm, pulling him away from the road with a feverish desperation.
“You killed her,” he said.
“That stopped the blockade though, right? That’ll buy us some time, right?”
Cal stopped and watched her charge forward through the crowd some more. He wondered.
Candace stopped and looked at him desperately. “Listen, Cal. We need to go. I can’t let you die anymore trying to save me. I don’t want to die. So let’s go and figure this out. Maybe we can both live this time.”
Calvin Brigstein, the version who chose to dwell on things best left to memory, took a deep breath and returned his hands to their happy homes in his pockets.
At this point, the onlookers that were included to do so would tell the news that two people, a man and a woman, who seemed remarkably identical to the two who had just died side-by-side on the corner of Weston and Pike on the twenty-third of June, thirty-four minutes past five in the afternoon, took each other’s hands and walked into nothing.
Paige Bagby is a lover of all things science fiction and fantasy. Drawing on her favorite authors like Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut, she writes out of northeast Pennsylvania and looks toward a better future.