A Switch In Time
© 2005 by Julie Rollins
Suzanne Morris watched as Andy Chastain double-checked the chronometer on his belt. His blue eyes twinkled with eagerness from within his shapely, still boyish, face.
Andy looked up at Dr. Edward Stewart, director of the CRP, the Chronological Research Project. “Everything is ready.”
Dr. Stewart nodded grimly. Suzanne rarely saw him smile. She suspected it was because one tiny mishap could shut down the whole project.
There were many in the government who were very nervous about time travel, even if it was only allowed for research purposes. It was so controversial that the entire project was kept secret from the public.
Gripping a clipboard, Andy activated his chronometer, vanishing into the past with a flash.
Suzanne glanced at the agenda on her own clipboard. Why did they have to send Andy back to that date?
She tried not to pant as another panic attack threatened to overtake her. Ever since that horrid day, she’d struggled with occasional bouts of paralyzing fear. Only once before had it struck her at work, but her capricious malady remained hidden from Dr. Stewart.
Suzanne slowed her breathing, willing herself to appear calm, collected. For once she wished they could have sent Andy into the future, even if it was strictly forbidden.
“Well, soon we will find out who shot Mayor Braden,” Dr. Stewart mused in a light-hearted manner, but sweat glistened on his baldpate, surrounded by a crown of faded red hair.
Suzanne stared at the launching platform where Andy had disappeared. He was due to arrive back ten minutes later as a precaution. If a traveler arrived at the same time he left, the results would be fatal. Two bodies could not occupy the same space at the same time.
The containment machines hummed around her. These were installed as a safeguard. Those who traveled back did so in “bubble time” a self-contained timeline copied from the real world. Should someone disrupt the past, it would not affect the real world so long as the buffers were running.
Still, the disruption in bubble time would have to be corrected before the buffers were powered down, otherwise it could corrupt the chronology of the real world. At least that’s what Dr. Stewart postulated. No one really knew, and no one was eager to find out.
A machine that looked like a seismograph with twin needles compared the chronology of real time and bubble time. Once Andy returned, his chronometer would transmit its information for comparison to real time. If there were any discrepancies, the team would be alerted immediately.
In spite of the safeguards, some government officials worried what might happen should the equipment fail. A few pessimists doubted the buffers ever worked, except at a scam to calm nervous bureaucrats.
Suzanne looked up at the rock ceiling, trying to forget the day Andy had been sent to study. The entire laboratory had been carefully constructed inside Black Water Cave.
Because the cave had been discovered within the last four years, it had proved to be the perfect site. Time travelers needn’t worry about their arrival sight being clear of people, large animals or structures. Probes verified the cave had remained empty and dry for five thousand years.
As the containment machines hummed, she stared up at the three dishes on the trackers. These made certain the traveler wasn’t transported to another place as well. Since the earth raced along in its orbit, it was vital for the traveler to be in sync with its motion.
She sighed and looked at her watch. How time dragged at this end! She could see Andy in her mind’s eye, climbing out of the cave. The time would be freeze-framed of course. That way he could move as unseen as a ghost among the people, find a suitable place to observe the events and unfreeze time.
The sight had been chosen already. Andy would climb up a tree across the street from the hotel. From there he should be able to see who it was that had fired the fatal bullet. Once he’d made his discovery, he’d freeze-frame time and ghost his way back to the cave.
Rick Savage came up to Dr. Stewart and smiled. “I’ve got twenty bucks riding on this. Griswold’s the man, I’m telling you.”
Suzanne tuned him out. Controversial though it was, Mayor Braden’s assassination was not the event that nagged her.
She gave another impatient sigh and leaned on the safety rail that encircled the launching platform, struggling once more to slow her breathing.
“I didn’t know you were so worked up about this,” Rick teased, his brown eyes narrowing.
Suzanne looked away. No, Rick didn’t know. Usually she enjoyed his bantering, but he wasn’t someone she could bare her soul to.
Andy, however, was. He was the one that found her weeping and near hysterics in her office on the anniversary of that bleak day. He kept her secret, knew what it was that ate at her . . .
“Hey, Suzy, cheer up!” Rick continued. “I’m the one whose money is on the line.”
She forced a little smile.
Rick chuckled. “That’s it, don’t be so glum. Mayor Braden’s been dead twenty years!”
She breathed in another draught of musty cave air. Even with all the air filters and dehumidifiers, the cavern still stank a little. The feeble spring still made its presence known, especially after a heavy rain.
A warning bell sounded, announcing the countdown to Andy’s arrival.
All eyes focused on the platform.
Andy flashed back. His face was pale, but he wore an oddly determined look.
“Well, out with it!” Rick said. “We all want to know who done it.”
Andy rubbed the back of his neck.
“Come on, don’t keep us in suspense!” Rick chided.
“Well, it was a . . . very illuminating experience,” Andy said slowly. He stepped to the side of the launch pad and looked up at the clock. “Nine eleven,” he said.
“So, am I out twenty bucks?” Rick asked.
“Someone is. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s Tim.”
Suzanne could not understand why Andy was stalling. His odd behavior put her in her detective mode where few details escape her notice.
The more Rick tried to get Andy to speak, the more reluctant Andy became to divulge any information.
“Andy, would you please transmit your chronometer’s recording to the computer?” Dr. Stewart asked.
“Sure.” Andy fumbled with the chronometer and glanced at the clock. “Nine fourteen.”
“What is with you?” Rick said. “You’re slower than tar!”
Andy looked back at his chronometer. “Transmitting . . . now.”
“Fine, come down and tell us about your trip,” Dr. Stewart said.
Before Andy could move, an alarm wailed, the sound every worker dreaded.
Rick swore as the containment buffers rose to a roar and the chronology comparison needles scribbled waves that danced increasingly out of sync.
History had been altered.
Every worker scrambled to emergency stations.
Only Andy seemed calm, unaffected.
“What did you do?” Dr. Stewart bellowed.
Andy just stood there, rigid.
“Get him off the platform, now!” Dr. Stewart ordered. “I want him in my office.”
He turned to Suzanne and beckoned her to follow him.
Rick and Tim, a burly technician, seized Andy by the arms. After confiscating his chronometer, they led him into a room with double paned glass.
As Suzanne watched, Rick shut the door to the room, cutting the jarring noise to a tolerable drone.
Dr. Stewart stared at Andy. “What happened?”
Andy extended his clipboard. “Griswold did it, sir.”
Dr. Stewart snatched the clipboard and slammed it onto the table. “I don’t care about Griswold, what did you do?”
Andy’s face became stone.
Dr. Stewart swore in a rare display of emotion. “Do you realize you may have doomed this project, along with your job?”
Andy stared straight ahead. Suzanne thought he looked like he’d aged a few years.
Dr. Stewart rubbed his thin crown of hair and spoke in a more congenial tone. “Look, it is possible you made an honest mistake. We need to know what happened so we can correct it. Won’t you please tell us what happened?”
Tension filled the dead air.
“Please!” Dr. Stewart begged.
Andy clenched his jaw and wagged his head.
“If this ever blows over, we’ll only be able to use freeze-frame,” Rick mumbled.
Andy’s sudden resistance shocked Suzanne. He had always been a model worker. What had happened?
Dr. Stewart drew himself up. “We’ll just have to repair the damage ourselves. Suzanne, you’re the only other worker familiar with the town of Santa Corona. Are you ready to go?”
“Yes sir,” Suzanne replied.
She noted the faintest of smiles on Andy’s face.
“What are we going to do about him?” Rick asked, jabbing a thumb toward Andy.
“Fire him,” Dr. Stewart said in his gravest voice.
Rick’s dark eyebrows arched. “That’s all?”
Andy chuckled. “It’s all he can do, legally. I didn’t break any laws here or in the past. There are no laws about changing time because time travel isn’t even public knowledge!”
“He’s right,” Dr. Stewart said. “We don’t even know what he’s done.” He glared at Andy. “But we can keep him from ever interfering again. Throw him out!”
Turning back to Andy, Dr. Stewart continued, “But if we catch you breaking your secrecy agreement, we will throw you in jail for a long time.”
Tim seized Andy’s arm again.
Andy turned and looked at Suzanne. “I have no regrets.”
“Can’t you even give me a hint?” Suzanne asked.
“Sure. Go find yourself seven years ago.” Andy’s blue eyes gave her a parting wink before he was escorted out.
“He messed with my life,” Suzanne said, aghast. “He screwed with my past! What did he do? Date me? Marry me?”
Dr. Stewart put a hand on her shoulder. “If this is too much for you, I can send Rick instead. He can study the maps until he—”
“No!” Suzanne ground her teeth in anger. “It’s my life and I’m going to find out what he did to me!” Besides, she didn’t trust Rick enough to let him nose around in her past.
“I think Andy just said that to throw us off,” Rick said. “I bet he tried to stop the assassination. Andy always was a compassionate sucker. Seeing a guy murdered was probably too much for him.”
Dr. Stewart appeared to mull this over. “I think you’re right, Rick. Still, to be on the safe side, we’ll key the chronometer to let Suzanne travel back seven years first and then twenty years to the assassination. We’ll get to the bottom of this!”
He turned to Suzanne. “The containment buffers appear to be working, but I would appreciate it if you would leave now.”
“Yes sir.” Suzanne headed straight for the launch platform. Someone had finally muted the alarm. She stepped onto the platform and waited while Dr. Stewart programmed the chronometer.
“All set,” Dr. Stewart said, stepping off the platform. He turned and faced her behind the safety bar.
“I know this may end up being very personal to you. For once I won’t demand a detailed written report; an oral one will suffice upon you return. Then we can both forget whatever happened.”
“Anytime you are ready,” Dr. Stewart said.
She activated her chronometer. The lights and muted alarms were swallowed up in darkness.
* * *
It was black, except for the small patch of sky revealing the entrance to the cave.
Suzanne looked down at the glowing blue light coming from the screen on her chronometer. She had gone back seven years.
Feeling the wall of the cave, she made her way to the entrance and squeezed through.
“Ugh!” Even after so many assignments, she still got dirt in her hair whenever she exited the damp cave.
Suzanne crawled out from the concealing undergrowth, stood in the sunlight and swatted the dirt from her clothes.
After activating the freeze-frame mode, she strode with confidence to the road. It was a half-mile walk to Santa Corona.
Cars seemed parked on the busy two-lane highway. A hawk hovered beside the road. It was so low she could have touched it, but her training made her resist. Time was not something to be played with.
She enjoyed a sense of nostalgia as she entered the town. Mr. Wrig’s Pharmacy was still in business and the old Corona Theater had not been torn down yet.
As she approached her apartment, her pulse began to pound. At least the long walk had tamed some of her panic.
There was no one in sight near the apartment door. Suzanne knew she could not open the door in the freeze-frame mode.
She deactivated the mode.
The sounds of car motors, barking dogs, and a droning lawnmower assaulted her.
Suzanne always hated the sudden shock of sound after the silence of freeze-frame. She stared at the door. It was Saturday morning and she should be home. What would she find?
It didn’t matter if she met herself in this past. Andy had already done the damage. Once she discovered what he’d done, she’d go back and fix it. Then history would take its natural course once again.
At least that’s what she’d been taught.
Suzanne pushed the doorbell and smirked. How would her former-self respond?
Someone came running to the door. Funny, Suzanne didn’t usually run to answer the door.
“Who is it?” called a young voice.
Too young. Suzanne only had children over on rare occasions when a friend was visiting. She thought fast.
“Hi, Honey, I’m a friend of Suzanne Morris.”
She heard the door unlock. It opened as far as the security chain would allow.
A young girl with piercing green eyes looked at her. She had to be about thirteen.
“Oh my . . . Mom!” the girl shouted and drew back.
Suzanne knew she had never seen this child before. Why was the girl so alarmed?
“Mom! Mom come quick!” the girl shouted.
The door closed and the security chain rattled.
“What is it, Honey?” called a woman.
The door swung open.
Suzanne found herself face to face with the girl and her former-self.
The former Suzanne gawked at her.
“Can I come in?” Suzanne asked. “We have much to discuss.”
The former Suzanne drew back. “Um, sure. Come on in.”
Suzanne followed her former-self to the den.
“Mom, I didn’t know you had a sister,” the girl hissed.
Suzanne stumbled and gripped the back of the sofa to steady herself.
Her former-self turned and scrutinized Suzanne with sharp green eyes. “Are you ill?”
Suzanne fumbled into the couch, and stared at the girl. “You have a daughter!”
“Yes,” her former-self replied. “Now, can you tell me how we are related, for it is obvious that we are related?”
“I see this is going to be difficult for both of us,” Suzanne muttered. She eyed the girl—the beautiful girl seated on a chair—before turning back to her former-self. “Can we talk alone?”
The former Suzanne seemed to ponder this. “I do not like to keep secrets from my daughter.”
“Some things are best kept as secrets,” Suzanne replied. “Just let me tell you what I know and you can decide what to share.”
The former Suzanne nodded. “Fair enough. Selena, why don’t you work on your report? It wouldn’t hurt to have it finished early. Then you’ll have more time to play with Francis while I visit with Louise.
Selena glided from the room, keeping her green eyes on Suzanne until she entered her bedroom.
As soon as the door was shut, Suzanne’s former-self refocused her attention on Suzanne.
“There is a project underway to build a lab for time travel,” Suzanne began. “I come from seven years in the future. I’m you.”
The former Suzanne blinked.
Suzanne smirked. “I can guess what you’re thinking. Your skeptical brain is racing to reconcile what you see with the seeming impossibility of time travel. Let me help you along. There are things only you and I know.”
Suzanne expected her former-self to cower. Instead the younger woman folded her arms and said, “Bring it on.”
Suzanne had not expected that response. She decided she’d better deal with the distant past.
“You accidentally killed Louise’s hamster when you stepped into your boot. You had no idea it was hiding in there.”
Her former-self winced.
Suzanne continued. “After you copied the answers off Jimmy Greenbaum’s test in the eighth grade, you felt so guilty that you never cheated on a test again. You had a crush on Larry Berry, but you never told anyone. He treated you like dirt.”
Her former-self nodded.
“It hurts me to remember it, too,” Suzanne confided.
“Okay, so let’s say you are me, from the future,” her former-self reasoned. “Why are you here?”
“One of our former employees messed with the past and I’ve got to go back and fix it.”
Her former-self looked up sharply. “How?”
“Once I know what he did, and when he did it, I’ll go back and stop him. Then time will flow the way it’s supposed to.”
Her former-self rose. “Excuse me, but I just remembered I left a mess in the kitchen.”
Suzanne stood. “I’ll help. Don’t worry, I know all your idiosyncrasies about stacking the cups upside down and always washing the plates counter-clockwise.”
Her former-self laughed. “Either you really are me, or someone’s spent an awful lot of time studying my behavior!”
Suzanne followed her former-self into the kitchen. She picked up a dishrag. “Let me give you a demonstration.”
Her former-self observed her. “All right.”
Suzanne eyed the dishrag. Funny, she didn’t remember this rag. She filled the sink and began her task.
“I feel guilty standing here just watching,” her former-self confided.
Once the dishes were cleaned, Suzanne began drying. Then she took the stacked dishes and began to put them away. When she opened the cupboard where the bowls should be, she stared at the assortment of cups.
“Wait a minute,” she muttered.
“I used to keep the bowls in there, but after Selena was born I moved them to the pantry,” her former-self said.
Selena. She had changed things.
Her former-self wasn’t stupid. “You weren’t expecting to see Selena, were you?”
“No,” Suzanne confessed.
Her former-self sat down and stared at the cleared table. “Tell me the truth. Does something terrible happen to Selena in the future? Does she get killed?” She turned and looked at Suzanne with a tortured expression.
Suzanne felt a panic attack coming, hard. She took a seat before she lost the strength to stand.
Thirteen. Selena was thirteen. It left no doubt in Suzanne’s mind.
“What happens?” her former-self pleaded.
Suzanne shook her head, struggling to breath. “It’s not what happens, but what happened.”
“I don’t understand.”
But Suzanne did, in a flash. “Andy Chastain!”
“You know him?” her former-self asked.
Suzanne stared at her. “I do, but you shouldn’t. You’re not supposed to meet him until you join the project.” She placed a hand on her chest, trying to slow her breathing.
“Andy is a wonder friend. I owe him . . .” Her former-self placed a hand over her mouth. “No.”
Suzanne found her voice. “He talked you out of it, didn’t he? He was supposed to go back to observe the assassination of Mayor Braden, but he saw you, headed for the Women’s Health Center!”
Her former-self blushed. “Yes, he told me it would devastate me if I had an abortion. Andy spoke with such conviction; he knew just the right words to sway me.”
Suzanne buried her face on the table and wailed.
“Oh no,” her former-self said. “You had it, didn’t you? You aborted Selena!”
Suzanne pounded the table with a fist, ignoring the physical pain.
She felt the hands of her former-self, rubbing her shoulders, trying to soothe her like a child. Although her former-self was seven years younger, she had a calmness and a maturity Suzanne lacked.
The former Suzanne was confident, whole. How Suzanne wished she could trade places! For a brief moment, she toyed with the idea, but realized it would never work. If she stayed here and the former Suzanne went forward, the team wouldn’t take long to discover the switch.
Suzanne choked as she felt her throat spasm.
“Mother, is she all right?” asked a young voice.
Selena stood in the kitchen doorway. “I heard someone crying.”
Her mother rose and hugged Selena. “It’s okay, Honey.”
“Is she your sister?” Selena asked. “What’s her name?”
“We’ll discuss it later,” her mother answered. “Right now we both need some privacy. We have a lot to figure out.”
The girl turned to leave.
“Wait,” Suzanne called in a hoarse voice. She reached out and touched the girl, stroking her hair with hungry fingers, feeling her strong, graceful arms before Selena left.
“She’s so beautiful,” Suzanne croaked.
“Yes, and she’s the kindest child, so gentle with younger kids,” her former-self added.
Suzanne loved the child. Selena was her daughter . . . and yet she was not her daughter. “Tell me what happened.”
Her former-self sighed, pulled out a tea bag and set some water to boil.
“You drink tea?” Suzanne asked, startled.
“Andy got me hooked on mint tea. Try it. I know you’ll like it,” her former-self said with conviction.
Her former-self sat down then as they waited for the water to boil and began her story.
“As you know, I was headed for the clinic. Shawn had gotten me pregnant and then dumped me. I didn’t think I could raise a child.
“Just before I reached the door, Andy called to me from the sidewalk. He called me by name and said he had some very important information for me.
“I was a little put off at first, but I wondered how he knew my name. Andy’s concern for me came through very clearly. He guided me through my turbulent emotions and helped me to see clearly.”
Her former-self shook her head. “He even offered to support me until I found a job. By his gentleness he persuaded me to keep Selena.
“Andy was true to his word. He got a job at the local computer store and sent me a check after every payday. Andy helped me get connected with other women who were pregnant or who had small children.”
Her former-self beamed with confidence. “When Selena was born, I learned that I could be a good mother. I grew. Andy helped me for four years before he left for some kind of business trip. He said he would be back after a number of years.
“Raising Selena was a challenge at times, but my friends helped me through.”
“I could never . . .” Suzanne stopped. She could. She had. If only she had never stepped inside that nasty clinic! She still cringed at the sound of a vacuum cleaner. The suction machine had sucked more than her daughter out of her life; it had taken half of her soul as well!
The kettle eventually screamed into the silence.
Her former-self rose and poured the steaming water into two mugs.
Suzanne found it tasty and calming. What else had she missed in life?
Her former-self drained her mug, rose and headed over to the sink.
The crash of a mug shattering on a porcelain sink jarred Suzanne.
Her former-self turned and looked at her, pale. “No, you can’t do it!”
“Do what?” Suzanne asked.
“Go back! If you go back . . .” her former-self let the dreaded words hang, unspoken.
Suzanne cringed. How could she go back and make sure she repeated the greatest mistake of her life?
“You have to let her live!” her former-self spoke in an adamant voice.
Suzanne had been trained and drilled never to interfere with history. If Dr. Stewart had known about her predicament, he would never have sent her back.
And she would never have met Selena. Now that Suzanne had met the girl, could she kill her daughter again?
Suzanne seethed. “Of all the nasty, cruel—”
“No, it doesn’t have to be that way,” her former-self said. “Why should your timeline be better than mine? Why not just . . . let things be?”
“How I wish I could!” Suzanne wailed. “Listen, if I do nothing, Selena will never live beyond twenty.”
“Because I’m due back ten minutes after I left. If I stay here and do nothing, time will march forward until my arrival date. When I don’t show, they will send someone else back, someone who will ‘fix’ the timeline!”
“There’s got to be something we can do.” Her former-self bowed her head. Was she praying? How much had Andy changed her?
“Well, I suppose we do have seven years,” Suzanne noted, still uncertain as to what she would do.
“Mom, can I get a snack?” Selena called from her room.
“Sure, Honey,” her mother answered.
Selena came in and searched the pantry. After finding a box of crackers, she joined them at the table.
Suzanne couldn’t keep her eyes off the girl.
Selena seemed equally mesmerized. “So, who are you?”
Suzanne looked over at her former-self. “Well, Selena, I suppose I’m your Aunt Sue.”
“Really? That is so rad!” Selena said with child-like awe.
Suzanne’s former-self nodded, approvingly. It was the best they could make of a confusing situation.
“I wouldn’t mention your Aunt Sue to your friends or relatives,” Selena’s mother warned. “We have to work through some things first or a lot of feelings could be hurt.”
“I won’t tell,” Selena said. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
Her mother bent down and kissed the girl’s head. “Such a good sweetheart!”
Selena walked over to Suzanne and threw her arms around her. “And I’ll love you, Aunt Sue. You’ll be like a second mom to me! We’ll have lots of fun.”
With that she hurried back to her room.
Suzanne was too choked up to speak for a full minute. She closed her eyes, trying to permanently etch the feel of that tender embrace in her memory.
Her resolve hardened. Forget the future; she would do what she could to save her child!
Suzanne opened her eyes and stared at her former-self. “No matter what happens, Selena must live!”
* * *
The next few months, Suzanne brought her former-self up to speed regarding time travel. Her former-self was sharp and more daring, but they shared many weaknesses.
Often they bounced ideas off each other.
“It sounds like I’m talking to myself,” Suzanne remarked.
“That’s because you are!” retorted her former-self.
After six months of enjoying Selena, Suzanne realized she’d better go back before she forgot her training. She spent two weeks with her former-self, hammering out their plan.
Suzanne looked at the pages on her clipboard. “Okay, let’s go over this one more time.
“I’ll reset the chronometer to take me back to the day I left. I’ll arrive at nine thirteen. That will place me on the launch pad after Andy stepped away from its center and before the alarms went off.”
Suzanne drew in a deep breath. She knew she risked killing both herself and Andy if she didn’t time it right.
“I will arrive in freeze-frame mode,” she continued. “During that time I will get into position. As soon as I go to real time, I will steal the strip chart and program the computer to erase its memory. Once I see myself leave for here, I will . . . sabotage the buffers.”
Her former-self gazed out the window. “Sue, if you succeed, what will happen to you?” She turned and faced Suzanne.
Suzanne looked at the mother she longed to be. “Are you happy?”
“Yes.” Her former-self blinked rapidly.
Suzanne sighed. “When the two timelines reconcile, I will probably be wiped out. It would be as if I never existed.” She stared down at her reflection in the glossy blue tabletop. “I didn’t know what I threw away. Selena . . . it would kill me, kill me to lose her now. You are whole, happy, a mother. How I envy you!”
With a shudder, Suzanne looked up. “No, if only one Suzanne survives, it must be you. I’m just an empty, fragmented woman, struggling to keep my sanity. Selena needs you. Please, tell her I’m so sorry about the past. Tell her I love her more than life itself.”
“When she is ready, I will tell her,” the mother said. “I will make certain she understands.” She reached out and took Suzanne’s hands.
“You’ve turned into such a compassionate person,” Suzanne noted.
Her former-self struggled to smile. “We’ve both learned a lot about ourselves.”
Suzanne couldn’t keep from laughing at that remark.
* * *
After bidding her former-self goodbye, Suzanne embraced the daughter she’d never had. She left them standing by the front door, rounded a corner, and immediately freeze-framed time.
Suzanne doubled back and found Selena still gazing at the corner where her “aunt” had just disappeared. Standing before the girl, Suzanne stared at her, burning Selena’s face into her mind. With watery eyes, Suzanne headed back to the cave.
Once more a panic attack threatened to stop her on the road. She dreaded going back but knew she must if she was to save Selena.
She reached the cave, got very dirty crawling inside, and stopped to slow her breathing. Kneeling down, she felt around for the launch pad, placed in the cave five thousand years before.
Her dirty fingers searched out its circular perimeter. She had to be certain she used the side away from where Andy had stood.
After finding the edge and orienting herself, she checked her chronometer.
All was set.
“God, have mercy on me,” she whispered. It was her first prayer since the abortion.
She activated the chronometer.
* * *
Lights blinded her.
As her eyes adjusted, Suzanne saw her fellow workers standing around like statues.
Andy stood obligingly to her side.
Although she could have taken her time, Suzanne felt an urgency to finish the job. She ducked behind the computer and unfroze time.
Working fast, Suzanne typed in a program to erase the next downloads of chronology four minutes after being received. She listened.
Rick was bantering with Andy.
“Andy, would you please transmit your chronometer’s recording to the computer?” Dr. Stewart finally asked.
“Sure,” Andy answered. “Nine fourteen.”
“What is with you?” Rick said. “You’re slower than tar!”
Andy spoke again. “Transmitting . . . now.”
“Fine, come down and tell us about your trip,” Dr. Stewart said.
The alarm wailed. The buffers rose to full force.
Suzanne peeked around the computer, watching as Andy and herself entered Dr. Stewart’s office.
As soon as the computer finished its plotting, she reached around and ripped the strip chart from the machine. Her hands folded it silently and crammed it into her pocket.
Suzanne crawled quickly behind the buffers. She knew a lab tech would arrive any minute to collect the strip.
Her breathing quickened as her panic rose. No! She had to do this for Selena’s sake!
She held her breath as she reprogrammed each buffer, a tedious task.
By the time she finished the second of the five buffers, Tim was escorting Andy out.
“You better not let me catch you in a dark alley,” Tim warned. “You messed with the project, messed with our jobs. There may not be a law against what you did, but if you ever show your face I’ll make certain you pay.”
She heard the whoosh and click of the exit door.
Tim headed back to his station.
Suzanne hurried on to the third buffer. She heard her own voice and glanced at the clock. It was going to be close.
Her hands perspired as she began the fourth. She could hear the footsteps of a tech working just on the other side of the buffer.
In spite of her best efforts, her panic rose when she came to the fifth buffer. She wanted to cry, to scream. Instead she convulsed, sobbing on the inside as she worked with jerking movements.
Just as she finished her programming, she heard footsteps coming around the buffer.
She hit freeze-frame mode. Rick was staring straight at her.
Suzanne collapsed and wept. For the moment she was safe, but what would happened once she ran real time again?
She set the chronometer for her arrival time: one minute and twelve seconds later. Hopefully Rick wouldn’t do much in that amount of time. As it was, she would have three very uncomfortable minutes until the buffers all shut down.
And they had to shut down.
She dried her tears and made her way to the launching pad. The chronometer was set.
She activated it.
“There she is!” shouted Dr. Stewart.
“Suzanne!” Rick cried. “I saw you just a moment ago next to one of the buffers! I typed in an emergency over-ride to keep them locked on just in case there was trouble. What were you doing?”
She felt her throat collapse. “No!” she gasped.
“Did you find out what Andy did?” Dr. Stewart asked.
She nodded. How could she get Rick to cancel the override? She looked up at Rick, her chest heaving.
“What’s wrong?” came Dr. Stewart’s unusually concerned voice.
“Rick, you have to cancel the over-ride, now!” Suzanne nearly screamed. “I was trying to avert a disaster! If you don’t do it . . . I will die.”
“Why?” Dr. Stewart asked.
“I don’t have time to explain!” she shot back.
He folded his arms. “Time is our work, and right now we have all the time in the world.”
“No, we don’t unless you want to start screwing with our chronology!” she snapped.
That made him pale.
“But what were you doing with the buffers?” Rick persisted.
She glanced at the clock. Two minutes left. Suzanne looked at Rick. “Remove your over-ride or watch me die!”
“Suzanne, be reasonable,” Dr. Stewart began. “We have to know why—”
“Because someone sabotaged the buffers!” she shouted in a desperate move. Suzanne released a terrified wail and crumpled on the launch pad. Oh God, I’ve done all I can and it wasn’t enough. Have mercy, have mercy.
“Remove the over-ride!” Dr. Stewart bellowed.
“I don’t like this,” Rick protested. “First Andy, now Suzanne—”
“Just do it!” Dr. Stewart snapped. “Suzanne’s never given me cause to doubt her loyalty.”
“Neither did Andy until today,” Rick grumbled. “I still want to know what she was up to.”
Suzanne glanced at her watch. If Rick removed the over-ride, she would only have a minute and fifteen seconds left. The irony of her situation struck her. She had snuffed out her daughter’s brief existence, and now her own existence was about to be deleted.
Dear God, forgive me. Take care of Selena. I wish I hadn’t turned my back on You all these years. I wish I hadn’t lost my faith.
The buffers still roared. Suzanne wished her former-self were there to comfort her. She felt so alone as she faced the extinction of her existence.
The drone of the buffers dropped in tone. They were powering down!
But one delayed in cutting off.
“Whoa!” Rick called. “What is this?”
Suzanne felt a rhythmic pulsing sensation. The colors around her shifted in hue with each pulse.
“Suzanne!” came Andy’s garbled voice. He stood by the exit door.
Her throat tightened until she couldn’t breathe. Was it because she was dying, or was it just her panic bringing her down one last time?
She tried to scream, but couldn’t. She felt like she had been ripped open from her neck to her bottom and every organ sucked from her.
Suzanne recognized the ache—that emptiness she’d felt for twenty long years.
Her vision blurred. She was fading . . . fading . . . no . . . she was changing. Something was slipping inside, filling the hollow. She was a mother! Selena was hers!
With a great gasp, she drew in air. No, she wasn’t fading into oblivion; she was merging with her former-self!
Memories mixed. She saw Selena, lying safely as an infant in her cradle. Selena walking, talking, riding a bike.
Suzanne felt confidence, patience, and trust weld themselves to her soul.
Oh, wholeness, wonderful wholeness! What she had lost had been found.
She looked up, tears streaming down her face.
Andy stood beside her. “Now you know.”
She nodded, smiling.
“What was that?” Rick asked, his face pale.
Dr. Stewart bent over a machine. “I don’t know. It appears to be . . . a major reconciliation of two different timelines.” He looked at Suzanne. “And we were at the nexus.”
“What does that mean?” Tim asked.
Dr. Stewart shook his head. “Time will tell.”
Rick glared at Andy. “And what are you doing here?”
Andy raised a hand as if to ward off an attack. “I just came to get Suzanne. Don’t worry, I’ll leave without a fight.”
“Suzanne?” Dr. Stewart asked, scowling.
She sighed. “I’m sorry, Dr. Stewart. I don’t think I can work on the project anymore. Please don’t ask me what happened in the past. All I can tell you is everything is as it should be now. Time travel is risky, far riskier than any of us imagined.”
She unclipped her chronometer and handed it to a speechless Dr. Stewart. Then she followed Andy off the launch pad and over to the back exit.
Andy pressed the lock bar on the door and led her through.
As the door slammed behind them, Suzanne stared up at the stairwell. “How did you get back in? There are two self-locking doors on this exit.”
Andy chuckled as he started up the metal steps. “You know how I always go out this way on my lunch breaks? Well, each morning I ‘fix’ both of the doors. I place a small rock in the hole where the latch bolt is supposed to go. It keeps the doors from locking me out when I go outside for lunch. I always remove the rocks when I go home.”
He opened the second door at the top of the stairway and pointed to the stone filling the recess in the strike plate. “See?”
Suzanne smirked. “That was resourceful of you.” She stepped into the bright sunlight and squinted. “I suppose I’ll have to look for another job.”
He smiled. “We can look together.”
“First I want to get something to eat. Let’s visit Selena for lunch. I’d really like to see her. Let me look up the bus schedule.”
“We can take my car, if you like,” Andy suggested.
As they walked to his car, Suzanne asked, “What do you think has happened to the rest of the world? Will they have . . . dual memories like me?”
“Like us,” Andy amended. “I don’t know. Time will tell.”
Suzanne remembered sharing her dark secret with Selena. Ever since then, Selena had cringed at the sound of a vacuum cleaner.
“I was hoping you’d take my hints,” Andy said. “I tried to buy you enough time so you could save the altered past.”
Suzanne chuckled. “I suspected your plot when I worked on a plan to save Selena. If you hadn’t stepped aside, delayed, and remarked on the time, I could not have done it.”
They drove to the college and walked through the groomed campus.
Upon entering the cafeteria, Suzanne tossed the incriminating strip chart into the trash.
Suzanne spied Selena seated in a corner booth, like she was expecting them.
Selena rubbed her hands nervously on her jeans. She stood. “Hi, Mom.”
Suzanne embraced her. “It’s so good to see you, my daughter.” Then she drew back and pointed to her own chest. “Your mom and ‘Aunt Sue’ are together now, whole, complete.”
Selena’s mouth hung open and her eyes watered. “Really?” She threw her arms around Suzanne. “Thank you so much for what you did!”
Suzanne relished that embrace for a long, long time.
* * *
Unable to account for the strange phenomena when the buffers powered down and the unusual behavior of two former employees, Dr. Stewart had to close down the Chronological Research Project.
He did it without protest, being personally shaken by the whole experience. All workers present during the “buffer incident” complained of being plagued by false memories.
Dr. Stewart concluded that time had indeed been altered, but without the strip chart and chronometer records, he didn’t know how or when. The chronometer records of both Suzanne and Andy’s assignments were nowhere to be found.
And being barred from making any more trips into the past, Dr. Stewart could never learn the truth.
* * *
Suzanne worried about the effect her decision had made on the world. She voiced her concern to Andy one Saturday as they picnicked in the park.
“Most people only remember the second timeline,” Andy returned. “Only those present in the cave retained memories of the old one. Perhaps it was because we were at the nexus of the two timelines, like Dr. Stewart said.”
Suzanne looked around at the people in the park. “Some people would think what I did was wrong.”
Andy smiled and shook his head. “Suzanne, Selena is alive and you are a whole person, free from your anxiety attacks. You’ve been given an incredible gift, the chance to undo the past. Everyone has longed for that opportunity! Why should the old timeline be more important or more real than this one?
“You had a chance to make a switch in time, and I think you chose well.”
She smiled at him. Yes, he had aged. No longer did he seem her junior. He was her equal.
Suzanne watched as Selena walked down to the pond with a young man, hand in hand. No, she would never regret her decision. It was one she’d finally gotten right.