Zero Time

By Kenneth D. Reimer

Sci-Fi, Action & adventure

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12 mins

Part One: The Spencer Paradox

Colby Austin sat hunched on the steps of the Natural History Museum and struggled to keep himself awake. His eyelids betrayed him, drooping down heavily and pulling his head forward into exhausted slumber. Time and again, he jerked awake, startled into awareness as his body almost toppled from its perch. He breathed deeply, trying to sharpen his dull senses, and he swore silently at the absurdity of his circumstance. He felt like a human bobble toy, but the comparison was in no way a humourous one.

Perched midway up the stairs that narrowed to the museum entrance, Colby was dwarfed by the building behind him, an unusual structure that presented its viewers with a contradiction in time. Less than a century old, the museum had the appearance of being plucked from the pages of antiquity. Constructed in imitation of a Roman courthouse, it was two thousand years out of place, and the blocks of Tyndall stone that covered its façade were etched with fossils of creatures that had not lived upon the Earth since the Cambrian epoch. Built to house the fractured remnants of time, the building was itself an artifact.

In contrast to the museum, which had not changed externally in seventy years, the street it dominated had gone through many alterations. Initially, the area surrounding the museum had been a city park, but the land had been sold and then re-zoned to allow for the construction of warehouses.

Decades later, after concerted efforts to revive the downtown district of the city, most of the warehouses had been converted to serve other uses. Condominiums, assorted shops and trendy sidewalk cafés now enlivened the area. One of the few buildings that still served its original function was situated directly across from the museum, a small business called the MacLean Toy Company. It was the presence of this company that had drawn Colby to his perch on the museum steps. From where he sat, he had a commanding view of both the Toy Company and the street surrounding it.

He had been there for four days, and time pressed heavily upon him.

Fatigue frayed the edges of his consciousness, and Colby’s appearance testified to the desperate nature of his situation. He sat in a slouch with his elbows braced on his knees and his forearms hanging in front of his legs. His clothes were wrinkled, and his face was haggard with the beginnings of a beard. A cigarette dangled loosely from his lips. Every so often, he ran his fingertips along a flesh-coloured bandage that stretched across his right temple. The skin around the cut was a dark blue, and a bruise ringed his eye.

Not only was Colby reaching the end of his mental and physical reservoirs, his supplies were also nearing exhaustion. At his feet, a half empty container lay on its side. Its lid was loose, and beads of water slipped from it like the sand of an hourglass. Repeatedly, a small patch of moisture dampened the stone step and then evaporated quickly in the heat of the day. Beside the bottle, a worn plastic bag teetered on the breeze. Days before, that bag had been stuffed with food which Colby had stolen from a convenience store less than a block away. It was empty now, and his stomach had begun to ache. A warm gust lifted the bag from the step, and it moved in a slow swirl toward the museum entrance where it got snagged by the limb of a tree. Colby was oblivious to its passage.

Without thinking, he pulled out his cell and checked for messages. With a curse, he thrust it back into his pocket. As it had been the hundred times before, the screen was blank, registering no pulse from his sub-dermal implant. He knew the implant was working, but there was no satellite signal to send it data.

Early that morning, he had returned to the same convenience store intending to steal more supplies; however, the clerk had driven him away. Colby didn’t know if the woman suspected he was a thief or if she simply worried that he might frighten her other customers. In any case, he had not alleviated his hunger, nor was he willing to wander any further in search of an alternate source of provisions. He had to keep the MacLean Toy Company in sight. His sole purpose for being there was to be at the company when his friend, a man named Spencer, finally arrived. Ironically, Colby had no idea if Spencer would even come to that location, but it was a possibility, and everything Colby had endured for the past days would be for naught if he missed Spencer’s appearance. He could deal with hunger, but failure was unacceptable. More than food, what he really needed was sleep. His supply of stimulants was running low, and he knew that when they were gone, willpower alone would not be sufficient to keep him awake. The longer he had to wait for Spencer’s arrival, the less his chances of success.

Thrice since his vigil began, Colby had found it expedient to hide from the police. The steps of the museum were framed on both sides by small, landscaped terraces filled with indigenous vegetation. On one side of the steps, Colby had formed a small hollow within a cluster of bushes. Whenever he spotted an approaching squad car, he scrambled from his perch to crouch in hiding amongst the foliage. It was undignified, but he didn’t know if the city had laws against vagrancy, and he wasn’t willing to risk an encounter with the authorities. If questioned, he would have no plausible explanation for his apparent obsession with the MacLean Toy Company, and if searched, the weapon holstered under his shirt was certain to be discovered.

So Colby waited, and Colby watched, and Colby wrestled against the insistent whisperings of Morpheus.

The museum itself had few visitors during the day, but due to its location, the sidewalk in front of it was busy. People meandered by, and, invariably, their glances came to rest upon Colby’s unkempt appearance. A couple in their early twenties—Colby’s age, strolled silently past, enjoying the summer weather. The female was blonde, attractive and fit, the kind of girl Colby had dated before an unexpected discovery sent his life spinning into chaos. Colby watched the muscles of her thighs flex beneath the thin fabric of her skirt. Her breasts were small and firm, and they thrust against her tight blouse. As if feeling Colby’s eyes upon her, the girl glanced up and discovered his attention. Forgetting himself, Colby flashed a smile and was momentarily shocked at her immediate look of revulsion. Noting the exchange, the girl’s companion shot a glare. Colby’s smile twisted into a grimace, and, in a timeless gesture, he straightened the middle finger of his right hand. The couple looked away and quickly walked past. Colby hung his head in despondency, still stunned by how abruptly his life had fallen apart.

Days before, he’d received little or no attention from passersby, but that had changed as his appearance deteriorated. Lack of interest had surrendered to curiosity. Curiosity degenerated into vague unease. Eventually, displeasure and open hostility were all that Colby saw on the passing faces. The strongest reactions came from people who worked in the area and had seen him repeatedly over the past days. Colby hadn’t looked at himself in a mirror, but he imagined the worst.

Just that morning, his clothing had lost its enviro functions. He’d been chilled by the morning air and had reached absent-mindedly to depress one of the temperature controls in the collar of his shirt. He had heard the muted tone, indicating that the heat had been activated; however, the material never warmed up. For some reason, the thermal mechanism had failed. Most likely, he had been too inactive over the last few days for the viral battery to generate a charge. Worse still, the material was beginning to cling to his skin, and Colby noted in mortification that it was becoming increasingly malodorous. The cool morning had long since passed, and the heat of the day only served to intensify Colby’s discomfort.

He studied his painfully familiar surroundings. The sun hung a little south, but the museum was situated on the north side of the street, so it baked in the relentless heat. The pale Tyndall stone dazzled Colby’s vision, and it seemed to his over-taxed senses that the ancient trilobites inched across the building’s façade—sleep deprivation was making him delirious. On the south side of the street, where the angle of the sun allowed a small degree of respite from the heat, a narrow strip of shadow darkened the entrance of the MacLean Toy Company.

Twenty minutes earlier, the street had been quiet—no cacophony of horns or slamming car doors, but since the beginning of the lunch rush, it had become congested with vehicles. Occasionally, the acrid stench of gasoline reached Colby’s nostrils, and he wondered at the unfamiliar smell.

The sidewalks too, mostly vacant for the morning, were clustered with people who had spilled from the surrounding businesses in search of lunch at one of the sidewalk cafés; their voices merged into a collective murmur. Cognizant of his status as an outsider, Colby imagined himself to be an anthropologist studying the customs of a primitive culture. The truth, however, was that the fashions they wore were not appreciatively different from his own; except, he noted sardonically, none of them had quite the look of a vagabond that he had cultivated over the past few days. He ran a grimy hand through his short, blond hair and wondered what they thought of him. His muscular physique and youthful, albeit unshaven face, would suggest that he could work if he desired to, but to all appearances, he had chosen to live on the street. Did they pity him? Despise him? Well, he considered, unless they interfered with his mission to retrieve Spencer, their opinion of him meant nothing. It was a lie to himself that he only half believed. He raised his gaze above the rabble and looked once again at the MacLean Toy Company—that was what mattered.

Aside from a few details, the building was pretty much as he remembered. It was a single story, freestanding structure of brick and wood. There was a small parking lot on one side and a lane leading to the back alley on the other. It was flanked by warehouses that had been converted into condominiums. The hand-carved sign above the front door was new, with fresh paint and none of the cracks in the wood that Colby had grown accustomed to. The large windows bracketing the door were washed clean, and he could see an array of bright toys displayed within. Structurally, the building looked in much better condition than he recalled: most notably, the dip he was familiar with in the left front rooftop, where rainwater cascaded down every thunderstorm, was still level and straight, evidence that time and neglect had not yet ravaged the building’s foundations.

Still, it was the MacLean Toy Company, and Colby knew it like a second home. Actually, for some time before this journey, it had been his second home. He grimaced at the thought, bitterly regretting the discovery of the artifact that had cast his life in turmoil.

Leaning back, Colby propped his elbows on the stone stair and looked upward at the deep, blue sky spiralling away from him into the cold vacuum of space. He sucked in a long drag from the cigarette then exhaled, coughed, and watched the smoke dissipate. The poison billowed into his lungs, choking his capillaries but sending a smooth note out along his veins. His chest burned, but he didn’t care; the nicotine kept him on edge. He’d noticed the cigarettes at the convenience store where he’d stolen his food and had taken them as well. Where he came from, smoking had long since been outlawed, but he had a vague recollection of his father smoking when he was a child, and he was curious.

Four days, he thought. No one had ever been on such a lengthy step—except, perhaps, Spencer, and Colby had no desire to end up like Spencer. Where could that madman be? he wondered. Colby realized that when he’d stepped, he had miscalculated his re-entry into the continuum. Evidently, it would take more practice to become accurate with the Toy, practice Colby had no intention of getting. Once he got home, if he got home, he promised himself he would never use the Toy again.

He wondered about the other members of the research team, if they were suffering like he was. Their rendezvous time was fast approaching, so he would find out soon enough. No, not soon enough—the day before wouldn’t have been soon enough. Of the other three team members, he’d only spoken to Jana, and though communication through the Toy was shaky, Colby had gotten the impression that Jana was particularly upset. No doubt her feelings for Spencer were making the entire ordeal more difficult for her than it was for the rest of the research team. She had informed him that she hadn’t spoken to any of the other researchers, and, more importantly, she had not found Spencer.

When they had first connected through the Toy—a technique that they had not been able to perfect, Jana had appeared surprised to see Colby. The distortions made it difficult to be certain, but he thought that her dark eyes were moist, as if she’d been crying. Perhaps he had merely sensed that the lengthy duration of their step was beginning to take its toll on her—it weighed heavily enough on him—yet there’d seemed more to it. She appeared guarded, as though she had been hiding information from him.

Colby felt a flash of guilt, for he was himself keeping a secret. There was something that he had experienced on an earlier step that he needed to tell Jana, but he couldn’t bring himself to reveal it. Because he couldn’t predict how the information would affect her behaviour, he feared the consequences of telling her what he knew. Their circumstances were so unusual, with so many variables and paradoxes involved, that it was difficult to know what was safe to disclose and what was dangerous. While they were talking, he convinced himself to reveal the information, then something Jana said had changed his mind and precluded the disclosure. Once again, he’d pulled his secret close to his chest and said goodbye to her, not certain if he was making the right decision.

Afterward, sitting on the steps of the museum, Colby could not avoid the conviction that he had been wrong, that he should have told Jana everything he knew. He wondered how long the Toy would keep things connected and hoped that he would get a chance to correct his mistake.

Grimacing against the stiffness in his joints, Colby stood and stretched his cramped muscles. He tugged the sweat-soaked shirt away from his skin and groaned at the smell that wafted outward. Almost devoid of hope, he resumed his perch and once again focused his attention on the Toy Company entrance.

Futility huddled close beside him on the steps.

Colby was not aware of it, but he was himself the object of scrutiny. Less than half a block away, on the same side of the street as the museum, a young man studied Colby’s peculiar behaviour. The youth’s name was Gillian Child, and he sat at an outside café, partially hidden behind a low, wrought-iron fence. Gillian had the face of an aesthetic, and his slate-grey eyes glimmered with a fanatical light. His porcelain skin looked as though it had never been touched by the sun. Occasionally, when he turned his head, a strange lump became visible, thrusting out against the skin at the base of his skull. His long, black hair had been tied back in a ponytail in an attempt to conceal the presence of this abnormality. He wore a pullover shirt and black pants that shimmered oddly when he shifted in his seat. His jacket had no collar and was of an unusual cut. It was of sufficient length to conceal the handgun tucked into his belt. One hand rested in his lap. The other cupped a glass of wine.

An aura of finality hung about him.

Gillian did not know who Colby Austin was, or why Colby displayed such a keen interest in the Toy Company. He was not even certain that Colby was the individual he had come so far to find, but he did know that Colby was a traveller like himself and had no business being in that place at that particular time. Despite his emotionless façade, Gillian struggled with indecision. It was very likely that Colby was destined to perform a destructive act, one that had to be prevented, but Gillian did not know the specific nature of that act or exactly when it was to take place. Gillian knew that it would be expedient to kill Colby before he had a chance to interact with anyone, but there was a possibility, however slight, that Colby’s actions were of no real consequence, and that his death was the very thing that Gillian had come to prevent. Though he was uneasy with the decision, Gillian reasoned that he should simply wait and hope that when the moment came he could react quickly enough to prevent Colby from causing a disruption.

It so happened that on that particular afternoon, neither Colby nor Gillian would have much longer to wait.

Back in front of the MacLean Toy Company, Colby’s vigil came to such an abrupt conclusion that, for a moment, he was too startled to react. Across the street, the man for whom he’d been waiting stepped quickly from out the front doors of the Company, turned left, and began walking purposefully down the sidewalk. It was Spencer. After a moment of stunned hesitation, Colby leapt to his feet, flicked the cigarette from his fingers and rushed down the steps of the museum. He almost collided with several people on the sidewalk and had to forcibly thrust them out of his way; angry voices arose at his passing.

Cars crowded the street, and Colby was compelled to pause for a frantic moment until a break in traffic allowed him to sprint across to the MacLean Toy Company. One driver braked anxiously, and the sound of his horn echoed sharply off the surrounding buildings. As Colby ran, he tugged the weapon he carried from the holster under his shirt—a handgun of a curious design. Spencer had not yet seen him and continued in his hurried stride, unwittingly heading in the direction of the youth watching from the café. Gillian had not seen Spencer, but he had noted Colby’s sudden animation and in response had left his chair and begun running toward the museum. Cursing his indecision, Gillian realized that he had waited too long to act; he should have killed Colby the moment he found him.

Although hindered by the crowd of pedestrians, Colby still managed to close in on Spencer. He called Spencer’s name, and when his erstwhile friend turned, Colby’s worst fear was confirmed—Spencer’s tormented countenance was that of a madman. Even so, recognition flashed in Spencer’s eyes, and a low moan rattled from his throat; then he snarled and sprinted recklessly into the rushing traffic. At the same moment, a woman on the street saw the gun Colby carried, and she screamed.

Colby came to a halt, raised his weapon and fired at Spencer. No sound issued from the oddly designed gun, but the air between the two men was momentarily distorted—like rippling heat waves. Spencer dropped to the road as if his spinal cord had been cut. With a dull thud scarcely audible against the noise of the street, Spencer’s head cracked against the hard asphalt, and his eyes rolled white. His unconscious body sprawled in the middle of traffic.

Gasping in surprise, an approaching driver swerved left, only just avoiding crushing Spencer under his wheels. His car crossed the median line and careened head-on into another vehicle coming from the opposite direction. There came the metallic crackle of crumpling bumpers, and both cars spun outward a half turn. Almost immediately, each was rear-ended, and the sudden bottleneck in the road set off a rapid succession of collisions. People sitting in the cafés leapt to their feet. A pandemonium of shouts, breaking glass and buckling metal ensued.

Colby jammed his weapon into its holster and rushed onto the road where he bent down to take hold of Spencer’s shoulders. He was dragging the limp body to the relative safety of the sidewalk when Gillian came opposite him on the far side of the street. Gillian had drawn his handgun, and, seeming to disregard the sudden chaos, he stepped off the curb and onto the street, firing his weapon as he strode purposefully toward Colby. The first bullet splintered a brick in the wall behind Colby, but the second pounded into his chest, forcing the air out of his lungs in an abrupt, hollow expiration. Spencer’s body slipped from his grasp and dropped heavily across the curb.

Events transpired too quickly for Colby to apprehend his fate. He stepped back from Spencer, confused indignation making his expression almost comical. A final bullet chopped into his stomach, bringing a grunt and ungluing his knees. He swayed backward. At the sound of gunfire, several people in the crowd threw themselves flat on the concrete, others scattered. At the sight of Colby’s staggering body, some stood frozen and gave voice to their horror.

Colby stumbled back into the side of a building, grunting as he struck its brick wall. Lurching down its rough surface, he slumped heavily upon the pavement. Shadow enveloped him. He stared at the blood upon his soiled shirt as though its presence there was incomprehensible. He glanced in confusion at Gillian, and even through his shock realized that he had seen Gillian’s face before. He lifted his right hand, as though beckoning toward someone unseen, and he spoke so softly that no one could hear his words. Then something inexplicable occurred—for an instant, Colby’s image became transparent, and people could see the reddened bricks behind him. But it was for only an instant, then he coughed dark blood, and it was real enough. Momentarily, he was dead.

Gillian could hear the blaring of horns from the melee of cars but was so intent upon the bloodied form of Colby that he failed to notice the vehicles on his own side of the road—as if the idea of traffic was unfamiliar to him. From around the corner at the far edge of the museum, a black sports car came speeding into the sudden confusion of the street. Too late, the driver realized there were cars blocking his lane and in desperation swerved toward the curb near where Gillian was standing. In the last instant, the driver saw the pony-tailed youth, and he jerked upright in his seat. He drove his foot onto the brake, but there was too little room to stop. Gillian cart-wheeled over the hood of the car. His head hammered into the window, cracking the glass into a cobweb of tiny squares and smearing it with blood. As the car lurched still, Gillian’s limp form slipped forward to lie in a heap upon the asphalt.

Short moments later, the sound of sirens echoed on the street, and police cars arrived to add to the already impossibly tangled mess of vehicles.



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