Finally, she found him.
Her fingers dug into the snub-nosed revolver at her side. An anachronism of solid steel and gunpowder. No plasma, no polymers. The key to getting her life back. And in front of her lost in a bank of haloscreens, the lock.
TimeLapse Resort & Spa’s Programmer.
Her teeth ground together while the screens flickered, zoomed and flashed. How dare he sit there humming manipulating time without a concern in the world.
The barrel jammed into the base of his skull.
He yanked out his ear nodes and threw his hands in the air. “I don’t have access to Aevitonium but I’ll transfer a million credits to your account no questions. I haven’t seen your face. I won’t say anything to anyone.”
Wow. How many times had this floppy-haired Coder been robbed?
“Must be nice to be able to throw away a million credits while the rest of the population starves in the streets or slaves away in the factories.” She spun him around, pressing the gun against his knee. “I’m not here for money—”
“Th-there’s a MediPen under the touchtop. Take it. I have another at home.”
“Shut up! I don’t want your bribes. I need time.”
“I told you I don’t have access—”
A bullet tore through his knee.
Blood splattered her shirt, adrenaline rushed through her. Animalistic screams and howls poured from his mouth while he clutched his ruined knee.
“I don’t have time for your excuses. In fact, I don’t have time at all now. Get me back in a TimeRoom and fix it, Coder.”
“Fix what? TimeLapses are an illusion. Coding. And my coding’s flawless.”
“Then why am I losing chunks of time?”
“Poor time management skills?”
Her fingers dug into his head and she bashed his face against the touchtop. The glass spiderwebbed and the haloscreens wavered.
“Fix. My. Time.”
“Fix your time?” he panted. “Wh-what are you talking about? I’m not a droid specialist. All I do is code.”
Another bullet tore through his other knee, more obscenities burst from his mouth.
“I am not a machine,” she said. “I had a TimeLapse session and now I’m skipping through time. Whole chunks of my day gone in a matter of minutes. I’m on probation at work for showing up three hours late or not at all and when a Factorite’s terminated we lose our living compartment, our food allowance card and all of our credits.”
Blood ran down the side of his face. “That’s impossible. Time travel’s illegal.”
“Pfft, sugar’s illegal.” She shifted the gun to his shoulder, cocked the hammer—
His hands flew up in surrender. “No, no wait. You don’t understand. Not illegal where you can still get it but banned.” He eased over the touchtop then the center haloscreen displayed articles and archives. “We discovered time travel in 2099 and six months later government officials, crime bosses, tribe leaders, faction heads—anyone in a position of power—signed a treaty forbidding all time travel. Not a nanosecond forward or back. Ironically for the first time in history, the human race came together with a common fear: accidental oblivion. So they locked all of the Aevitonium—the element making time travel possible—on the far side of Mars.”
“Then you fucked up the program.”
He slumped back in his chair sweat beading on his brow. “This is a Spa, TimeLapses are an illusion. A way for people to steal an hour to themselves… or perceive they do anyway. Like I said my coding’s flawless. It has to be.” His eyes rolled closed and his head lolled back.
Mercury rising! The bullets must’ve nicked an artery. She did not have time for this.
She wedged the revolver in the small of her back under her belt then smacked him. “Wake up, get the MediPen.”
He obeyed, pressing his thumb on the touchtop. A compartment popped out from the underside of the touchtop displaying the MediPen.
She snatched the large bullet shaped device and set the dosing: blood loss prevention, minimal pain management. “No opiates for you. You’re no good to me if you’re soaring to Mars.”
The device hissed against his neck, then she stuffed it in her back pocket. A most coveted piece of technology—left an entire medical profession out on the streets—and this guy had two.
His eyes flew open, his fingers balling into fists. “That hurts.”
“Good.” She pressed the gun to his shoulder again. “Fix me or there will be two more places that need mending.”
“Fine. Let me think.” His head cocked to the side and his fingers drummed on the touchtop. “You’re “skipping through time” but your not a droid…”
Diagrams, strings of incomprehensible code and alien looking schematics rushed around the haloscreens while his fingers flew over the touchtop.
How could one man comprehend all of that?
The blue-green glow danced across his face and arms. He swiped the blood from his eye and continued typing, lost in his chaos.
She paced a small area behind the workstation, chewing her lip. What was taking so long? How much time had she lost being here? What if he couldn’t fix her? What if this was a trick?
Her boot nudged the back of his chair. “I’m losing precious time here.”
His lips pressed together but his eyes never left the haloscreens. “It’s not magic. I have to comb through scene algorithms, cross-reference them with time codes, compare it all to Room signatures and then run a separate algorithm to find the glitch. Which will be a singular inversion of a one or a zero buried in an infinite number of ones and zeroes.” Now he glanced at her. “Unless you happen to know the Room you visited?”
Her thumb worried a spot on the side of the revolver. “It’s not like I’m a regular here. Not at four thousand credits a session. This was a once in a lifetime gift. Which you ruined.”
“Once in a lifetime for a Factorite maybe,” he muttered. His tongue peeked out from the side of his mouth while more chaos rushed across the screens. “Might as well check…”
The digital whirlwind stopped, a red light blinked on a haloscreen.
“Put your eye there—”
“I will not! I’m already skipping through time, I am not about to be trapped in a loop.”
That was a punishment worse than exile.
His attention peeled away from the haloscreen, eyebrow raised. “It’s a simple retina scan. I’m just checking your DNA signature, same as the market or taxi pods.”
“You Coder’s are despicable. A hundred and fifty years of shoving equality and anti-division propaganda down people’s throats and yet you keep finding new ways to segregate yourselves in your ivory towers. Flesh and blood people your staircase.”
Her ears burned. Factorites were never scanned. No need. If it required a DNA signature it was far beyond their means. They carried food cards and took the auto shuttle.
“Look you barged in my workspace, shot me—twice—insulted me and stole my MediPen. Yet here you stand not being hauled off by enforcers. So either let me scan your signature or go get a speed program installed.” He leaned back in his chair, draping an arm over the back. “I forgot, Factorites can’t afford upgrades. Not even basic ones.”
His words slammed into her gut. He was right. She was trapped. She glared at him, her nails biting into her palm. What choice did she have? Trust a Coder or fumble through life losing time… her job… her sanity? Her pulse throbbed in her throat as she placed her eye in front of the light. If she didn’t need him right now, that cocky smirk would’ve met solid steel. The second this nightmare ended these last two bullets—
The haloscreen beeped, displaying an error message.
“Ha!” He launched from is chair typing and swiping the touchtop. Energy radiated out of him. “I knew it wasn’t my coding. I knew it!”
Her eyes darted from him to the screens to her gun and back to him. What was happening?
He grinned then grabbed her hand and pressed it to the touchtop. “You’re a droid.”
He was insane, driven mad by a constant barrage of flickering haloscreens.
“The hell I—”
Mechanical whirring vibrated in her skull. Inside her skull! The gun clattered to the floor, she grabbed her head staggering back. “What’s happening?!”
Pressure built in her head then with a hydraulic hiss the back of her skull extended out! She clawed, hyperventilating. A nonhuman access panel protruded from her head. Her fingers scraped and gouged at the metal while tears dripped down her cheeks. How was this possible?
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Stop, stop!” he grabbed her wrists wrenching them behind her back. “You want to deactivate yourself?”
She wriggled in his iron grip. “Get off me, I’ll kill you for this!” Her boot heel crushed his foot, her elbow sailed into his unprepared gut then jabbed up into his face. She had to get out of here, this was still the TimeRoom it had to be.
He gagged and coughed, stumbled then dropped to his knee. “Wait, I can fix this.”
Lies! She ran toward the door—
Concrete shards exploded by her foot. She froze, her heart hammering in her chest.
“You may be a high-human droid but I will shoot you if you don’t sit down right now.”
Her feet moved back, one step at a time. She eased into the chair, tears blurring her vision. This was a dream, it had to be. It was the logical answer. All she had to was wake up. Wake up, wake up, wake up!
The revolver thunked on the touchtop before he squeezed her shoulder. “Now don’t move. I don’t want to accidentally glitch you into a toaster. I’m going to take a look at your processor.”
Tears spilled from her eyes but she didn’t make a sound. She stared past the blue-green digital nonsense while he poked around in her head.
It didn’t hurt and it didn’t feel pleasurable. It was the same menial sensation as a haircut. But this was worse than being raped by a hundred men. At least she knew what to expect from that part of her anatomy.
She cleared the lump in her throat. “I remember being a child, a teenager. My kids are my own, they weren’t conceived in a lab or grown in an incubation pod. I grew them. Felt them move and grow inside me, gave birth to them… the historical, human way.”
“Eww. That’s barbaric.”
Typical technology-dependent miser.
“My heart beats,” she continued. “I draw breath, I cry, feel emotions good and bad, I sleep… and have other basic human needs. So how can I possibly be an android?”
“It must’ve happened after your um, conditions. You’re what’s called a high-human aspect droid, which means your as close to human as technology allows.”
The mechanical whirring continued in her head and the scent of ozone hung in the air.
“Man you have serious tech in here. I’ve only seen droids of this caliber in Science Tomorrow magazine. You must’ve cost a President’s ransom.”
He might as well have said she had great tits right to her face. Didn’t matter, each second sitting here being probed had to be costing her an hour and he knew how to fix her.
“Oh no,” he breathed.
“What is it?” Her stomach dropped to her toes.
“Well the Lapse fried your time perception chip but that’s easy to replace.” He turned her around, touched part of the workstation making a second chair unfold from underneath and sat opposite her. His hand raked through his hair. “I can replace your time chip, upgrade it so you’ll perceive time slower. Which would make it seem like you have super speed—”
“Spit it out man whatever the ‘but’ is it can’t be worse than finding out I’m a droid.”
He rubbed the already closed cut above his eye. “You’ll lose all of your memories. It’ll be a clean slate from the moment the chips are installed. As if you’re born a full grown functioning adult.”
His revelation stole her breath. It was worse. “My memories, all erased?! My kids, my family, my job, everything I know about myself gone?”
“Afraid so. But you’ll make new ones and keep those of course.”
“No I can’t, I won’t lose my kids. So close up my head and I’ll find someone else capable enough to fix my time card or whatever.”
“I can’t do that. If it got out a droid—even a high human one—had a Lapse session we’d be shut down within a week. Our clients couldn’t trust our program after that.”
Why not? No. Didn’t matter right now.
She launched from the chair, snatching the revolver and aimed dead center of his forehead. “How long will this house of lies stand without a Programmer?”
He shrugged. “Probably a long time. Another one will be in my seat before the first Lapse is complete.” He rose from the chair, claiming the space. “You on the other hand are not so disposable, at least not while you have your memories.”
Every fiber in her body screamed for her to bolt out of here. Instead she held her ground. What else wasn’t he telling her?
She eyed him up and down, then jammed the gun against the touchtop. “What else?”
His eyes widened, glancing between her and the touchtop. He sighed then held up a corroded looking microchip no bigger than a thumbnail. “I found this wedged in your port. It’s a secondary memory chip.”
Why was he keeping that back?
“You really didn’t know you were a droid. Wow.”
She cocked the hammer.
“Wait wait,” he said. “Aren’t you curious what’s on here? I can’t show you if you destroy my hard drive.”
Her pulse hammered. Did she want to know? What else about herself or her past was a lie? Although the past can’t be changed so what did it matter anyway. No, she had to know.
“Thirty seconds. I’m tired of your games.”
“I’m not the enemy here you know.” He placed the microchip into a slot on the touchtop.
Her husband bloomed to life in the center haloscreen, eyes red from tears. There was sag to his once proud shoulders. Her mouth fell open, and her pulse raced faster. Five years since that man vanished from her life leaving her with three kids to raise on a Factorite’s allowance.
“You’re not going to like this but I couldn’t let you go. I’d rather know you’re alive in one way or the other than knowing you’re…” He cleared his throat and squared his shoulders. “There were complications with the birth of our youngest. You hemorrhaged, the doc couldn’t stop it so you… you died. I called in all the favors I could,” he glanced away and picked at his nails, “used all the credits left in our account plus the thirty million you had in your trust. But I was still short, so I had to sign a contract.” His voice cracked and his eyes met the camera again. “I’m so sorry I won’t get to see them grow but the kids need their mother, more than they need me. You gave up your life for me once, now it’s my turn to do the same for you.”
The video ended and the Programmer’s chaos returned.
Her body sagged into the chair. She died. He abandoned them. She was a droid and he left her creditless. Her pulse became an air horn in her ears. Where did all those credits come from? What kind of contract takes a man away from his family, his work? Why couldn’t she remember any of that? Her hands trembled and were ice cold against her lips. All she knew was a lie.
The Programmer nudged her shoulder. “Did you hear what I said?”
“Mmm-hmm that’s great sweetie then what happened?”
He snapped his fingers. “Hey focus lady. I said when the work day is over a buddy of mine is going to stop by to replace your chips. Less than an hour.”
Ruined time perception chip, right. Reality sped back into focus. Lose her past or her future, memories or time. There was no choice.
“First,” she said. “I want a video like my husband left—that you will play the moment after my slate’s wiped—so I can at least know who my kids are. I may not remember them but I will not abandon them and become a mindless worker bee.” She held out her hand. “And second, I want my husband’s memory chip back. There’s nothing on it you need.”
“Done.” The Programmer handed the microchip back without argument or hesitation. “I told you I’m not your enemy. I don’t want to lose my job any more than you want to lose yours, so if you don’t remember coming here in the first place then a droid never had a TimeLapse.”
Why was that so important to him?
Perhaps that was the key to an entirely different lock. One she didn’t have time to worry about right now. She studied the lines and curves of the revolver. An anachronism of solid steel and gunpowder. A relic of a forgotten time, the key to getting her real life back.
Thirty million credits had to come from somewhere.