[This is the beginning of a story which is available for purchase on Amazon.]
Lee stared at the checkerboard tiles of the coffee shop floor until they grew crisp and unnatural and he didn’t really see them, every thought draining out of the bleakness in head. A long-forgotten cup sat cold beside him. A pair of legs appeared. He followed them up, and found Mike looking down at him. He managed a little laugh and a rueful grin.
“Good morning,” he said. “Come to stare into the abyss with me?”
“You do look lost. What’s wrong?”
Lee gestured to the seat beside him and pushed a copy of Variety across the table.
“Coup de grâce,” he said, tapping his fingers on a headline.
Mike sat and read, “Stoltz Signs On Two More Future Pix”.
“Oh, man,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Lee, really. But you knew it was coming.”
“It should have been ours. It was ours, just for the taking. They wanted Michael,” he said, bringing his hand down on the table in a series of little karate chops marking off the path to his undoing. “Michael wanted them.” Another chop. “Life is bright and beautiful.”
“Gary won’t let Michael out of Family Ties. Chance of a lifetime, goodbye.”
“Lee…” Mike tried once more, but knew he was going to hear it all again.
“They go with Stoltz. I get sick of the whole mess and take off for two weeks in a little cabin in the woods. Bob leaves messages. Michael leaves messages. My idiot call service can’t put two and two together and figure out they should call me.”
“You could have left better instructions…” Mike murmured, knowing it would just get swept under the flood.
“I come back, I return calls. Bob was trying one last time. He was willing to scrap it all and start over if there was any chance Michael could do it. They were willing to throw away millions if they could have him. Michael, meanwhile, is calling to say Baxter’s coming back to the show, and he’s going to have time if I can get him any side projects.”
“I know, I know…”
“Too late then! They were too far in with Stoltz. Damn it, I could have made that deal,” he said, the whole hand coming down flat this time, the sound too loud in the almost-empty shop. “If he had to work 24/7, if he had to live on NoDoz and adrenaline, Michael would have done it. Now he’s moved on to new management — can you blame him? He could have had the biggest thing since Star Wars, and all I got him this year was Teen Wolf. Back to the Future mopped up the whole Summer, Stoltz’s face is on every magazine, and I’m the town joke.”
He looked up hopelessly at Mike, realized how long he’d been talking, and softened.
“I went Captain Exposition again?”
“Sorry…” he said, sinking back in his chair. “I just don’t know if you understand how bad this is. I was on my way with Michael… and a few smaller clients. I was making a name for myself, a solid reputation in the business. Now I’m poison. I’d be in Carson’s monologue if it wasn’t so Inside Baseball. I couldn’t get a fourth grader in a school play. I don’t see how I ever claw my way out of this.”
“You’re blowing it up. It’s just a setback, Lee, it could happen to any of us. It could be me tomorrow, it’s not like I have tenure. You’ve just got to take time to regroup and get back in there.”
“It could be you? How? Unless you blow up a chem lab, you’re never going to be the kind of pariah I am. You’ve got security. Me, I’ve got to… Wait, speaking of that, shouldn’t you be teaching?”
“I took a sick day.”
“A sick day? You look fine.”
Lee looked at him closely, and a smile spread across his face.
“Mike… ? Mikey, playing hooky? My world is upside down.”
“Something came up, something important.”
“It would have to be.”
“I could use your help. I am sorry about all this, really I am, but right now we have worse problems than career troubles. Much, much worse.”
“Oh, that’s perfect. How did you guess? I could use worse. Worse is just what I was hoping for.”
“Can you come with me? I’ll have to show you something.”
“Why should I? Where were you all those times I wanted to cut classes?”
“Where were you when any of your cool friends came around?”
“Mike, I was a stupid kid. We’ve been through that a…”
“Right. So just come on. Just give me a couple of hours of your time. Please.”
He thought it over. Mike looked earnest, but then, Mike always looked earnest. Still, what was the alternative? Go to his office and listen to the phone not ring all day? He shrugged, and got up and went with him.
Mike drove into the hills and up side roads that made Lee more uneasy with each twist and climb. They came to a dead end alongside a set of railroad tracks which led onto a trestle bending around a canyon dropping far below. They got out, and Mike got a couple of things from the trunk.
“What’s here?” Lee asked.
“Nothing,” Mike said, “it’s just out of the way. This line ran to a mine that was abandoned years ago. No one will be around to see us.”
“To see us doing what? And… why the pumpkin?”
Mike was holding an impressive specimen of the species under one arm.
“Come on, I’ll show you,” he said, starting for the bridge.
Lee stiffened and held back.
“Um, no, you go ahead. I’ll watch.”
“You can watch out there with me, you’ll see better.”
“No, I’m fine here. Really. I can see.”
“Look, it’ll just take a minute…”
“No!” Lee shouted.
Mike stared at him. Lee held his gaze for a minute, then looked at the ground, red with embarrassment.
“You’ve got the wrong guy,” he said. “I have to call somebody to get on a chair to change a light bulb. I can’t get anywhere near that, unless you want to drive me to the E.R. with a heart attack.”
“What? When did this start?”
“Oh… Around the time I was born, I guess.”
“We’ve been friends since grade school. Why am I just learning this now?”
“You remember grade school? And high school? Would you want it to get around?”
“No,” Mike said, thoughtfully. “I guess not. At least not with that crowd you ran with.” He looked at Lee, then down the tracks. “This may be a problem. Ok, just watch from here for now. And I mean watch. Don’t take your eyes off this pumpkin for a moment.”
He said it with a gravity that almost stifled Lee’s spontaneous laugher, then reinforced it and shoved it out in a snort. Mike glared. Lee tried to straighten himself and look apologetic, then wondered what he was feeling sorry about. I mean, come on.
Mike sat the pumpkin on the ground and squatted down to attach the other thing he’d gotten out of the trunk. Lee eyed it curiously. It was a small device like a Walkman, but not much bigger than a deck of cards. It had a couple of dials on the front and a switch on top, but was otherwise unremarkable. A metallic silver belt was fastened to the back of it, and Mike used this to secure it around the pumpkin. He twisted the dials and flipped the switch, and a red light started blinking on and off in the upper right corner.
Mike stood up with the pumpkin, and said, “Lee, I’m serious, you’ve got to watch what happens next. It’s important that you believe it.”
Lee thought he shouldn’t worry. Whatever was going on, he had his attention now.
Mike walked alongside the tracks until he came to the trestle and stepped on the narrow walking platform. He went almost halfway down the span, then turned and held the pumpkin over the edge. He looked back at Lee, who nodded and inched forward just enough to have a clear view of where it would land, next to the creek far below.
Mike opened his hands, and down it went, faster and faster, the little red light blinking at Lee all the way down. It reached the spot where Lee had predicted it would hit, and smashed into the ground.
Lee stood for a moment with his brows knit, like someone trying to work out a magic trick. What was he supposed to have seen? He couldn’t see a single thing out of the…
Then his body jerked to a start and he felt like something was crawling all over his skin. Mike was coming back to him now.
“Why didn’t I hear it hit?” he asked, and, looking down again, “And why is it black?”
Mike nodded. “Come on,” he said, and started down the side of the ravine.
Lee only fought with himself for a moment, curiosity overwhelming his instinctive fear, and carefully made his much-slower way after him.
The pumpkin was in a tidy pile. Instead of scattering pulp and seeds in every direction, it had left the ground around it untouched, and had fallen inward in a dark, gooey mess. Mike grabbed a bottom edge and lifted it, showing Lee that, where it contacted the ground, it was still intact, and just a paler shade of orange than it was before it fell.
“Ok,” Lee asked, “So what’s the riddle?”
“Rotted? Since you let go of it up there?”
“No. Since it landed here. It’s been sitting and rotting for a month.”
“Oh, ok,” Lee said. “Sure. And Arnold Schwarzenegger’s the governor.”
“Look… Come sit down,” Mike said, walking towards a couple of rocks nearby. They sat, and Mike took a long breath.
“Last year, when you were trying to make a deal with Zemeckis and company, they mentioned that they needed a technical consultant to punch up their time travel mumbo-jumbo. You passed my name along, and I gave them a couple of pages to work with.”
“Sure. At least one of us got something out of that deal. They used it almost line for line, they were really happy with it.”
“They should have been, they got a lot more than they payed for. They wanted something that sounded vaguely plausible, so I based it on some real research I’d done for my dissertation. Some real research that turned out to be too real. It kept coming back to my mind after I saw the movie. I got out my old papers and sat down with them for a few days and… It works. Lee, it actually works.”
“Not all of it, it’s mixed in with what they already had, but if you keep going down the same logical path, you get to something that really checks out, all the way down the line.”
“But how? You’re not talking about building a better boombox here, or even a flying car.”
“It’s simpler than you think. It’s not that different from what was in the movie, only instead of forward motion, it has to be motion downward. Gravity plays a part. And you don’t have to hit a specific speed, you just have to travel a minimum distance. Anything 64 meters or over, and the effect is triggered at the bottom.”
“And you don’t go splat because…”
“Because you never actually land, at least not in the now. It’s like those graphs we plotted in high school. You remember how you’d get nearer and nearer to an axis, but never actually touch it? Same thing. You get closer and closer and closer to the ground, but somewhere in that infinity of not reaching it, you slide back in time. Or forward. The momentum you’ve built here doesn’t exist there. Er, then. You just settle to Earth, like when your muscles let go at night and you sink into the bed.”
Lee cocked his head and stared a long beat.
“That crap in the movie was more convincing.”
Mike silently pointed to the mass of pulp laying a few yards from them.
“Right, right…” Lee said, now dazed, his mind racing. He reached over and squeezed Mike’s leg. “You made good, Mike. More than… But what about the rotation of the Earth? Its movement around the sun? Why didn’t the pumpkin pop out one twelfth of the way back around the orbit?”
“That’s all handled in the theory,” Mike said impatiently, hurrying on now that he’d established what he needed Lee to see. “We don’t have time to draw diagrams in the dirt all day. We’ve got to jump on this thing, now. Don’t you see, Lee? This thing makes all the missiles in the U.S.S.R. look like firecrackers. I’m not the smartest guy on the block. If I could figure this out, it’s only a matter of time before someone else notices it, too. Universal’s given this a million times more distribution than Scientific American ever could. I made that thing in my garage. Anybody with just a common knowledge of physics could put one together, strap it on, and wipe out a whole nation with a single shot at its founder. Or bump off Gutenberg before anything rolls off his press. Put the Third Reich back on its thousand-year plan.”
“Pass an Algebra exam he forgot to study for…”
“I’m serious. Once this gets out, we’ve got no way to control it, no way to police it. How’d you like to not wake up tomorrow because somebody stepped on the first fish crawling out of the ocean?”
“You’re right,” he said, “This is heavy.”
“Ok, ok… So we’re sitting on Armageddon here. So what do we do?”
“We go back. We stop this before it starts. We stop ourselves from ever going down this road. And by ‘We’, I mean you.”
“Me? I’m your idea of an action hero?”
“You’re someone I trust. And you don’t have to be James Bond for this.”
Lee shook his head. “Hollywood agent saves the world? Who’s going to root for that? Terrible casting. Besides, why me? You’re more qualified. You’re the only one who’s qualified.”
“Because I’m absolutely sure it will work, sure I’ve worked it out to the last detail, but… Being sure is never a promise of being right. Produce is one thing. It’s never been tried by a person.”
Lee took this in.
“Your mission,” he said, “should you choose to accept it… And you’ve got two kids expecting you to pick them up after school today.”
“It’s not just that. I’ll go back if I have to. Unless someone straightens this out, they’re not going to have a future in any event, with or without me. But if something goes wrong, and I’m not here…”
“Oh, right.” He looked up at the platform towering far above them. “If I step off there, and you see me snap my spine here, or I’ve been laying here rotting like a pumpkin for months…”
“I have to be here to know, so I can try again. Because sooner or later, someone has to succeed. Lee, you’ve been my best friend for a long, long time. I trust you more than anyone I know. I wouldn’t ask you to do this, but… I wouldn’t ask anyone else.”
Lee considered puncturing this bit of ego-stroking, but since it was in a good cause, he made a sudden, probably misguided decision, locking himself in before his rational side could start screaming objections.
“Let’s hope you won’t have to,” he said. “I don’t want you to entrust the fate of the world to your second-best friend.”
Mike smiled, and squeezed Lee’s leg in return.
He went to the pile of goo and started hunting through it. He swished it back and forth, probing it here and there. He felt around carefully, then more vigorously, then stopped, and the blood drained from his face. He padded both his palms all over it. He picked up the bottom of the shell and held it sideways, spilling the guts on the ground. He shifted them around with his foot, then gave them a field goal kick, splattering bits over Lee. They stared at one another, and Mike ran to the creek.
Lee ran after him, saying, “It’s just some kid. Some kid came along and picked it up, thinking it was a toy. He couldn’t get it to work, and he’s thrown it away by now.”
“Or he’s stuck it in a drawer,” Mike said, quickly washing his hands, “where someone will find it in ten years. Or he’s shown it to his uncle, who works for Lawrence Livermore. Or it gets passed around until it gets to someone who can take it apart and figure it out.”
He stood up, wiping his hands on his jeans.
“I didn’t think anybody would be out here. Dammit, Mike, why not a cucumber and three days?”
He rushed back up the hillside, Lee chasing after him.
“We’ve got to get you back, now. The clock’s ticking. The longer we let this play out, the bigger the chance that all hell breaks loose.”
The rest of the story is available for purchase on Amazon, and can be read on a wide variety of devices and in their Web viewer. I wanted to make it available for $0.25, but the least they’ll allow anyone to charge is $0.99. :-\
Please take a look at it here.
Thanks, I hope you enjoy it!