All of you probably know I’ve written some fiction. A few years back I was invited to submit a piece for a sci-fi anthology, the one requirement being that the short story had to have an ending that was a “twist.” I thought on it some and came up with a short story I titled Ten Minutes. Here’s part one of three; sorry, no images for this one. Enjoy.
Norman Taggert was my best friend.
That’s why I’m leaving this record. After witnessing the events of the last hour, someone has to leave some kind of written record behind… well, just in case.
Norman fancies – fancied – himself an inventor. In all honesty, he had some successes in inventing various gadgets. You’ve probably heard of the Taggert Multipurpose Water Dehydrolizer, and who hasn’t used a Dendritic Atmospheric Distortion Analyzer to predict that perfect golf swing? Even the common Ultrasonic Cockroach Disintegration Hotel – that was Norman’s baby, too.
You may have even seen Norman’s picture in Popular Gadgetry when they ran that feature on him – you’ll remember him as that funny-looking guy with the trademark round glasses, gap-toothed grin, obnoxious checked jacket and bow tie. Norman was proud of being an inventor, and wanted to look the part.
Scarcely a week went by without Norman cooking up some new gizmo or another; a few of them even worked. He had a modest string of patents hung on his workshop wall. His few “real” inventions returned enough in license fees to enable Norman to tinker full-time.
Until today, anyway.
I’m writing this on a Friday afternoon. Tomorrow is Saturday, but after the last hour, I’m not sure what kind of Saturday to expect.
Most guys look forward to Fridays. For me, it’s just a day that brings the prospect of spending two more days at home with my wife instead of at the hardware store where I’ve worked for nineteen years. To put this bluntly, I’d rather be at the store. A man learns to face the inevitable, though, and so I left work today as always and drove home, hoping to slip away by myself for a few hours of peace and quiet at some point during the weekend. See, all I had in mind an hour ago was fishing. Now I’m not even certain I’ll be here an hour from now. I’m afraid anything could happen.
Let me tell you why.
I was in my basement workshop when Norman showed up at my house. He was in an obvious and, for Norman, perfectly characteristic state of excitement.
Norman was always excited about something, usually whatever gizmo he had more recently “invented,” so I wasn’t too surprised when my wife Belinda ushered an eager Norman downstairs to my shop, where I was winding new line onto a fishing reel.
“George!” Norman leaped into the little cement-floored workshop.
Behind him, Belinda glowered at us both. I looked at her with a weak grin.
It was an intimidating sight. Twelve years ago, when we married, Belinda was tall, thin, a trifle horse-faced, and a trifle hard. Now, she’s still tall, even thinner, even more horse-faced, and much more forbidding. She glared at me from behind her stainless-steel rimmed glasses, and tapped one foot in its solid brown leather shoe.
“No smoking down here,” she snapped, “or there’s gonna be trouble.”
“I know, dear,” I answered her. I long ago stopped trying to argue with Belinda; there’s no way to win. “We won’t smoke.” Belinda glared at me for a moment, then turned away and clomped up the stairs, her heavy shoes thumping each riser like a hammer.
I walked over to the little refrigerator I keep in the shop – a necessity since I also sleep there quite regularly – and pulled out two cold beers. I handed Norman one. “What is it, Norman?” I asked him. “What have you cooked up now?”
Norman looked back to the door at the top of the stairs. Belinda shot him a glare. She didn’t like Norman, or anybody else much for that matter. She slammed the door shut.
Norman grinned and pulled a small black box out of his pocket, handed it to me. “I just finished this,” he said. “I rushed right over to show it to you. Almost had an accident on the way over, too – guy blew through a stop sign, he almost hit me!”
“Traffic is getting bad around here,” I agreed.
“Crazy,” Norman said. “This guy, he drove like he was blind drunk. Anyway. Have a look at that. What do you think?”
I looked over Norman’s new gizmo. It was just a small black plastic box, about six inches by three by maybe an inch deep, with a small dial on the top, a toggle switch, and a red button. Norman had scribed some markings around the dial – from zero to ten minutes, marked off in ten-second increments. The toggle switch was marked “ahead” and “back.” On the top of the box a tiny blue light glowed softly.
The red button was just a red button.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll bite. What is it?”
Norman popped open his beer and took a long pull. “Thirsty,” he said, “I’ve been working on that all day.”
“So what is it?”
“Isn’t it obvious? Look at the markings.”
“You’ve got it marked in minutes and seconds… Don’t tell me you’ve… Norman, that’s not possible.”
“That’s what everybody thinks, but everybody was wrong,” Norman grinned. “It is what it looks like. It’s a time machine.”
I handed him the box back. “Very funny. What is it really?”
“I’m completely serious. It’s a time machine. There’s a problem, though – it will send you forward or backward in time, but only a maximum of ten minutes. Well, actually ten minutes and sixteen point three-five seconds; that’s the way the programming and power constraints worked out. You can’t manipulate the space-time continuum all that much with four double-A batteries, you know, even with a raritanium-based agrodomatic rectifier.”
“Even so, ten minutes? It will send you forward or backward in time ten minutes?” I looked at the dial markings again. “That’s how you’ve got it marked – what good is that?”
“Haven’t you ever wanted to take back a comment? Make a last-minute bet on a football game? How about playing poker? Think of the possibilities!”
I thought about the last twelve years with Belinda, of all the comments I wished I hadn’t made – and of all the shouting matches that resulted from my not saying anything at all. “Better if I could go back twelve years. Anyway, I suppose it could be handy. Have you tried it yet?”
“No,” Norman said. “I need a witness. That’s why I came to you, buddy – I wanted you to be the first to see it.”
“All right,” I conceded, “let’s say that it works. What do you intend to do with it?”
“The possibilities are endless,” Norman said, “but I did have one thing in mind. Don’t you have some vacation time coming to you?”
“Sure,” I said. “About three weeks.” Not much point in taking time off work when I’d spend it at Belinda’s beck and call.
“I’ve got a lot of work that I’ve been putting off for lack of funding,” Norman said. “Three of my patents expire this year. So, when I made this little gizmo, I got to thinking.” He grinned. “How’s about you and me taking a little trip to Las Vegas in a couple weeks, make a few hundred thousand at the crap tables?”
“I don’t like the idea. Could get rough if they get any idea we’re cheating.”
“Not if we’re careful – take a few hundred here, a few hundred there, spread it out over different tables and casinos. Anyway, think about it. This little gadget,” he held up the black box and shook it, “could change our lives. Hell – it could change everything.”
An image of Belinda’s horse face swam in front of me for a moment. I shook off the thought before it could form. “How does it work?”
Norman grinned. “I stumbled on the principle while I was trying to recalibrate the Ipswich field strength on my multi-phase kababulator – you remember that, I invented it to produce wave-phase variations in alpha-theta band neutrino emissions from my Jones-Utz particle stability desensitizer?”
“Uh, if you say so.”
“Anyway, I noticed that my particle tibufibulatrices monitor was picking up chronographic irregularities from the desensitizer – so I removed the Kohoy-Bopp circuits from my desensitizer, rewired it to be a destabilizer instead of a desensitizer – merely a matter of reversing the phase polarity of the krepulator guide – and cobbled up a field projector that should move the mass of a medium-sized human body. It’s set for my body specifications, to be specific, although anyone of about my mass could probably use it safely.”
I sat down at the workbench and opened my beer. I reached for the pack of cigarettes that lay on the bench, remembered Belinda’s scowling face, and thought better of it. “All right,” I said. “Let’s see if it works. How do you plan to test it?”
“I’m going to set it to send me forward in time, one minute. All you have to do is to sit here for a minute and wait for me to show up.”
“Don’t you think you should try it on something inanimate first? A hammer or something?”
“Might not work,” Norman said. “I’ve calibrated it for someone or something of about my mass. The field follows discrete surfaces using a topopgraphic apoplexomatic area-mapping yetzolagrophic dodulizer, so it will send whoever’s holding it and nothing else around them. If you tried it on a smaller mass, the field strength won’t be right – on something the mass of a hammer, it might either send it back to the late Jurassic or completely destroy everything within about ten light-years. Better to stay with the designed mass. So, I have to touch it to push the button; the only way to use is it to use it on myself. Don’t worry, though – I’m confident that my calculations are right. It’ll work.”
I took a long drink of beer. “All right. Go ahead.”
Norman flipped the toggle to “Ahead,” turned the dial to one minute, and handed me the machine to check the settings. “One minute, ahead,” I confirmed. Norman took the device back and, grinning like a big ape, poised his finger over the red button. “See you in one minute,” he said, and pressed down.
The machine fizzled and buzzed for a moment, then stopped. Nothing else happened.
“Well,” I said.
Norman looked disappointed. “I don’t get it,” he said. “I was sure it would work.”
“Maybe your batteries are dead.”
“They’re brand new.”
He walked over to the workbench and scrutinized the machine in the light form the window. He pushed the red button again. Nothing.
“Dammit,” Norman muttered. He tugged his tie loose. “I’ll have to take the thing apart – must be a bad connection. The jodhpur-gigaferkastatic circuit may have gone out; it was pretty much jerry-rigged. I kind of cobbled it together with solder and electrician’s tape.”
“Have another beer,” I offered.
“In a minute. Have to go to the john.” Still looking disappointed, he walked out of the workshop and disappeared into the little half-bath he and I had built in my basement the year before. I went back to winding line on my fishing reel.
A few seconds later, I was startled by a voice behind me. Norman’s voice. “See?” he said, real joy in his voice. “It works!”
I turned to see Norman standing there, holding his time machine. “What do you mean? You just said it…”
I stopped dead. I’d seen Norman loosen his tie – now it was tightly knotted. I looked past him – the time machine was still lying on the workbench where Norman had left it.
Then there was a faint shimmer in the air by the window, and another Norman appeared out of thin air, holding another time machine. “See,” he said, “I knew it would work!”
“What the hell!?” the first Norman burst out. The second Norman turned to see the first; his jaw dropped.
Then the original Norman, tie loose in his collar, walked out of the bathroom. The other Normans turned to face him. The original Norman – my friend, the inventor Norman – took one look at them and fainted.
It took a while to get Norman to come around.
Once the three of us – the other two Normans and I – managed to get the original Norman sitting upright and sipping feebly at his beer, I went to my workbench and found a big black permanent marker. “OK,” I told the Normans, “First things first.” I pointed at the original Norman. “You’re Norman-Prime. You,” I indicated the first of the duplicate Normans, “are Norman-One.” I marked a large ‘1’ on his forehead with the marker. “You’re Norman-Two,” I said to the second, and marked him with a ‘2.’
“So, Normans,” I asked them, “What happened, and what do we do now?”
All three Normans started talking at once.
“I built the machine to send a body physically through time.”
“But it seems to only send an image of the body…”
“…probably due to a flux in the floccanihistation index…”
“…this could have been caused by the reversal of the sustephapolitrix vertices…”
“…causing an irretrievable contrafibularity of quantum data transfer…”
“…in the Gompers-Keldfield continuum…”
“…causing a duplication of quantum states…”
“…sending an image of the body…”
“…through time, and reconstituting a duplicate at the destination…”
“…not the original. So you end up with a…
“…duplication of identities.”
“That shouldn’t be possible.”
“Well, it’s obviously possible,” I belabored the obvious, “but none of you have answered my question. What do we do now?”
“How long has it been since I first pushed the button?” Norman-Prime asked.
“About three minutes,” I said.
Norman-Prime stood up. “Well, then,” he grinned weakly, “All I have to do is go five minutes into the past, and stop myself pushing the button. That should put it all right.”
“What will happen to us?” Norman-One asked.
“You’re me,” Norman-Prime said, “nothing can happen to you.”