Author's note: Not particularly fond of this one at all. There was something about it that was fun and interesting at the time but I think it became convoluted. The idea is still pretty interesting though.
Beyond the Machine
By Kai Calo
The Mire beyond the T.G. machine was nothing like Gustaf had ever imagined. He expected it to be surreal, dreamlike even, but that was only thanks to Williams’s loose description before receding into the device, abandoning his body on Gustaf’s couch as if it were nothing more than a pair of worn socks. A strange job, T.G. Engineer, but Gustaf supposed it made sense. Williams was a strange man—and Gustaf himself perhaps more so for requesting this extraordinary process, the harvesting of a deceased loved one’s time.
Black goo from the Mire entangled Gustaf’s limbs, pulling him in different directions with a long sluurping sound, like water being sucked from a blocked ear, but he experienced no pain, nor was he worried. It felt normal. His thoughts rebounded off one another, entwining, diverting his attention, but he closed his eyes and dug his thumb nails into the sides of his middle fingers, forcing himself to focus. He wouldn’t let himself be distracted by the allure of those pretty, pleasant thoughts that seemed to come alive by merely thinking them; he was in this blackness for a reason—to find Cedric Williams, Senior Time Gathering Engineer, before the constructed manifold inside the machine broke down and the Mire bled anti-time into Anandi’s timeline.
As Gustaf waded through the black morass that surrounded him, he fingered the sterling silver pendant Anandi had gifted him at his throat. From there, he recalled the Engineer’s words outside the machine during their initial questioning session before the commencement of gathering her time. Gustaf could see the scene, a picture that gradually transpired before him.
Williams sat, his fingers steepled, and spoke in a detached and professional voice.
“In order to gather this time I need as much information as possible. I need to be able to program the three spatial dimensions along with the correct temporal coordinates into the machine… This makes the manifold, which encases the specific period we’re looking for in her timeline.”
Kylie shifted in her cage. “Braaak! Timeline! Braaak!”
Gustaf ignored the bird. “What’s a manifold?”
“Think of it as a bubble. It forms around a place in time that stabilizes reality. The bubble gives a tangible, three-dimensional atmosphere in an otherwise intangible place.”
“And what’s outside the bubble—the manifold, I mean?”
Williams looked solemn. “We call it the Mire.”
Yes, the Mire. It was anti-time, anti-memory. Empty space. And like a beast with an eternal hunger, it wanted to be filled. It was thick and viscous, yet somehow Gustaf knew that wasn’t what it really looked like. Perhaps a slimy black swamp was the most comprehensible thing his mind could conjure. Though its consistency was akin to coagulating blood, Gustaf found himself trudging through it without loss of breath or even fatigue, and the limp that plagued him daily had disappeared. It was a strange phenomenon to feel for a man of seventy-two.
He marched onward, leaving white gaps where his feet had pierced the black. His thoughts progressed inside his head, taking shape, and through their outward release into the Mire he became aware of the numerous other gaps that had punctured its gelatinous plane. More engineers; their presence was everywhere, scattered over the pitch-colored matter. Their footprints were like the stars, the Mire like a midnight sky. Gustaf concentrated on Williams, on the man’s tall frame and gawkish, shovel-like feet, and the memory of their meeting replayed before him.
The doorbell chimed twice throughout the small, Swiss chalet, resounding with a pleasant tone. An old man rose slowly to his feet. “Guten tag, Herr Williams,” the old man greeted at the door. “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
The person standing outside grinned and replied with an awkward, clumsy accent, “Nicht sehr gut, Mr. Geron.”
Kylie, the parrot, chirruped in the background happily. The old man laughed in response. “Ah, it’s a brutish language anyhow. Like a dog’s bark. Come inside, come inside. And please, call me Gustaf.”
The sound of both Kylie’s chirping and a dog’s rough bark echoed, making Gustaf snap to. The blackness of the Mire rippled as if invisible water striders were skimming its surface. Now Gustaf understood why this giant swamp was considered so dangerous: one could lose himself in its depths forever, never coming back from beyond the machine. Gustaf near panicked, realizing there was nothing to keep his mind from being completely enveloped by the Mire’s need for thought. Then he glanced down at his wrist and saw the Chronograph still strapped to his wrist like a large watch. His fright eased.
The Advanced Triple Chronograph—or 'Chronos' as Williams had dubbed it—kept Gustaf connected to the machine. Outside it, free from the chaos of the Mire, Gustaf’s body was at home resting peacefully in his cushioned chair while Williams lay opposite him on the couch. To the untrained eye it would seem as if two men had simply fallen asleep in the den of the little chalet, but they were not asleep. Not exactly. Their physical state was closer to being dead more than anything; their skin would yield a chill if touched.
But the Chronos, that three-faced watch about his wrist, was a good reminder that he was still inside the machine, temporally alive, and the silver pendant about his neck protected him.
The Mire was madness, unrelenting in its need to be concrete rather than abstract, but now, with his mind refocused, Gustaf could imagine Williams once more to follow the highlighted path of shovel-shaped footprints towards a small glowing speck that grew as he advanced. He struggled not to think, but instead fixed on both the rhythm of his breath as it poured from his lungs, only to be drawn back in, and the lighted footprints. The act was next to impossible.
Gustaf supposed the difficulty handling the Mire was the reason why the random woman on the other end of the emergency line had warned him before going into the machine after Williams. He could hear her voice as the Mire weaved his thoughts into tremors that struck his ears.
“Alright, Mr. Geron,” a woman said. “Another member of the T.G. team will be at your residence in a little over an hour to assist you.”
He was not convinced. “Williams explained it was possible to destroy a person’s timeline if the engineer gets stuck beyond the machine, in the Mire or the manifold. Does that mean… my wife… could everything she was be essentially erased?”
“I can’t say for sure, Sir.”
The red light flashed on the T.G. machine, sounding its alarm, and Gustaf’s heart sank. Kylie squawked, mimicking the noise. He didn’t know what to do. “How long does it take before the manifold begins to break down?” He paced despite his aching limp.
“Sir, I’m not a licensed T.G.—”
“It could range from a few minutes to a few hours for the manifold to collapse. We don’t know for sure—we just do our best to keep it from happening.”
Gustaf was silent. The conclusion came to him, powerful, like a gust of heavy wind. “I’m going in there,” he said boldly into the receiver.
“Sir, I highly advise you not to do that. You don’t have the proper—”
He hung up.
Gustaf shivered as the Mire slinked around his ankles. Realizing the seriousness of losing even the smallest amount of Anandi’s essence to something as foolish as his own desire to see her again had made him angry. It wasn’t fair to her. By disregarding that risk, he might have doomed her entirety.
“Like hell I need the proper training…” he mumbled aloud into the blackness of the Mire. His words snaked out, slipping into the goo like serpents. He did his best to ignore them.
The glowing speck in the distance was now close, becoming a brilliant white light, illuminating the ebony at his feet. The Mire withdrew from the light’s radiance as if burned. Gustaf looked down at it and saw his body was nothing more than a mannequin; no gender, no hair, no wrinkles, scars or signs of age. He was a youth again. Doubt came. It made him pause.
The Mire crept slowly back around his feet.
This… couldn’t be real. Manifolds? Time Gathering machines? Mires bleeding anti-time into parallel timelines? It finally began to dawn on him how insane it all seemed. Perhaps this was real, this blackness right here and now. As he stood indecisive, his thoughts transformed into images once more.
“You don’t need to understand any of those concepts. Most of what I’m telling you is required by my company before we begin the actual gathering,” Williams said. “All you need to know is that once finished, you’ll have a stretch of her time for yourself, to experience whenever you wish. You can’t ever change it, but you can always experience the time the way she lived it.”
“So it’ll be like we were never there? And that’s good, right?”
“Yes. The time we retrieve will reset like an elastic band. Its form can’t be imprinted—not by something as small as us. The only thing that could do it damage is the Mire. The manifold is a doorway, and through it the Mire has a tangible entrance. Consider the timeline as a stronghold. We’re creating doors in its defenses; we have to remove those doors before we leave or else the Mire will break through.”
Gustaf was silent for a moment. “If this goes wrong… if something happens, and I know you say it won’t, but if it does and her timeline is jeopardized… would it be… real?”
“It would be as real as anything else,” Williams said, “if you could classify anything we see as being real. You wouldn’t be able to do this again. Her memories in that parallel world would alter, the elastic would snap. It would be like a city being sacked by invaders. But, I can assure you, nothing will go wrong.”
“We don’t have to do this, Mr. Geron.” Williams’s voice became soft, his expression sympathetic. “I can relate. Really… I can. You don’t want to hurt someone you loved—still love. Your wife is important to you, even if she’s no longer here.”
“Braaak! Pretty bird! Anandi’s pretty bird! Braaak!
Gustaf glanced down, seeing the silver pendant about his neck. Moments elapsed like a lagging heartbeat.
The Mire hugged Gustaf’s legs, about to coat him in darkness up to the chest, but before it could wrap around his thighs he instinctively gripped the pendant and said, “Her name is Anandi.” The name, the letters ‘a’, ‘n’, ‘d, and ‘i’, coiled about his head, pulling him forward toward the white. The Mire shrank from his body with a shrill squeal. Gustaf forced himself into the brightness, and soon the snaking, black tar was gone from his limbs.
He looked down at himself to see not a mannequin, but a normal, old man. His thoughts were still. There was no ebony slime below him, no white light ahead. He looked up to survey his surroundings and realized he was inside the bubble shape Williams had depicted.
Things were clear. The manifold made sense, whereas the Mire did not.
Ahead there stood a large University surrounded by quads of lush grass, with students leaning against trees loitering before lectures. Upon examining the University’s name, Gustaf realized it was the same school Anandi had taught at before they had eloped. This was it. This was where he could find Williams.
The manifold seemed intact—though Gustaf could recall the Mire outside being quite strong and unwavering on his trek through. It was only a matter of time until that sable goo became so powerful that it could penetrate the complex shape of the weakening manifold and tear it down into obscure blackness. It would spread, like a disease. Anti-time—anti-memory—would be inevitable, and Anandi’s timeline itself, all her wonderful memories and the events therein… would disappear.
He had to find Williams.
Cursing his bad knee and the veracity of the manifold, Gustaf limped for the entrance of the University. As he went, he inspected the peculiar faces of the students sitting on the grass, making sure he wasn’t overlooking Williams. The lanky engineer could be anywhere. He crossed the threshold of the building into the main hall, soaking up the passage with wonder. He remembered the inside of the hall being far different from its current appearance, and yet he knew where each item was as if it were a reoccurring dream. Grotesque marionettes tottered by as he crept onward, their faces inhuman, yet everything about them felt appropriate. Gustaf found it too unusual, so he stared at the floor as often as he could, lifting his head with a glance at each passing face to ensure they were not Williams then averting his eyes to the safety of the floor.
He paused to look at the Chronos strapped to his wrist—reminding him of when he was—touched the pendant on its chain—recalling its significance, to protect the weary traveler—then glanced up to see himself standing in front of the entry of a lecture hall. He looked in. The room was large, filled with students, and at the head of the classroom running the lecture was… Anandi.
She looked up, her long black hair flowing in waves.
“Can we help you?” she asked. A lump had formed in Gustaf’s throat. She did not recognize him. How could she? He looked thirty years older now than when this particular event in time had taken shape.
The students turned, a mass of exaggerated features, their eerie eyes fixing on him. He managed to swallow, but just as he opened his mouth to reply he caught sight of a familiar face among the crowded seats.
Unwilling to cause a disturbance, Gustaf shook his head and closed the door to wait outside. Seeing Anandi youthful and vibrant—alive—brought him back to the days before their life in the Alps. It was so peaceful, so quaint and quiet, and Anandi had been free of her Jewish parents’ wrath at marrying a non-Jewish man of German decent. Gustaf sighed, stared down at the Chronos, thought about its inner workings that made it capable of linking him with the electrochemical energy of the machine, and remembered that he was in a state of self-induced limbo beyond the place where his body lay in wait for his return. The pendant remained dangling over his sternum, rising and falling with the long sigh escaping his lungs.
This was not real. Well, it was real, in an abstract kind of way—but it was not his real.
Soon the lecture he’d interrupted was dismissed, and Gustaf stood off to the side of its entry to watch the students trickle out in small groups. They glanced at him but said nothing, going about their business, likely assuming he was faculty. Most of the students had already departed when Gustaf spotted Williams leaving beside a young man, books propped against his side with a bag slung over his angular shoulder. The Chronos was absent from his wrist, as if forgotten. Gustaf could feel his brows wrinkle at the sight. “Herr Williams,” Gustaf called and stepped from the wall he was leaning against. “Cedric!”
The thin man halted and stared at him. “Do I know you?”
Gustaf flinched. “Yes, you know me—it’s Gustaf Geron. From the Alps! You’re stuck in the machine.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Williams replied. He stole a glimpse at the student who stood beside him and shrugged. The student—a blond youth with gentle eyes —returned the gesture with the same shrug.
“Cedric!” Gustaf said. “You’re Cedric Williams, Senior T.G. Engineer! You came to my home, you brought your little machine, you were gathering a portion of my wife’s time after her death, but now you’re stuck here! In the bubble thing—the manifold!”
Williams drew back, concern etched in his face. “Sure,” he said with a sideways glance at the other student. Both began circling Gustaf for the exit, their postures and expressions clearly showing what they thought of this prattling, old man going on about manifolds and time gathering and his dead wife. But then, as if someone flipped a switch, the light of the atmosphere flickered like a dying bulb, blackening and relighting. Gustaf couldn’t tell for how long, but everything blinked, vanished, then took form again. Several times and it stopped.
“What was that?” Gustaf asked, his eyes darting. “No… Is it the Mire? It’s trying to get in!”
“Let’s go,” the blond student whispered to Williams.
In that moment, Gustaf knew it was useless trying to convince the engineer; it was only until he was forced outside this forged world back into the dreary Mire beyond that he might remember they were inside a bubble that was about to pop. So, with no other alternative in sight, Gustaf grabbed the lapels of Williams’s jacket and began to push him down the hall.
“Whoa, no need to be rough,” Williams said, his hands gripping Gustaf’s wrists. “Let me go and we can get you help.”
“You’re the one who needs help,” Gustaf replied, knowing how crazed he sounded. He didn’t care. He pushed Williams through a nearby door into an empty lecture hall and up the stairs that led to the large windows, thankful of his long, arduous years spent as an arborist; he had retained some of his strength from the job, though his knee was killing him. Still, he shoved William’s skin-and-bones frame forward, fighting the engineer every step of the way.
The windows of the vacant lecture hall showed the vastness of green where the students sat lingering between classes, but through another window at the back of the room was a darkness Gustaf was ironically relieved to see.
If the light was the way inside the manifold, the dark had to be the one out.
“You don’t need to do this,” Williams was saying as Gustaf shoved him along. “Let me go and we can talk, whatever you need. You won’t get out of here, not without hurting yourself, the statistics—”
“You know, I meant to tell you before we started this whole outrageous adventure, Williams, but shut up.”
Gustaf flung Williams through the window and followed, a drastic act he hoped would bring them back to the Mire. They tumbled, noiseless, to the other side—no shattered glass, no splintered wood. Head over heel over head, they spun into shadow, falling and falling, though Gustaf felt as if he were rising, the same sensation experienced when riding in an elevator. But this didn’t last for long. Soon they were both standing upright in the deep soot Gustaf had waded through before breaching the manifold. Straight away, Gustaf tried to suppress his thoughts, but even the act of remembering not to remember generated flimsy images the eager Mire sought to make solid.
Gustaf could see himself in the Mire within the Mire, and it gave him a headache.
The Mire hugged his legs, about to coat him in darkness up to the chest, but before it could wrap around his thighs he instinctively gripped the pendant and said, “Her name is Anan—”
“Cedric!” he called suddenly, gripping the silver necklace and staring at the Chronos on his wrist. The name ‘Cedric’ grew from his mouth, like a vine, down to root in the black goo about his feet. “Cedric, how do we get out of here? I can’t stop my thoughts—the Mire is getting too strong!”
Williams was a blank slate, his gaze transparent, dim. Then he blinked and turned to Gustaf. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Oh, thank God,” Gustaf said. The expression slipped into the tar, creating little pockets that rose underneath the black material.
“You’re not supposed to be in here,” Williams repeated.
“You were stuck!”
“That’s why I gave you the emergency card. Someone who knows what they’re doing is supposed to come and fetch me.”
“You said everything was going to be fine—you said I could trust you. I wasn’t going to wait around and let this black stuff harm her!”
“Right,” Williams said, switching to business mode. “I have to disassemble that manifold before it’s destroyed.”
The Mire swelled, obsidian slime rising above their knees.
“How?” Gustaf yelled. His thoughts echoed, shape shifting to memories, and he watched them play out against the backs of his eyelids as he clenched them shut.
“This is the emergency light,” Williams said. “If this light is flashing red and beeping, then there’s a problem. A serious problem.”
“Braaak! Problem! Braaak!”
“If this goes off,” Williams continued, “it means I’m lost or something’s wrong. I’m wading in the Mire or I’ve indicated to the machine that I’ve lost touch with reality. That’s when you need to call the emergency line I gave you on the card. The individual on the line will know what to do if it happens.”
“But it won’t, right? You said you’re experienced.”
“Gustaf,” Williams called, breaking Gustaf from the lifelike memory. “Gustaf, I need you to relax and stop thinking. Imagine yourself as a blank sheet of paper or a white rock, something vacant.”
“I can focus on my breathing,” Gustaf replied.
The Mire was beginning to rage around the white light where Gustaf knew the manifold to be. He panicked at the sight.
“Don’t let that black shit hurt her, Cedric!” he shouted.
“Stop thinking!” Williams replied.
Gustaf sucked in a breath, unable to take his eyes away from the scene of the Mire tearing at the manifold. Ugly, black holes were forming, stab wounds in the light. Just as Gustaf couldn’t stand it any longer, a sweet calm settled over him. That was when she came—not as an out of control thought or memory—on her own, an entity unbound by the might of the Mire.
“Listen, my dear,” she said. “Listen to me; let my voice be the breath of the tides, ebbing and flowing, and be no more.”
For reasons unknown Gustaf initially fought the calming sensation, though he was well aware it was the voice of his wife. Yet she was able to silence the storm while Williams strove to dismantle the manifold. Gustaf couldn’t explain the buzzing in his head, but it was akin to a blanket of fuzzy, warm snow covering his senses, sending him elsewhere, distracting him for the time it took to see the task done.
He could see Williams in his home, the chalet, standing beside the parrot’s cage.
“Lovely bird,” Williams said. “What kind?”
Gustaf glanced at the parrot, smiling. “She’s an Emerald Macaw. My wife’s. Before she died.”
Williams made a hum of sad agreement and said, “I’ve always wanted one. A… friend of mine—a dear friend—loved birds… he actually had a few parakeets, finches, a cockatiel too.”
The image disappeared. In its place was barren white. She floated above, a guardian of glistening silver.
“You need to let me go,” she told him as the Mire vanished under the pearl luminescence. Her hair was black, twining in soft strands around her kind, gentle face, yet it was not the ebony pitch of the Mire.
Was this a hallucination? A false memory made to fill the cavity of the Mire? Or was she really there, here, now, wherever this was? He gripped at the silver pendant, turning it between his thumb and finger. Was she… real?
“Go back,” she told him. “Leave this place.”
“It’s hard not having you,” he confessed. “It’s hard being alone.” The words came from his mouth as speech should, sounds with no outrageous illustrations, save for the ones imagined by the head—but they stayed there.
“Look,” she said. She turned and cast her hand to point, her finger long and slender.
Two brilliant lines were twined around each other, so close they were as one, but they split off, one fading, the other still bright. Gustaf wanted to speak, but he watched the remaining bright line fade as if to pursue the other. A spark flared, and once more they were visible, twirling as before. He looked at her, the floating figure that was once his bride.
“We are all alone,” she said, “and yet we have each other, stamped lastingly, for much longer then you will ever comprehend. You and he—” She gestured to Williams who was closing the last of the manifold, “—neither of you have any concept of this. Go back and let it remain. Go back, my dear, beyond the machine, to our home, to the world where I once loved you, so that you may pass to the next where I will love you still.”
“I will,” he said, and the sensation of tears sprung to his eyes and slid down his face, though there were none.
“We are as birds,” she said. “Someday we will fly to a place beyond.”
With that she let him drift to his feet to a hard, flat surface. The Mire slithered up, away, and he saw the figure he knew to be Williams take on the features that made the man unique in appearance. They looked at each other. The manifold was gone. Williams put a hand to the now visible Chronos at his wrist, the one he wore outside the machine, and pulled the escape pin on the side.
Gustaf did the same.
The Swiss chalet on the mountain Alps was quiet. Gustaf was in his cushioned chair, his eyes squinting open. Light from the setting sun poured through the bay windows from the north-west, bathing the room in yellow ochre. Williams was on the couch, resting the entire length with his shovel feet sticking off the end at the armrest, eyes moving beneath his fluttering lids.
The Time Gathering machine—a deceptive device given the simplicity of its appearance—resided next to the lanky man on the coffee table. Its plain, black surface reminded Gustaf of the gleaming matter that had nearly ensnared them within its sinister nostalgia, while the series of wire-wrapped receivers on its top prompted the image of spoken words slicked with energy as they burrowed beneath the atramentous goo.
On the machine’s side were three clocks identical to the Chronos, but more importantly the T.G. crystal was filled, indicating with a blue tint that the gathering procedure was a success. Gustaf pondered over the chunk of Anandi’s timeline trapped inside, but his thoughts were quickly dashed as Williams shot to his feet and ripped the Chronos, and the IV that attached it to the machine, from his arm. “You never mentioned she taught in the states,” he said through clenched teeth.
Gustaf nearly recoiled at the vehemence in the other man’s voice. Then he found his own. “You said nothing could go wrong.” He rose up, straightening his crooked back, though Williams was by far taller. “You said you were experienced. A senior engineer. I should be furious with you—not the other way around. And what does it matter that she taught in the states? You were the one asking the questions!”
“It was a fluke…” Williams said, losing his momentum.
The parrot chattered behind them.
“You-you almost destroyed it!” Gustaf said, ignoring the bird and throwing up his hands. “Her timeline could’ve completely vanished and it would’ve all been for naught!”
Williams shot him a glare. “You knew the risks.”
Gustaf crossed his arms, reluctant to argue the obvious. His anger quickly ebbed. Besides, they were both free from the clutches of the Mire, and above all Anandi’s timeline was intact. He could savor the relief. It was safe; she was safe. And he knew now he’d been an idiot to try and thieve her back.
“I’m sorry, Gustaf,” Williams said. “It’s my fault. I was unprepared.”
Uncrossing his arms, Gustaf sat on the couch next to Williams. “What happened?”
“A one in a billion possibility,” the other man replied. “Like winning the lottery.”
“… You knew someone in there?”
“The student you were with,” Gustaf guessed. “Family?”
The thin man gave Gustaf a sad look and pushed up his rounded glasses with a sigh. “Husband,” he answered. “Late husband.”
“That’s why you asked those questions beforehand,” Gustaf said. “To make sure nothing could surprise you.”
“I wasn’t thorough. I was careless.”
Gustaf weighed the answer and was struck with a sudden sympathy for the engineer. There was no comfort for a lost loved one save for the passage of time. Kylie began clucking across from them, her light noises a reassurance.
“Was it recent?” he asked.
“No,” Williams replied. He looked as if he wasn’t going to add more, then opened his mouth to say, “I’ve made a living helping others reclaim their dearly departed. Friends, family, lovers, children… and yet I could never do it for myself. He was… very ill towards the end… but before he succumbed to dementia, he told me he knew I’d want to gather some of his time for myself, to keep and replay over and over, and that being a T.G. Engineer it would be easy for me to do. But he forbade me from it. Said I would need to move on. Said I needed to let it be. I thought I had, but… seeing him again… I didn’t think I ever would.” His fist clenched in another bout of anger. “Because of my negligence, I could’ve ruined this for you.” Then his anger subsided. He reached for the crystal secured in the machine and carefully removed it from its home. “Here, this is yours.”
Gustaf took the crystal. It shone a luminous blue, an effect of its reaction with the metaphysical components of Anandi’s time locked within the minerals. This palm-sized, man-made stone held essences of the past, with the ability to see and hear and touch the dead as if they were alive again, forever at a place in time he now owned, and yet there was guilt in his heart while gripping it in his hands.
Williams gathered his equipment and donned his coat, readying himself to leave while making noises for the parrot and sticking his finger in the cage to brush her soft feathers. The machine and two Chronos were packed at his side in a large case. He would stay another night at the hostel, then, after an hour’s drive, would board a plane for California. But before he could walk out the door, Gustaf stopped him. “What if I just… let it go?” He held up the crystal for Williams to see.
“You mean let the time we just gathered bounce back to its original place in her timeline?”
“Well,” Williams said, setting his case down for the moment. “Besides being incredibly uncommon and—excuse me for saying—quite bizarre, it would be a bit like releasing a bird back into the wild. Without the crystal holding it, the elasticity of the time would simply restore to its original state in her timeline. Like the bird, it would just kind of… flit off into the sky.”
At that, Gustaf glanced at the parrot in the room-sized cage. His hand reflexively crept up to clutch the silver pendant before he could even notice. He could tell Williams he’d seen Anandi, not as a memory in time, but something more. A spirit, perhaps. But the man was so scientific, so exact and firm in what he knew, that Gustaf didn’t think the engineer would believe him. Kylie squawked, bobbing her head and drawing his eye. “Take Kylie with you,” he said, surprising himself. He could hear a voice in the back of his head. We are as birds.
“What? No, I-I couldn’t,” Williams replied. “It’s completely out of the question.”
“I’m not asking. She’s old, but I’m older. She’ll outlive me by a good twenty years. She needs a new home. I want to let her go. I want her to live somewhere new.”
Williams was speechless. When he reclaimed his voice he said, “But how—”
“We’ll arrange it,” Gustaf said. “I’ll give you everything you need to take care of her. Plus, you said a friend of yours liked birds. Maybe it’s supposed to be this way—maybe its fate.”
Williams smiled. It was the first real smile Gustaf had seen since the man had come to his home in the Alps. “Fate or not, you’ll change your mind,” was the last thing the engineer said.
Williams was close to being right—Gustaf almost did. He teetered on the brink of keeping the bird and the crystal, clutching to them as he clutched to life, but in the end when everything was said and done he knew he’d release them both come morning. Kylie’s things would be packed and ready, the bird herself put on a plane for San Francisco, and the glowing crystal’s release valve sticking out on its side would be pulled, draining its radiant blue to fade with the setting of the sun. Gustaf went to sleep that night, dangling his silver pendant from the bed’s post.
© Kai Calo 2014