Here’s a little ditty for Chuck’s flash fiction challenge this week. My first official one. I went a bit over the limit but I’m cutting myself a break since it’s my first go.
I rolled a 7 (a time machine) and a 7 (a hard drive filled with secrets). A happier combination for me may not exist. The title sucks, but I’m stuck on it for now. May change later. I am trying to improve, so if you’re out there, let me hear it.
300 YEARS A THIEF
It was unlike any electronic device she’d ever seen; a tiny silver box, no bigger than a toddler’s alphabet block; gleaming, square, perfect. And her design for it was now perfect. Ugly and functional, but perfect.
She didn’t believe that it had been anything at first, it was so insubstantial. But when she followed Karn’s directions and got it close to the ports in her laptop, it had crazily sprouted wires that reached out for the connection, witches’ arms, grasping. A flash of light and the smell of burned electrics, and when the smoke cleared, she saw that her old beloved laptop from freshman year was melted and charred, buzzing pitifully as the mechanics tried to spin back into function. Some heavier gauge wires, lots of insulation and a newer machine had allowed her to successfully connect the cube to her desktop: it powered up happily, flashing strange symbols across the monitor and displaying a progress bar in green along the bottom. Then the cube had started to hum – its alien mechanisms spinning up to speed – louder and faster until, with a sudden clang and a zapping sound, it launched itself across the room, tearing all the wires and punching a hole in the drywall.
It might have been useful for Karn to warn her about the innocuous little box, but his guidance had carried her this far. The time for questioning him was long past, not that it was even possible.
Lisa pushed her goggles up, the last solder finished. She slid the cube into place and clamped it down. Silvery tendrils snaked out to make the connection with her snarled cluster of industrial wires. Almost a sigh as the humming started. The parade of arcane symbols marched across her screen. She wiped her grease-smeared fingertips on her cruddy jeans and cast an anxious glance at the doorway. The green bar on her monitor began to fill.
Seven months ago, she had heard that Karn’s estate was slated for demolition. Some business had been invented about it spanning multiple district lines, containing materials that were a threat to public health or safety or well-being. When she went digging, the city referred her to the county, who referred her to the next county over, who referred them back to the city, until she got tired of asking for permission and just broke in.
The inside of his big, dark house had been a rat’s nest of science textbooks, wires, defunct mechanical equipment, hastily scribbled notes and vagrant trash. It was such a mess that she’d all but given up finding anything of value until she sat at his desk and toppled a pile of notes and garbage to the floor. But it wasn’t the notes that caught her eye. It was the network of symbols etched into the desktop, with an IP address scrawled faintly beneath it. She’d made a rubbing and left disappointed, and the house simply wasn’t there the next day, as if some careless creator had reached down and wiped it out with a giant eraser.
The green progress bar filled and disappeared. The cube hummed happily to itself, vibrating in place on the benchtop. Her screen blanked out and was replaced by simple, ancient dot-matrix text which blipped into the bottom corner of the screen and asked, directly and bewilderingly, “Displacement vector (hours)?”
The IP address had led to nowhere, an empty site. It was an easy task to set her system to monitor the site, but over the following days it saw no traffic and never got updated.
The funny little chart she’d copied from his desk turned out to be a cryptograph, a bizarre recursive system where a symbol could stand for a number or a letter or another symbol, filled with redundancy and apparent nonsense for good measure. But there were no messages to decipher.
Until one day, a few weeks later, she noticed a stream of characters had been broadcast on the mystery IP address. A stream of characters that looked remarkably like the ones in her chart.
Deciphering the first message had been like trying to follow a rabbit through a tangle of kudzu, but follow it she had, and once she got the knack for deciphering the messages, she started noticing them everywhere. They arrived at unpredictable intervals, sometimes popping up on her computer screen, rarely making sense at the first reading. She’d had to dedicate a wall of her workshop to his communiques before she started to understand what he was hinting at. Bits of yarn connected one scrap of paper to another in a gigantic and cascading web of cryptic messages that should have been indecipherable. Messages meant for somebody else. Messages that told her how to build the device, how to stabilize it, and finally, where to find the power source: the little silver cube, the hard drive which housed the mind-bending circuits, calculations, and parameters to open a portal in time.
When Lisa started translating the messages, she had noticed that each one had a string of characters on the end. Numbers. A date. A timestamp. Three hundred years in the future.
“Displacement vector (hours)?”
She took a deep breath and keyed in 269274.
The cube’s humming climbed in frequency, became a whistling in her ears and then a soundless pressure in her head. It glowed a bright, luminous blue, an impossible blue, spreading and intensifying, the entire room looking as if it were made of neon lights. She felt her skin beginning to hum, her insides vibrating in time with the cube, the floor resonating with the impossible frequency bouncing in her brain. Then a blinding flash, a deafening roar. She thought, crazily, of the time she’d been skydiving; the sudden, world-shattering wind in her ears.
The cube’s hum died away. The resonance dissipated. The computer shut down. Rain pattered softly at the window.
Had it been raining a moment ago?
She lost consciousness.
She’d tried to learn who Karn really was, but there were not very many records to go on. A recluse, certainly; a genius, probably; and there was also the matter of his being undeniably, bewilderingly, mind-numbingly insane. One day he’d been an inventor of some repute, living off the patents and income of some gadget he’d thought up around the time Lisa had graduated high school, and then one day he’d quite simply stepped off into the abyss. He talked about seeing the future and meeting with himself from a hundred years hence, and how he could bring back the technology to save humanity, and what’s wrong with you all, you can’t lock me up like this, you’re all going to die, and … that’s when they took him away. There had also been the small matter, of course, of him blacking out the power grid for half the city and blowing a crater a mile across in the desert outside of town, whereupon it had rained ash for three days. The authorities tested the ash and found it to be perfectly harmless, but it had scared the hell out of everybody, and after that, Karn had disappeared.
It was, therefore, a great shock to Lisa when she woke up and found Karn himself standing over her, wild-eyed, soot- and grease-stained, raggedly-bearded, holding a device – no, it was definitely a gun, it’s impossible to mistake being held at gunpoint, even if the gun looks like something from a bad Star Trek ripoff – about an inch from her nose.
“Wh… y…” he mumbled, licking at his lips and working his jaw impotently, as if he had not spoken in years.
“Who in the blue FUCKING blazes are you?” He finally spat.
She swallowed hard, tried to focus on him and not on the barrel of the device that had to be some sort of gun.
“I’ve been getting your messages.”
“My messages?” he said, blinking. He shook his head fiercely, his beard flapping madly. He pressed his gun into her forehead, pinning her to the floor. “Those were for me. For ME. You should be ME. I should be… WHO ARE YOU?”
The gun-thing and his raving drove coherent thought out the window. “I… I…” she stammered, shaking her head feebly.
He slammed her head to the floor, placed a finger to his lips, and darted to the window. He crept over to it and ducked just below its sill, surprisingly spry for as old as he was. How old was he? He stole a glance out then dashed over to her, helping her up off the floor and shoving her toward the back door.
“No time. Run. Hide.” Once outside, he blustered past her and broke into a dead run, his unkempt hair streaming behind him. “They’re COMING.”
She called feebly after him, still shaken from fear, “They who?” But he was already shrinking toward the line of dead trees in the distance. A thought nagged at her – those trees weren’t dead before she activated the cube – but she pushed it away. She looked back past the little house.
Robots. Hundreds of them. Coming.