Dated November 27, 2004. This is a decent little time travel episode along the lines of the Twilight Zone or what-have-you. It begs the rather dramatic question: "Would you make the ultimate sacrifice?" Throw in a bit of Godwin's Law, shake, and there you have it.
The Chronos Project
Ted glanced around the grey oval room. There were no windows and the fluorescent lighting above flickered dimly, putting a surreal, dreamy veil over the hundred pale faces surrounding him.
He wondered briefly what they had been summoned here for. He turned his attention to the small envelope clutched in his hand, which he had discovered in his mailbox a month ago. Why a month? He wondered. Those sitting near him shuffled uncomfortably in the stiff padded chairs, and a succession of restrained coughs and sniffles peppered the silence. A mother on the other side of the room was desperately trying to comfort her crying baby, but they had taken away her bag, and she had nothing but her touch to console the child.
The blue-jacketed officials standing near the door were beginning to look more than a little restless. Ted had caught them muttering to each other, with barely disguised glances of irritation towards him and the others. They kept checking their watches; Ted's had been taken from him, along with all other metal belongings, but he could tell it had been a while since their arrival.
At last the double-doors swung wide, and about a hundred latecomers entered. Ted heard sighs of relief and mumbles of "Finally!". An official raised his hands over his head, commanding them to follow. The sounds of cracking joints and stiff groans filled the dusty air as they got to their feet and began shuffling towards the rear of the room.
They emerged into what looked like an opera theatre, only there was a dais and podium up at the front where the stage would have been. Ted took his place in the third row, next to a tired, middle-aged frump with scraggly hair and a heavy-set man wearing a Red Sox baseball cap. The change in location had restored some of the crowd's energy, and there were excited murmurs as they began to speculate about what was going to happen. "Maybe we've won the Lottery!" an enthusiastic young woman said in a foolish, high-pitched voice.
"I just wish they'd hurry it the hell up," said a male speaker. "I've got two kids at home who ain't gonna wait for me to help raid the pantry. My wife's in L.A. and I gotta wonder why I ain't with her."
Ted had to agree with the second speaker; surely there were better things to do? He looked at his envelope, and recalled the strange feeling he'd gotten in his gut when he'd read the small, simple text, telling him where and when to meet. It was stamped with the official Government seal, so he knew it had to be something important. But he couldn't imagine anything so important as to summon a small-time business consultant; in fact, most of those around him looked like they earned more than 40,000 credits per annum.
Before he could make any sense of this, a door behind the dais opened, disgorging a stream of black suits. The crowd almost immediately fell silent as the black suits' leader, a small, pepper-haired man, stepped to the podium and addressed the audience in English.
"I'm sure," he began loudly, as a string of dialogue in different languages scrolled across the wall behind him, "you are all wondering why you are here."
"Ya got that right!" someone yelled. There were a few chuckles.
The man continued, unperturbed. "Well, as you can imagine, it was no easy job collecting you all from the various corners of the globe; some of you were missing, others of you did not receive your letters, some were… disinclined to come here. But I assure you, each and every one of you is meant to be here, make no mistake! And for an excruciatingly important reason, at that."
The crowd was silent, eagerly awaiting the big prize. The pepper-haired man smiled then, a wry, grandfatherly smile, and so they did not at first register what he said next.
"I'm sure you are all aware of the concept of time travel," he said loudly, beginning to pace the stage. "We've all read about it in cheap paperback novels and seen it on the screens. But! Have we ever really explored the possibilities of such a concept?"
Well, my friends, this may come as a shock to you, and you may feel a bit dizzy, but we have invented the time machine."
Silence from the crowd. Live video footage appeared on the wall over the man's head as he talked; a large, dark chrome apparatus, surrounded by milling scientists, filled Ted's vision. He had heard of the Chronos Project. They all had. It had seemed like such a fantasy and so unreal as to be ignored. Their eyes were all fixed upon the machine, even as the government man continued.
"Yes, it's unbelievable. Yes, it's astounding, and quite frankly impossible. Yet if you could all just attempt to put the initial disbelief out of your head, and instead concentrate on what I have to say, everything will be much easier to explain.
For years, mankind has done some truly atrocious things to itself and the environment. We've cut down over two thirds of our planet's trees. We've thinned the ozone layer almost down to non-existence. Racism and genocide still govern daily social behaviour. We hate and we kill and we kill.
And, occasionally, we've given names for the most unpleasant moments in our sordid history. Bloody Sunday. The Inquisition. World Wars. Such horrific times, and probably doomed to be repeated."
They kept listening in silence.
"Such needless tragedies, such pointless deaths," said the pepper-haired man, shaking his head sorrowfully. "They need not have happened at all, and SHOULD NOT have happened!"
He suddenly whirled and slammed a hand flat on the podium. Ted and the others jumped.
With his head bowed, the man said in a low voice: "Needless and should not happen. But now that we have perfected Chronos, there should be nothing in our way to remove the sins of humanity from our history. After all, did God Himself not say, 'If thine eye offends thee, pluck it out?' It is just the same, my friends, exactly the same!"
And now the man's voice was rising to its previous level of charisma and persuasion. "The very same, except for one thing: Now we have the power to pluck out the offending eye before it even causes the damage. With the technology of the present, we can sling our vision to the vast outreaches of time, to foresee and therefore prevent future atrocities from occurring. A team of specialized men and women have been projected through time, where they have monitored and collected what we call 'Causality Data'; or should I say, 'will monitor and collect'."
He chuckled, but nobody joined him.
"From the information collected, it is just as we feared. We will never learn from our mistakes. A mere fifty years from now, a terrible massacre in New York State will erupt into global war. Millions of soldiers and civilians alike will be wiped off the face of the planet. World leaders, in their panic, will do things they will not live to regret."
Ted's head was spinning. He was having difficulty paying attention to the pepper-haired man's words, though he heard each of them with frightening clarity. Nobody had spoken yet; not even the baby, or the wise-ass from before. There was a quiet dread in the room now; all breaths were held.
"Now, the question I must ask you all is a terrible one. It will not change your fates, nor the course of this project. But we feel that as our people, you have the right to know.
The question is this: 'If Chronos had been operatable one hundred years ago, would you have given your lives to save six million from the death camps? Or the seventy-thousand from atomic incineration? Would you have sacrificed yourself for them?'"
The man at the podium stared grimly down at them, a sad, weary god about to pass judgement.
"We are about to undo a small knot of history," he said softly. "And there must always be a sacrifice. As I have explained, we can do nothing in the present that won't have some kind of effect on the future. We cannot help it, but it must be so.
There are about two hundred and fifty of you today. If you traced every insignificant event from now to fifty years later, you would see the infinite golden strings linking your births with the evils of our descendants. The science involved is too complicated for me to explain, but you understand…
We are going to eliminate World War Three. Our top sociologists have analyzed the Causality Data and pinpointed key individuals whose survival will ultimately lead to events of mass destruction. Millions will be saved because of your noble sacrifices. You will be part of the greatest solution humanity has ever conceived of, the grandest, most beautiful-"
The man's words were a shot of acid in Ted's gut. He'd been perspiring without knowing it, but now he felt the cold, clamminess in his armpits and groin, and he felt the fear rising in the crowd like the bile in his throat. Two rows down, a black woman gave a small cry, which cut off abruptly. Ted could see the tears glistening on her cheeks.
The pepper-haired man was staring into the future now, his eyes alight with the possibilities stretching before him. Ted saw it but did not feel it. He was numb. All around he could see people collapsing into themselves, feeling their own doom in the pit of their stomachs, mentally folding up into non-existence. Pleas for mercy echoed throughout the room, but this was mercy, and there was no stopping it. The man said it was inevitable, and so it must be…
Ted closed his eyes and saw his wife projected onto the back of his eyelids. She's at home now, he thought, waiting for me to come back and eat supper with Tracy and Daniel, and she's chopping up the carrots and suddenly the knife slips and oh there's blood; 'Danny can you get a tissue for me please dear, thank you,' and she stares for a moment into the tiny globule of red at the end of her beautiful finger, and the radio is on and it tells her everything except that her husband is a thousand miles away with poison gas in his nostrils or a bullet in his head…
And then the suits ring the doorbell and she goes to answer it. They hand her a note written by Ted, signed and all, writte in the last moments of his heroic sacrifice, and as she reads a drop of blood slides silently down to her wedding ring…
All this ran through Ted's mind like a choppy projector film, a silent movie not so silent because he could hear the screaming and crying all around him as people tried to escape the awful room. Most sat still in their chairs, faces imprinted with the knowledge of what was going to happen to them. And some, the blessed ones, were too old or too young to really understand. There would be no funeral for these two hundred and fifty, no ceremony of any sort. Just this last, desperate run for the door, or a final speech to yourself, or whatever you could do with the last few hours of your meaningless life…
And then the gunshot. It pierced the crying and the screaming, and silence fell in Ted's ears like an anchor through dark cold waters.
The pepper-haired man's mouth moved soundlessly, his jaw slacked open. He stumbled back from the podium with a dark flower blossoming in his forehead.
Above him, the video footage of Chronos' bulk disappeared as the screen filled with a giant ball of fire, the soundless explosion tearing through the dark metal and completely enveloping the tiny scurrying figures in white coats. Ted vaguely realized that no one was paying attention; they were still trying to scramble past the paralyzed guards, minds empty with panic, or were hunched over in their seats, praying and weeping. The woman next to him was slumped on her side, an empty bottle of medication clutched in her hands, already cold.
Ted slowly looked around and up. A man in a black mask was up on a small balcony, efficiently disassembling his weapon. The man must have sensed someone was watching him, for he looked down, straight into Ted's eyes, and regarded him gravely.
In the midst of the confusion, with the black suits up front hastily gathering around their fallen leader and squawking into headsets, nobody saw Ted leave his seat and take the stairs to the balcony. By the time he got there, the killer had finished packing away his weapon and was now standing, dressed in all-black commando gear. His eyes looked familiar.
"Who are you?" Ted asked in awe.
The man's eyes in the mask crinkled in a smile. "Forty years from now," he said, "Ask me that question." Without breaking his gaze, the man flipped a switch on his belt and blinked out of existence.
Ted listened to the melee below for a moment, still staring at the place where the mysterious assassin had been. He could almost imagine the faint traces of displaced time swirling over the floor, where the future that the pepper-haired man had been staring into had stared back, with a lead bullet, right between his eyes. Perhaps history's so-called atrocities had had further-reaching effects than the vision of the pepper-haired man had ever dreamed .
Maybe he was the one dreaming.
Ted shook himself out of his trance. Go, now, before they catch you up here! He flew down the stars and joined the last of the runners, as they fled the grey oval room and their collective death sentence. Many remained before the stage, still crying out to a god who transcended time, to save them; Ted could not be bothered with them. They would, if they were not too desperate, eventually realize that history would not completely forget their passing.