Paradox, pair of socks, paradiddle . . . all I did was ask what time it was

Born Dying
by Jahan Claes © 2010

In the 23rd century, there are three things no one worries about. The three things are a nuclear holocaust, lead in the water, and a robot takeover.

NUCLEAR HOLOCAST: No one worries that there could be a nuclear holocaust. There are no nuclear weapons. They disappeared years ago, along with armies, guns, and most national borders. There is no international conflict. Thus, no nuclear holocaust.

LEAD IN THE WATER: No one worries that lead is in their water. Toxins are a thing of the past, a relic of a less civilized era of history. They disappeared years ago, as sanitation developed from a general practice to a fine art. No one has been poisoned since before the oldest person on the planet was even born. The water is clean. Thus, no lead.

ROBOT TAKEOVER: No one worries that the robots are going to take over. They took over seventeen years ago.

***

It was night. Chris was lying on his bed, staring at the sparse walls and pockmarked ceiling of his bedroom, softly breathing in stale, recycled air and wondering why, exactly, he had decided it would be best to end his life.

Perhaps it was his mothers fault. She always was overprotective of him, as a child. Or perhaps the real blame fell upon his friends. Shallow and uncaring as they were, it almost seemed as though they drove him away from society. Chris was sure it had to be someone’s fault. Whatever the reason, though, Chris knew it didn’t matter. Suicide was illegal, and in his society, all laws were enforced by robots. And as Chris knew, they were very good at their job.

Chris’s gaze turned towards the robot hovering in the corner of his own room. Its smooth, spherical black body gleamed in his overhead light, as it bobbed slightly in the stagnant air. Its two spindly, whip-like arms seemed delicate, even breakable. Chris sighed.

“Life was a lot better before you guys.” Chris told the robot. A small red light blinked underneath the robot’s hull, indicating that power was surging through its circuits. “Did you hear me?” he called, louder. The robot made no noise, no acknowledgement that it was being addressed. “I SAID LIFE WAS A LOT . . .”

“Please, sir,” said the robot in its monotone voice, as it shot toward Chris and clasped its appendages around Chris’s mouth, in a lightning-fast blur of movement. “Loud noises are prohibited after ten p.m.”

Chris’s eyes squinted in anger, but he made no move to resist. After three minutes, he was released.

“Thank you for your cooperation,” said the robot.

Chris had tried hanging himself one year ago, when he was sixteen and he realized his life would never be any better than it currently was. He had managed to get the noose hung on the ceiling before the robot had realized what he was doing, and snapped the rope in half with a swift chop from its arm. Two months later, he had tried drowning himself in the bathtub, sucking water into his lungs with abandon, but he blacked out halfway through. The robot took him to the hospital. Five months after that, he had almost become convinced life was worth living. Two days later, he was writhing on his kitchen floor, spurting blood from a ragged puncture in his shoulder. He had aimed for his neck, but the robot had diverted the knife. He had wanted to die. He had to settle for getting hurt.

“No one understands,” murmured Chris wistfully, remembering. “Not even I do…”

Seventeen years, the robots had been there. Since before Chris had even been born. His entire life, he’d never had a chance to die. And in all likelihood, he never would.

Unless…

Chris had an idea.

“Robot!” Chris barked. “Bring me a time band.”

The robot flew out of Chris’s room, to parts unknown, to retrieve a technological artifact deemed so incredible that the law required every citizen to have access to one. The time band was a wrist mounted chronal displacer. It allowed people to travel backwards through time by altering certain probability waves in the body of the wearer. They were universally distributed because scientists believed the past to be unchangeable.

Chris had never believed scientists.

“I have the device,” said the robot, flying in through Chris’s bedroom window. “I judge a time vacation to be an excellent idea. Perhaps it will help release you from your current mode of thinking.”

“Shut up,” said Chris.

“I need your intended destination,” said the robot. “For the records.”

“My parents told me of a vacation they had, years ago. She was still pregnant with me. It was before your time.” Chris snapped the time band onto his wrist, set the time and location with experienced fingers.

“You are going to join them, then,” said the robot.

“No,” answered Chris, activating the time band. “I’m going to stop myself from ever being born.” And Chris disappeared before the robot could make a move.

***

The island of St. Sebastian was tropical yet cool. One could walk freely in a tank-top and shorts, but could be equally comfortable in a turtleneck sweater. Chris was not uncomfortable. He ran his hand up and down the thin, steel needle concealed inside his pocket. His stomach was calm, his pulse, level. He was surprised at his own nerve. He had expected to be shaking.

Walking down the street was a couple. A happy couple, the thin man smiling and bobbing his head, the wife stroking her protruding stomach warmly. Chris walked right up to them.

“Excuse me,” Chris said, “could you give me some directions?”

The couple paused. Chris slid the needle out of his pocket and into the stomach of the woman. She screamed and collapsed. Chris pressed a node on his time band and vanished. He had done it. On the street he left, the man wailed. “Call an ambulance! Please, God, someone call an ambulance!”

***

Inside the hospital room was a scene of subdued hope. The woman lay in the hospital bed, staring at her trembling hands. Her husband sat at her side, holding her arm in a comforting grip. The doctor walked in, holding x-rays in his hand.

“Is he . . .” the man began, his voice cracking. “Is our son . . .”

“He’ll live,” answered the doctor, looking grave. “But the needle pierced part of his cortex. There is a possibility he will suffer from suicidal thoughts for the rest of his life.”

x x x

This year’s first Editor’s Extra is yet another debut story with a Hitchcockian twist. If you were as surprised by the ending as I was—or not--let Mr. Jahan know on our BBS. -GM

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