Preamble: At long last I'm happy to present the conclusion to the current serial.
(The story concludes beneath the fold.)
by Cheeseburger Brown
All along the long drive back to the airport in Winnipeg I wrestled with what to do. Over time I resolved to sever my involvement with the company the moment I set foot back in Ontario. Which is when the warning lamp for brakes failure lit up on the rental car's dashboard.
I pulled off the highway into a small gas station and had the girl there give the car a once over. I paced around outside, giving my plans a twice over.
By the time I hit the road again I'd decided to take a wait-and-see approach to the whole thing. Why be rash? There had to be a way out of this puzzle. I was out of my league. I needed a consultant, that's all.
Stopped at Tim's for a coffee. Started to feel more lively. By the time I hit the bottom of the cup I'd remembered the source of my anger. I wasn't like Dennis: I couldn't put my destiny in the hands of something alien. I couldn't let infinite money infinitely tempt me when I already had a shitload it was time to cut and run and I knew it. Fuck it. I was out.
Something caught my eye on the dashboard. I looked down. The warning lamp for the brakes had illuminated again.
The fuck? I pulled over at the side of the road. Even though I don't know a damn thing about cars I opened the hood and stood out there for a while, staring at the thing's guts.
"Call the rental car company."
"I'm sorry Miles you don't have an entry in your contacts for metal bar company."
I slammed the door and got back in the car. I put my shaking hands on the wheel to steady them. Was surviving this trip in their hands, balanced on the state of my resolve? How could they tune history so precisely, second by second?
I felt small and utterly defeated.
So I started up the car again. The warning lamp was off. The brakes were just fine. And I reckoned they would remain fine so long as I remained steadfast in my dedication to the company.
Sweat ran off me as I carefully drove the final stretch to the airport. I was especially leery of hills, policing my thoughts like a nun with a cudgel for any hint of going soft. My heart was racing. The brakes kept working.
I'd never been so relieved to get out of a car in all my life. With trepidation I looked up as a jet roared overhead.
It was only a short flight but I was tired. What if I fell asleep and dreamt of freedom?
My apartment was weird. I couldn't quite put my finger on it until I got to the bedroom. Everything there belonged only to me.
I looked around everywhere but there was no Dear John letter. My pocket buzzed. I fished out my phone. "Miles!"
"What's wrong, guy?"
"She left me."
"Who left you?"
"My girlfriend. While I was in Manitoba. I just got back and all her stuff's cleared out." As I slowly panned around the apartment my mouth went dry. "...It's as if she had never lived here at all."
"Since when do you have a girlfriend, Miles?"
"You dumb shit. You met her. We went to dinner. Ate Korean on King. You spilled your drink all over the table."
"Not ringing any bells, sorry. Sounds like you're having more fun than your brain can handle. You should cut down a bit, buddy."
I felt bile in the back of my throat. "It's them again," I heard myself whisper. "They're changing history."
"Who the fuck do you think who? The backwards time-travellers! They tried to kill me on the road to Winnipeg. Rigged the brakes."
"I think you need a vacation, Miles."
I laughed a hollow laugh. "You're not wrong."
"Come and see me first thing tomorrow at the office. We'll work out a plan for handing over your projects so you can take a breather. Have you ever dived at Cozumel?"
I flew to Mexico. I drank rip-off drinks in the sun and did a bit of snorkeling. I expected any moment to be my last.
Two weeks later I was back in the office. "Nice tan!" whistled Dennis. "You look like a million bucks. Come in, sit down."
I kept glancing over my shoulder. "Who are all these people?"
"New staff. We're sourcing all the grunts through a temp agency now. It's way more efficient from an HR point of view. All the serious players are doing it these days. Walmart, the NSA -- you name it."
"They all kind of look the same. It's unnerving."
"You fucking racist. Don't you know it's racist to say all Asians look alike?"
"It's not that they're Asian, man. Look, do they speak English?"
"You fucking, fucking racist."
"Who trained them?"
"The managers. Sally, Amin, Scott, Gina. You know."
"Where are they now?"
"The temp agency said we wouldn't need them anymore. Trimming the fat. Now we're a lean and mean operation. Shareholders are gonna jizz their jeans."
I shook my head and stood up. "I think you're missing the point. We've lost all control."
"You're working from an entrepreneurial mindset, Miles. It takes a different kind of stuff to run a business than it does to start one. We don't need to have our fingers in every pie now. We've got processes in place. The machine works."
I snorted and turned away, striding out among the cubicles. After a moment I felt Dennis saunter up beside me, arms crossed over his chest. "See? Busy little bees."
"Shut up and watch. Can you notice it?"
"The reiterations. The repetition."
"Are you losing your shit, Miles?"
I grabbed him by the shoulders and backed him into the wall. None of the workers eyes followed us. "No! Dennis you're the one who said it: why impersonate people when you can use nested time loops to have alternative versions impersonate themselves?"
One of the new workers walked past us on his way from the photocopier. Acting on a hunch I spun and grabbed him by the wrist. The worker looked at me placidly, his eyes as fathomless as a cow's. With my free hand I picked up an matting knife from the printing table and slashed the worker across his forearm.
"Holy shit, Miles!" cried Dennis. "What are you doing?"
I released the worker's wrist. He collected his photocopies and walked back to his cubicle leaving a little trail of red drips on the carpet. Miles stared at the carpet. I gently took hold of his face and steered it upward to look out over the cubicles again.
Fully one third of the workers had bandaged forearms. Dennis blinked stupidly. "What...the...fuck...?"
"It's the same worker, Miles. Cycled in time. Is he even sentient? Who knows? But it's like somebody's run him through every conceivable operation in the office and recorded it for later playback. A library of worker behaviours, like a computer programme with a database of precompiled calls. It's not a human being -- it's an instance."
Dennis whistled. "Now that's what I call HR efficiency! Man oh man, what will the future come up with next?"
I punched him in the shoulder. "This is serious, you idiot."
"That hurt. And if it's so serious why are you smiling for the first time in months?"
"Because it's just like you said: day to day operations aren't managed by entrepreneurs. Processes are being put in place. Don't you get it? They don't need us anymore." I laughed. "Dennis, maybe this means they'll let us go!"
"Maybe I don't want to go."
"Be reasonable. This can't go on forever. Why would they risk keeping us involved? We're temporal aboriginals -- primitives. We're unpredictable. We have our own agendas. It only makes good business sense to cut us loose." I put my arm around his shoulder. "Don't worry. Before you know it you'll be all hot to trot on your next big idea."
Dennis sniffed and shook his head. "I don't have any other ideas that are going to put me on the cover of Fortune magazine."
"Okay maybe, maybe not. But you've got an actual fortune! Won't your actual fortune comfort you when you cry into your Cheerios over not being on the cover of Fortune magazine?"
Dennis shrugged. "I don't want money. I want influence."
"Influence is expensive. You could spend your fortune on it."
He chuckled without humour. "Or I can broker a deal balanced on the continued operation of this service that is indispensable to our obviously powerful time-travelling friends. If they're in business they'll know a good deal when they see it."
"And if they're military they'll leave scorched earth where your whole life used to be."
The hard and impatient knock of authority. I didn't bother to check the clock. In my pajamas I shuffled across the apartment to the door. I opened it a crack. "It's the middle of the night," I said.
It was a fed. My tired eyes couldn't focus on his ID. What resistance could I offer? I yawned and let him in.
While he found a seat in the kitchen I put on coffee. I slid a steaming mug at him. He flipped stiffly through a notebook and confirmed my name and work address. "I knew you'd be here sooner or later," I said. "I mean, you or someone."
"It's a risky business."
I smirked. "We make a good faith effort to keep it clean, detective. That's the honest truth. Signed releases, dedicated HR department, the works. But I know shit slips between the cracks. No containment is perfect. I'm a big boy. I can take my lumps.Tell me what caught your attention. I'm cooperating."
The fed flipped through his notebook a little more. "Tell me about Dennis Cole."
I titled my head. "Who?"
"The name doesn't mean anything to you?"
I shook my head and spread my hands. "I thought you were going to ask after that kid that got cut last week. We can go down to the office and go through the paperwork if you want. No problem. But if you're pulling me into some kind of fishing expedition I'd really rather go back to bed. Can my lawyer help you?"
"No," said the detective. "Do you recognize the name Vedmohan Talwar?"
"Pretty much not, no. Does she work for me?"
"Is that even a girl's name?"
"It is a man's name."
"We don't do gay. I mean, we're thinking of opening up a subdomain but it's just at the concept stage right now. Maybe next quarter."
The detective nodded over his notes. "Would you describe for me the nature of your business?"
I squinted at him. "Forgive me but what kind of investigation is this, anyway?"
He didn't look up. Pen poised. "Just answer the question."
"We convert popular porn movies into three-d using a patented skin-modeling algorithm and stream the results through our proprietary web portal, allowing users to customize edits and maintain a personal library of favourite loop points. Yadda-yadda-yadda. It's all in the FAQ. Doesn't the RCMP give you guys laptops or something?"
"Does your service include a messaging apparatus?"
"Users can post on each other's profiles, sure."
"In real time?"
"What does that even mean anymore? Sure, it's more or less real time. It's not like they have to manually refresh the browser window if that's what you're getting at."
"Is there a provision in the service for creating a message now to be delivered at a later time?"
"What? No. Why?"
He closed his notebook. "Thank you for your assistance tonight."
The dour fellow got up and limped to the door. I let him out. He didn't tell me not to cross any borders. He didn't even say good-bye.
The sun was coming up. It felt like a new day. Sunrise doesn't always feel that way, though -- sometimes it's just the harsh transition in a long continuum. But sometimes sunrise feels like a whole new beginning.
I stood on the balcony and watched the city wake.
In that calm it came to me. Dennis Cole! Of course. From when I was a kid. He was a friend of my father's, a salesman who died in that terrible drunk driving accident on his way to our house. His name had never come up again until the first time I was allowed to borrow the family car. My father hesitated before dropping the keys in my hand. "Remember what happened to Dennis Cole?" he said. "Don't let it happen to you, Miles."
I nodded. He gave the keys.
A funny thing happened the other day. I was shopping for Christmas crap at a discount outlet in Brampton. I happened to knock elbows with a fat old Indian. "Sorry about that," I mumbled in a very Canadian way.
He seemed startled. "Miles? How are you?"
"Do we know each other?"
The Indian bit his lip. "I must've mistaken you for somebody else," he said quickly. "Forgive me."
I scratched my head. "Somebody else named Miles?"
He shrugged and smiled and shuffled along, suddenly very interested in a bin of collared shirts. I watched after him for a moment, bemused. For a moment I was clutched by a sense of extreme déja-vu but that's not hard to fathom in a discount outlet -- they all look the same. I shook my head and went on with my shopping.