Variety (Part Seven)

 

by Leah Nicholson

 

    “Do not think about your deepest fear.” 

 

    The Crescent attendant stands still in the center of the room, the only other sound the ticking of a clock on the far wall. One second’s gone (tick), then another (tick), and another (tick), then a few more (tick, tick). It’s late. Late enough that children are in bed—even the poorly behaved ones—and the skys turned black. 

 

    At the far end of the building, a computer hums. 

 

    “Do not think,” the attendant continues, “about your shallowest fear.” 

 

    “Do not think about snakes, or whether or not they make good pets. Do not think about your seventh grade English class.” A beat. “Do not think about seagulls at the beach. Do not think about seagulls in the ocean.” Another beat. “Do not think . . . about what time it is.” 

 

    Tick, tick, tick. 

 

    “Do not think about midnight. Do not think about leap years, Christmas, or February.” Three floors down, someone clicks away at the letters of a holographic keyboard. They don’t know what they’re typing. “Do not think about alarm clocks, the telephone, the telegram, or the CD. Do not think about the fourteenth century. Do not think about the year 100,043, or the number 95. 

 

    The test ends. The attendant speaking walks to the door and scans their thumbprint. They leave. They’ve passed. 

 

    There is no one else in the room. 

 

    Across the building, the computer keeps humming. 

 

~ part seven ~ 

 

April 13th, 1864 – 6:01PM 

 

    Liam’s never been fond of social events, and he’s finding he’s even less fond of social events in the nineteenth century. 

 

    It feels like it takes an excruciatingly long time for him and Gayle to get out of the party—or gathering, or get together, or what-have-you—but upon exiting he finds that barely more than thirty minutes have passed. Time is a tricky thing (of course, that’s been discussed at length), but it’s still infuriating when it doesn’t behave in the way one’s mind has predetermined that it ought to. 

 

    While the thirty-minute social gathering seems to last for hours, however, the hour-long trip back to the PACTIN seems to take no time at all. 

 

    The containment area (one might recall it as a dark, uncomfortable, dusty, and generally unpleasant room in a workhouse cellar) hasn’t moved since Gayle and Liam last opened it, and the silver cylinder of the communication unit (one might recall it as a small metal device with a potentially deadly glowstick in the center) remains intact. 

 

    Liam sets his briefcase to the side, removes the R.E. pad, and selects the emergency system, informing Crescent that he and his sister are still, as it happens, in the year 1864, and—if it’s not too much troublewould very much like to get back. 

 

    The R.E. pad flashes neon blue and replies in VARIETY’s soothing tones. “Thank you for leaving a message using the emergency voiceline. If you do not receive a response in the next five seconds, please try again.” 

 

    Five seconds later, Gayle leaves a similar, somewhat more colorful message. 

 

    “Thank you for leaving a message using the emergency voiceline,” VARIETY says again. “If you do not receive a response in the next five seconds, please try again.” 

 

    They wait thirty seconds. Liam clicks off the R.E. pad, takes a ridiculously small screwdriver from the case, and begins removing the metal cover on the device’s back. He sets it to the side and, gently, removes a shining green disk covered in grid-like patterns and miniscule copper pathways. 

 

    “What is this meant to do, exactly?” asks Gayle. She only intends on half-listening to the answer, but then again, having half an idea of what’s going on is usually better than having none.  

 

    Usually. 

 

    Liam kneels on the stone floor and the opens the hidden compartment in the briefcase to reveal the older, dimmer PACTIN locked inside. “There’s still energy left in this one,” he says. “If we can connect the power source to the new instalment, it’ll expand the signal and let Crescent know we’re still stationed here. 

 

    Gayle raises a brow. “Stationed?” 

 

    “Yes.” Liam lifts the luminescent cylinder from its case. “Stationed.” 

 

    “Never noticed you had an accent. You’ve got a funny way of pronouncing abandoned.” 

 

    “Don’t jump to conclusions.” 

 

    “Me?” Gayle huffs. “I’m not the one trying to hack one of the most comprehensive AI programs on the planet.” She crosses her arms, flesh over metal. Past or future.” 

 

    Liam places the old PACTIN next to the new one, his gloved hands slowly twisting the central cylinder from its place. “Technically,” he replies, “I haven’t done any hacking. Once the communication signal has been increased, it’ll . . . open up a few more databases. That’s all.” 

 

    As a general rule, most people ask questions to lead themselves to an answer. This is the natural order of things, sort of like a pendulum swinging from side to side, or a saw moving back and forth. Ask question, get answer. The rules are simple enough—but then, human beings have never been ones to just accept the rules, generally ignoring them around 67% of the time. The only exceptions to this is when the laws are made by other humans, in which case they are ignored 89% of the time.

 

    The point being that, while some people ask questions because they want to know the answer, others ask questions to see if the other party will lie. 

 

    Gayle, as it happens, falls into the latter category. 

 

    “Why do we need to open up databases if we’ll be able to talk to Crescent?she asks, shifting her weight to her metallic left leg. “Why do we need to expand the signals at all if we just replaced the PACTIN? The thing’s supposed to establish communication over thousands of miles and thousands of years, so why isn’t it working? She looks at her brother pointedly, dark eyes flashing. “Why did we get sent here to replace it in the first place? 

 

    For a moment, it’s silent. The questions sit in the air like cumulus clouds. The PACTINs seem to hum in unison. 

 

    Liam doesn’t look up from his task. “Misplaced paperwork,” he suggests. A bug in the system. Or a city-wide blackout. Or maybe our thumbprints expired and the message didn’t send.” He shrugs. Or maybe it did send and everyone just clocked out early for lunch.” 

 

    He smiles and glances up, but Gayle isn’t returning the gesture. She’s staring down at the ground, watching the pulsing green glow of the twin PACTINs, her left hand tightly gripping the metal of her right wrist. She has this look on her face that, for most people, means they’re lost in thought. For Gayle, it means she’s lost in memory—a memory of when she had an arm that wasn’t steel and chrome, one that didn’t give her frostbite when it got too cold or first-degree burns when it got too hot. A memory from a long time ago. 

 

    A memory that, they both realize, has yet to happen. 

 

    Liam feels his chest tighten. “Hey,” he says. “We’ll get back.” His voice is quiet, but it has the cadence of someone who means what they say. “I promise, I’ll get us back. 

 

    His sister glances at him. Her grey eyes are black in the dimness of the chamber, and entirely unconvinced. “Think so?” 

 

    “No.” He turns away. “I know so.” 

 

    There are no rules in Crescent against knowing, strictly speaking. The implication that it is worse than thinking goes without saying—but then, if it’s never said, it might only be thought, and if it’s only thought, it can hardly be known. As such, there are no official documents in Crescent that outright condemn it, though there is a singular poster across the hall from Owen Brown’s office that touches briefly on the subject. It reads as follows: 

 

Really . . .

Is there anything Worse than Knowing?*

*Copyright © 2042-∞ Crescent Industries

 

    It’s ironic, Liam muses, that having the freedom to think makes the task so much less appealing. 

 

    But he’s been thinking for a rather long time, almost to the point where he wishes he could apply himself to Crescent’s rules and stop, for better or for worse. Some thoughts weigh you down, like iron shackles in the seventeenth century or mercury injections (the preferred method of execution in South-East Carolina) in the twenty-fifth. When you have a lot of them, it can be difficult to consider much else—especially the mechanics of time travel. You might never find your answers, or worse—you might find all of them. Thinking can be powerful like that. 

 

    It occurs to Liam, suddenly, that this might be the precise reason Crescent doesn’t tolerate it. 

 

    He frowns. “You know,” he says, grabbing a wire and splicing it without quite knowing why.I used to hate my old choir teacher. His name was Dr. Thomas, or something generic like that. People dreaded having class with him. He was the type of person who you were positive had committed a felony and gotten away with it.”

 

    “Hey,” says Gayle, who has committed several felonies and gotten away with them. “That takes skill.” 

 

   “I never said I didn’t respect him,” Liam returns. He used to tell me that, no matter how good your singing is, if you never use your voice, it won’t work the way you want it to. He said it every day, every class. Made a student write it on the board for punishment one time, which I thought was excessive. The copper wires spark. Liam tightens his grip on the plastic casing. “He never let up on it, though. Not once. You can have all the natural talent in the world, he said, but it won’t matter. You can sing the way Mozart played the piano, but without actual practice, it’s no good. It doesn’t matternone of it matters. It just . . .

 

    He stops. The wire has two channels now, connecting to nothing. One end is frayed. 

 

    Liam sighs and rubs a hand over his face. “It doesn’t work if you hardly ever apply it. 

 

    Gayle tilts her head. “What’re you saying?” 

 

   Some people only ask questions to see if the other party will lie.

 

    “Nothing.” Liam cuts the frayed end and winds the wire to part of the green disk from earlier. “. . . I just haven’t sung in a while.” 

 

    “Well.” Gayle uncrosses her arms. The metal reflects the glow of the room, and for a moment it looks like green flames dance across the steel. She flexes her hand.I guess humming has to count for something.”

 

As Liam connects the other wire to the disk, the PACTIN on the left glows brighter. The green at the center of the cylinder turns neon, pulsing like a heartbeat.

 

Feeling particularly bold, Liam allows himself half a smile. I hope so,” he says.

 

There are no official rules in Crescent against hoping.