A hole being ripped in the fabric of space and time sounds a lot like a thousand cats being noisily sick. That's what I learned today. It also smells vaguely of burnt almonds.
I barely had time to register the sound when I felt a sharp pain in my arm and whirled around. "Ow! What the... hell....?"
The young man standing in front of me looked terrified. He was younger than I, maybe nineteen or twenty, his skin was blotched and sweaty, and he was dressed in torn and stained clothes. And he stank. For all I knew, a crazy homeless person had just materialized in the middle of my living room, and if a homeless person could manage that, I don't think they'd be homeless very long.
The only thing out of place were his eyes. They were wide, yes, and red-rimmed and bloodshot, but they were laser-steady, staring at the small metal thing he'd jabbed me with. "C'mon, c'mon..." he whispered. When I tried to say something, he just held up a hand. After a moment, a green light on the little metal thing flickered to life. He smiled like it was the first time he'd been able to unclench his face in a long time. "Finally!" he said. Then he grabbed me. "Come with me," he said. "We have to get you to safety."
"What? Hey. Hey." I planted my feet. "HEY!"
He spun around. Those steady eyes were now flicking about the room, trying to register everything - the computer, pictures of my family, my unmade bed. "What?" he growled. "We have to get out of here."
I held up a hand and started ticking off fingers. "Who are you? How did you get in my apartment? Why do we have to leave? And what the HELL is that little jabby thing you stuck me with?"
He clenched his fists and took a deep breath. "Nelson. Time travel. To save your life. DNA reader. Now get your shoes on, we're leaving." He went to the door, opened it enough to stick his head out, and then waved to me. "Come ON!"
I hadn't moved. "What if I don't want to go with you, 'Nelson'?"
"Then you'll die an agonizing death and the world will suffer a thousand years of darkness." He stalked down the hall and put his face right up to mine. Man, he smelled bad. "My job is to keep you alive. If you come with me on your own, great. If you don't want that, I have option B." He held up another small metal thing, slightly different from the first. "Guess what this is?"
"The key to your rubber room?"
"Sedative. It'll put you out for at least three days. And it'll give you uncontrollable flatulence for five more after that. We haven't figured out how to get rid of that part." He closed his hand around the sedative. "We are losing time. Every second we talk, that's one more second for the Praxis to find you and turn you."
"Turn you into a quivering pile of goo. Now, come. On." He walked to the door again, peeked into the hallway, and swung it open.
This kind of thing doesn't happen to me. I have a life that could, fairly, be called mundane. Dull. Boring. And I like it, I really do. I like my safe, boring life. But when a freaky homeless doctor shows up and tells me that something's trying to kill me? I think normalcy has packed up its briefcase, put on its hat and gone home for the day. I put on my shoes, walked out and locked the door.
"Good," he said. "We have to get you hidden. As long as you can survive the next forty-eight hours, you'll be safe. And so will the world." He turned to me. "Where can we hide?"
I shrugged. "I don't know," I said. "I've never had to."
He started off down the stairs and, after a moment's hesitation, I followed. "Fine," he said. "We'll find a place. Until then, we have to get you moving. Someplace where there aren't a lot of people. Where we can be left... alone."
We stood outside my apartment building and watched the traffic go by. The sidewalk was bustling, and the ever-present city noise was, well, everywhere. Cars, taxis, buses rushed past us, people walking at a determined pace swerved around Nelson and cursed at him. Some car's radio was playing R.E.M. at high volumes. Great glass and steel buildings towered along the road in the heart of the city and there was nowhere you could look where there wasn't someone in the way.
He whirled around and grabbed the front of my shirt. "You never said anything about living in a city!" he yelled. "Shit! Shit, shit, shit!" He ran his hand through his hair and looked around frantically. I tried to smooth out the wrinkles on my shirt, but then he grabbed my wrist. "Subway!" he yelled. "Too many bio-signatures, it'll swamp the signal." He yanked, and I went with him.
We rushed into the subway station, which was pretty crowded, an hour or so before rush hour. Nelson practically quivered while I bought him a subway ticket, and then plowed through the gates. He didn't settle down until we were on a train heading - hell, I have no idea where we were going. Somewhere.
I let him breathe for a few minutes. Then: "Okay, Nelson. Talk. Time travel? Praxis? Quivering pile of goo?"
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "This may be hard for you to believe," he said. "I'm.... I'm from the future." He glanced at me, but I didn't say anything. He went on.
"I've come back in time to save you from a machine intelligence that wants you dead so it can rule a future where you don't exist." He grabbed my hand and squeezed it. "You're going to become a great man," he said. "In just a few years, this world will be struck with tragedy, but you'll be one of the few who survive and resist!" His eyes were shining now, and I thought he was going to start crying. "They needed to get rid of you, but they couldn't. So they sent a part of themselves back in time to find you, and I came to make sure they couldn't." He blinked to clear his eyes. "You sent me. You sent your best friend to save you. Do you... do you see what I'm trying to tell you? I have to make sure you live!" He smiled again, but this time it was brittle, manic, and desperate for me to say the right thing.
I looked at him for a few seconds and then said, "Terminator."
I stood up. "Jesus, how dumb do you think I am? That's the whole plot to the Terminator movies!" I exhaled hard. "I almost believed you about this danger and everything and you can't come up with anything better than Terminator? Christ!" I turned and made my way down the car, weaving with the train's motion.
"Wait!" he called out. I could see the other passengers starting to watch us. That's the city for you - transportation and a show, all for one low, low price. He took my sleeve, and when I looked at him again, I could see real terror on his face. "I don't know what you're talking about. All I know is that I've tried five times to find you." He pulled me over to empty seats and sat us down. "We were only able to steal enough fuel for that many trips, and our spatial locater was cobbled together from old blueprints. Each time I went through time it was harder and harder, and you weren't there." His voice was hoarse and I could see the breakdown coming. "But when the DNA reader showed a match, when I looked in your eyes...." His voice broke. "It was so hard...."
I didn't want to. With crazy people, if you feed their little fantasies they just glom onto you and never let go. You're the one who believes, and for someone like that you're the most important thing in the world. Buy into a guy's crazy fantasies and that's it - your his confessor and conspirator all in one.
"I can't believe I'm asking this," I said, "but how did you find me here?"
He looked up and sniffed. "I didn't think I would. Actually," he said, laughing a little, "I'm glad I did. If you're here, then it means that the Praxis is looking in the wrong place."
"Raiders," I said automatically.
"Never mind. Go on."
"We stole enough fuel for the machine that the Praxis have the same problem we do. If they haven't found you in the next forty-eight hours, I can be sure that they won't ever. Not in the past, at least." He smiled at me. "I'm so glad that you're safe," he said. "Without you, the Praxis would have just rolled right over the human resistance."
"You're... you're serious, aren't you?" I asked.
He nodded. "It starts in about ten years. We spend the next ten fighting them, gaining a little ground each time. Thanks to you. So now they're desperate." He let out a breath that sounded like he'd been holding it in for hours. "But they won't find you. I'll make sure of that." He closed his eyes and put his head back.
I looked at this tired, dirty, smelly man. I'm not a terrible judge of character, at least I don't think so. Everything about him said that he was telling the truth, or at least believed he was. He looked like a man who'd had a stay of execution, and even if I couldn't understand it, I thought I could at least let him enjoy the moment. "You know," he said, his eyes still closed, "I really thought you'd be at the farm. That's where you told me to look, anyway."
I snorted. "The farm?" I said. "Yeah, like I'd go back there again. The farm is Geoff's thing, not mine."
His eyes snapped open. "What?"
"Geoff's the one who loves getting his hands dirty. I'm a city boy down to my soul." I shrugged. "I guess twins don't have to be totally identical, right?" I looked closer at him. He had gone dead white.
"Oh, shi-" And just like that, he vanished, like a popped soap bubble.
About half an hour later, I got a call from my mom.
"I've seen the future, brother;
It is murder."
-Leonard Cohen (The Future)