The Chronos Project 2022
From beginning to end, I watch it all
Through the perils of venture since the Fall
Yesterday, I explored the night.
For tomorrow's protection, I bring my fight.
He recites the creed over and over. Though the words are monotonous, their truth continues to pierce his heart.
Ten minutes. My world ends in ten minutes, but I must wait ten years for it.
It’s a paradox, Nolan knows. Always true but rarely right.
He walks them and knows them, the mundane halls housing an extraordinary power. His watch, clinging tight to his wrist, strays from his stride and nicks the cinderblock wall beside him, robbing him of routine. He glances down at the watch’s grimy analog display. Its wear nearly matches his own being, and not for the first time he wonders where the years have gone.
Nolan Greyson is a physicist to his core, precise in his work while obscure in all else. He’s adrift but not aimless. Never aimless. His thoughts are trapped in time while his burdens feel infinite. Decade long memories haunt his every step as the facility’s cold walls and empty halls welcome him to the familiar path, to order and chaos. But more, they welcome him to yesterday and tomorrow and eternity beyond.
A dullness grips his stomach, pulling. His heartbeat quickens with each step closer to the lab, pumping mounds of sweat through the pores of his paling face. He lets out a sigh, but the unease stays with him as he turns the final corner and continues forward. Forward to the end and back to the beginning.
It’s today, Nolan thinks as he strides toward the security checkpoint. Florescent lights dangle in an equidistant series lining the hall, like soldiers in formation. Its constant buzzing lingers, radiating its stale presence throughout the windowless space as though the drab concrete walls whisper their haunted tale.
It’s foreign to him.
The layout and décor may be the same, but its essence has become but a ghost of its former self. The purpose that once filled these hallowed halls has gone, left with the people who formerly served them—his friends.
The two security guards take a step toward him, interrupting his stride.
“Good morning,” the weathered-faced guard says, his voice hoarse with age.
“You know the drill,” the other guard growls, his hand extended. Nolan inspects the aged lines of the guard’s trembling appendage before fumbling for his identification card.
“Of course.” Nolan forces a half-smile. The guard snatches his ID, inspecting the weight, surface, and flexibility before raising it between him and the invasive light above. He then levels it in front of Nolan’s face, alternating his gaze between the photo and the man. Nolan’s hand strays to his watch once more, his fingers trailing across the familiar dials. The guard notices, but Nolan plays off the nervous gesture with an itch. It wouldn’t do to draw attention now.
“One would think that you’d memorize my twenty-three-digit ID number by now.” Nolan wipes off the accumulated sweat from his forehead. He feels the disk shift in his coat pocket as if it were trying to burn a hole into his chest. It’s the key to everything and, if they find it, it’s all over.
The years of preparation.
The sacrifices he’s made.
The world rests in his pocket, and yet, at this moment, it couldn’t be further from his grasp.
“Dr. Greyson.” The guard scowls. “You know we have to be thorough. Especially with what’s been goin’ on around here. It’s our ass if another one of you scientists croaks.” He hands the badge back to Nolan.
Nolan’s heart slows for a moment, only to drop into his stomach. “You’re livelier than the electronic badge scanners we previously employed. Though not by much.”
He had forgotten. Or did he?
Are there other items I’ve missed?
It doesn’t matter now. There is nothing that Nolan or anyone else can do now except let time march forward.
“Age don’t stop me from pulling this trigger,” the guard laughs, his hand coming to rest on the gun at his side. “Less easy to fool, too. You know how it is these days.”
“These days. Days past. And days to come. The methods vary, but time elapses all the same.” Nolan’s false smile has all but eroded. Breaking eye contact, he glares at his watch. The hands rest in the same position since the last glance. He taps the broken watch out of habit, knowing the gentle force will fall short of reviving it.
“It happens to all of us,” he says, just barely a whisper.
“What?” the other guard asks.
“Keep watch, and maybe—ehm—you’ll be spared.” Nolan clips his badge to his lab coat and proceeds past the guards. Before he reaches the entrance, their muffled voices carry to his ears.
“That has to be the weirdest dude I’ve ever met,” one of the guards says. Nolan closes his eyes, exhales, and adjusts his glasses before walking through the set of double doors.
The lab’s hangar-like space embraces him as he enters. Like much of the facility, the walls are cold and concrete, yet at the room’s center lies a terrifying warmth, the unknowable soul at the heart of the entire operation. The ceiling towers well above, tailoring itself to house the thirty-foot high masterpiece.
A circular platform hovers only a few feet above the ground as a single staircase runs to it from the lab floor. Two angled columns hug the entrance, reaching the top of the machine at a thirty-five-degree angle, like a set of pondering hands uniting at the fingertips. Seven other vertical columns border the platform, supporting a metallic ring that encircles the entire circumference.
Nolan edges down the pathway between the entrance and the foot of the platform. As he maneuvers toward it, his head moves up and down, taking in the entirety of the machine. Each step extends his neck further until, finally, Nolan must bend backward to see the top. He shudders as what little ease he has left escapes him.
“Dr. Greyson,” a voice calls from behind him.
Nolan turns just as his assistant settles alongside him. “Hello, Nea,” he says before looking back toward the machine.
“Hey, so I just finished running those tests like you asked me.” She pulls out a tablet and swivels it in his direction. Nolan’s eyes meet the screen for a brief second, but he sees nothing other than the ground beyond.
“Are you okay?” she asks, her usually cheerful pitch low with concern.
“I’m…” Nolan pauses, clenching his jaws. How can he even begin to answer that?
The word seems so empty to him.
Resolved, Nolan thinks.
That would be more appropriate. He’s resolved, and everything is going along as planned.
No, he’s not okay.
Nothing is okay.
He tears his eyes away from the machine. The naïve innocence in her young brown eyes strikes him. “Thank you for running those. You’ve been an excellent asset to us, Nea. I understand the strenuous workload in the absence of our other colleagues.”
“Absence?” She lowers the tablet and scratches the top of her head. Nolan watches as a single thin blonde hair glides to the ground. “I mean, it’s more than that, right?”
“It certainly isn’t less.” Nolan peels off his glasses and runs a hand up and down his face. He feels every wrinkle and smile line, a story of his life in brail beneath his palm. “How long have you worked here?”
“With the Agency, three years. I’ve only been at the Center here for a little less than a year, though.”
“And what’s been your impression?”
“Uh, I don’t know, Dr. Greyson.” She takes a step backward. “I just don’t really know. I want to say it’s fine.”
“I’ve been here many years and have worked on it even longer than that. Very few places that can happen.”
“It’s special. I’ll say that.” Nea gives an awkward smile before returning to her work.
Nolan stares at the machine for another few seconds before forcing himself into a nearby desk. His stomach clenches as he stares at the blank computer screen. His flesh prickles at the click of the keyboard. As the screen illuminates, Nolan reaches into an inner pocket within his lab coat. He pulls out a small photograph and smiles. It’s not on a screen like what other aging adults have surrendered to using.
This is something tangible and true, ancient but enduring.
A real picture. A photograph.
His thumb brushes the picture’s gloss. There, in its center, his graduated son smiles back at him, boastfully donning his cap and gown in a sign and seal of things past. Moisture creeps into his eyes, pooling and nearly overflowing onto his cheeks.
The reason, he reminds himself.
Nolan holds back the tears and tucks the photo back into his coat. The weight remains. Its purpose, justified.
He slips the glasses back onto his face, rolls his shoulders, and focuses. He removes a thumb drive from the opposite breast pocket and inserts it into the workstation. After a few clicks, he runs the code and watches as his screen turns black. Less than ten seconds later, the surrounding computers follow like a chain of dominoes. Nolan watches as the entire lab is infected with blank screens of nothingness.
Nea jumps up from her workstation, her tiny frame just barely visible over her computer. “I think our servers just went down,” she says with a higher pitch than usual. “I’ll call HQ to see what’s going on. I know it’s the weekend, but I don’t remember any notice about maintenance.”
“No need.” Nolan stands, moving toward her. “Our servers are fine. It’s our entire data warehouse and its backup archives that have been deleted.”
She tilts her head in confusion. “How can you tell?”
“Because…” he says, stopping only a foot from her, “I deleted it.”
“What? Why would—” she stutters, taking a step back with wide eyes.
He grabs her by the upper arms. “Nea, listen to me very carefully.”
She looks up, her eyes quivering as they fix on his. His stomach lurches, but he has to continue.
His plan is in motion, and time waits for no one.
“In approximately forty-seven seconds, the building’s power will go out. Shortly after, Adam Drazen will take out the guards before coming for me.”
Nea’s eyes widen. “But if you know this, then—”
Nolan holds up a hand. “My future is written, Nea. Please, do not make this difficult. I need you to take this.” He holds up the orange octagonal disk. “But you must be quick. If he crosses that threshold and you’re still here, then you’ll be dead.”
“But why would—”
“Nea!” he says, his eyes narrowing even as he tries to steady his tone. “Time is running to an end in every way imaginable and without our consent. Find Aperio. He’s the only one of us left you can trust with this.” He shoves the disk into her hands, his own lingering. “Until then, disappear. Drazen won’t stop until he finds you. Now go!” The light overhead vanishes, and Nea gasps. Nolan can feel her hand tremble as she tightens her grip on the disk.
She says nothing, only nodding, eyes steady with determination before sprinting toward the rear exit.
Nolan stands at the center of the lab in the dark, waiting. Seconds pass before the sound of a single gunshot echoes throughout the open space. His shoulders flinch as the bullet’s shockwaves pummel into the room from beyond its walls. Emergency lighting flickers on just as the double doors swing open. Nolan watches the sinewy frame of his old friend storm into the room where they had met several years before.
Dark hair streaked with age outline the hardened features of someone who has witnessed the ugly truth of the world. The crooked nose of a recent break juts over a robust jawline, but it is his eyes that haunt Nolan. There was a light there once, a hope for change, but now Nolan sees only…
A complete stranger.
As he steps forward, a deep shadow cloaks an unknown scar on his forehead.
Drazen stops, his stale breath heavy against Nolan’s face.
“Hello, Adam,” Nolan says, refusing to break eye contact.
“Adam?” Drazen chuckles. “No one’s called me that name in a long time. No one has called me anything. Thanks to you, I have been living in Hell, and all you can say is ‘hello?’” Nolan remains silent, even as Drazen starts to pace around him. “Surprise. I’ve seen it countless times on the faces of the others before I killed them. They all knew. They must have known that I was coming for them. But, every time, they just give me that same stupid look like they had no idea. But you? No. You knew before I took out those guards, and even before that. Maybe you’ve always known. But here we are.” He pauses, his eyes meeting Nolan’s once more. “Why didn’t you warn them? Why wouldn’t you try to save them?”
“What makes you think I didn’t or that you even did take them out? Even so, things are as they are.”
Drazen swings around behind Nolan. “I see,” he whispers before turning to face the machine. “’Things are as they are. Ha. You and your philosophizing bullshit. So, today’s the day. I assume it’s already done, huh?”
“We had no other option, Adam.”
“No!” Drazen turns, his dark eyes bulging beneath narrow brows. “We had every option. I know you’ve seen the future. I’ve seen it, too. I’ve paid for it because of you. So don’t lecture me about making the right choices while also just letting things happen. You may have fooled the others with your garbage, but not me.”
“It’s not garbage.”
“No? Then what?”
“It’s a paradox,” Nolan says, watching the veins expand on Drazen’s forehead.
Drazen whips out his pistol and pulls back the slide, allowing a bullet to enter the chamber. He grabs Nolan by the jaw and presses the barrel against his face. Nolan stares into his hollow eyes as the icy steel digs into his cheek. Terror grips his thundering heart.
“I heard a gunshot before you walked in,” Nolan says as he feels his own quivering voice vibrate against the gun. “Yet, just now, you had to chamber a round into that cold barrel. Does that sound consistent? What would you say that is?”
Drazen lowers the weapon, smirks, but says nothing.
“A paradox, always true but rarely right.”
Drazen looks away yet again to gaze at the machine. “You’ve always been observant when it comes to the details. Could never get the smallest one past you. That’s what’s so funny. You get obsessed with the smallest things and miss the big picture in front of all of us.” As Drazen’s eyes move from the base and work upward, he smiles. “Just imagine. The events, the world, time itself. No more war, poverty, sickness, famine…” He turns back toward Nolan and pauses. Nolan does not see anger in his dark eyes per se but rather sadness and disgust. “But all of you self-righteous pricks would rather see humanity destroy itself.”
“Changing events doesn’t change people.” Nolan’s voice grows firm. “Has it changed you for the better?” As he says it, Nolan can see Drazen’s gun hand shaking.
Drazen lets out a deep sigh and loosens his grip on the pistol. “You know, I really did like some of them, even thought of them as friends. I considered you a friend too some time ago. I didn’t want any of this, but I couldn’t just let… I couldn’t.” He lays his other hand on the machine’s platform. “Once I knew what had to be done, I did it. Never hesitated. Not once, except now.”
“You know why. Things are different now. I’m different. With the others, it wasn’t personal. And when you look at the alternative, it had to happen. I never liked it, but we both understand why I did it, why I killed them. It wasn’t personal.” He turns, grabbing Nolan by the collar, and drags him onto the machine’s platform. “But with you?” Drazen clenches his teeth and grips his pistol tighter as he returns the barrel to Nolan’s head.
Nolan steadies his breathing.
Any second now.
He takes a deep breath, the air sweet on his tongue.
How many breaths have I taken for granted? Why is it always the last that makes you consider?
The picture of his son races through his thoughts, tumbling over memories and life itself. As he looks down with the gun to his head, his eyes meet the face of his watch one final time, unticking, unchanged, and lifeless. Before exploding gunpowder can be heard or a recoil felt, Nolan and his watch become one.