May 11, 2045
Like a sleight-of-hand artist, Sheila Schuler kept her fear tucked up her sleeve—even when she wasn’t wearing a shirt.
Men were the easiest to fool. Under the spell of her raw sensuality, she could trot her fear in front of them on a leash and they’d never have a clue. Where her closest friends were concerned, though, keeping her secret required the emotional dexterity of a Houdini.
Practically everyone involved with the travelers program would describe Sheila as supremely self-assured. Only Marshall and Marta caught the rare glimpse behind a curtain of amused confidence she used as her shield.
Truthfully, though, every time she stepped naked onto the platform of the mechanism that sent her to the past of another world, she felt terrified. Left unchecked, her mind became a looping litany of all the things that might kill her. So, she turned each projection into a performance. The hungry stares from all corners of the projection lab fed the exhibitionist aspect of her psyche, and fear retreated to its cage until she found refuge in the limbo.
This time, though, she didn’t think she could pull it off. On this night, Sheila had no expectation of survival.
A man dressed as a janitor stood between her and the projection laboratory air lock, pointing an electronic weapon that would render her helpless.
She could have killed Leonard Rose. She realized, though, that she lacked the will to take a human life, even a life so miserable as that one. Harming him wouldn’t have changed her fate.
So, now she stood defenseless, facing the janitor, who said, “You can either cooperate, or not. I’ll ask you one time, nicely, to remove your clothing.”
The other man—the one wearing a suit—said they intended her no harm. They would park her a few years in the past of some other universe so she’d be out of the way during the growing ethical debate concerning time travel.
Sheila didn’t believe him.
Suit Guy stood off to her left, leaning forward with a look of licentious anticipation. The physics of time travel required nudity, and Sheila saw no problem with that. The janitor’s order for her to disrobe, though, lent a raw, ugly edge to this scene that made her shudder.
She turned her back to gather herself, to maintain some measure of self-control. She felt an initial inclination to surrender to her fear—make her submission as sterile and clinical as she could. Then she remembered her outrage and, once again, her mind stuffed the fear behind a veil of resolve. She was a fighter. She would not make this easy for them.
She saw the distraction her sensuality could provide as her best chance.
So, she arched her back and pulled the shirt slowly over her head, taking a moment to shake out her long blonde hair. Then she turned slowly, sweatshirt dangling from her left hand. She felt the stares of Leonard Rose and Suit Guy lock onto her bare breasts as she rotated past them to face the janitor. His smug smile became a hungry leer. She watched carefully as, when she raised her right hand to tug the drawstring of her workout pants, his eyes widened. She focused on the weapon. When it wavered, she made her move.
She lunged, flipping her sweatshirt into the janitor’s face. Instinctively, he raised both arms to ward off the attack. Two strides took her past him, grabbing at the taser as she ran. She managed to strike his arm, throwing him further off balance. But his weapon didn’t clatter to the floor.
An ancient rock and roll song that often blared over the ear buds of her personal music system rang through her head. Gimme three steps, gimme three steps, mister . . . And that’s all she and Lynyrd Skynyrd needed. One step, so far so good; two steps, maybe? And then . . .
The crippling shock of an electrical charge bloomed between her shoulder blades and radiated through her body. She managed to command her right arm to extend as she tried to break her fall.
But her fight was over.
Though fully conscious, Sheila found herself incapable of movement or speech. She felt soft vibrations as the janitor took three swaggering steps of his own to stand above her.
Her vision became a jumble of floor, ceiling lights, gray concrete walls, then floor again as he slung her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. At the projection platform, he lowered her carefully onto her back, wary, she assumed, of damaging the device.
Something else was happening, though. Now she could blink her eyes closed to find relief from lights burning her pupils to tiny pinpoints. Next, she managed to rotate her head ever so slightly to catch sight of Rose as he rushed to the bank of computers monitoring her lifeline.
The brief conversation left no doubt concerning her fate.
“That won’t be necessary, Dr. Rose,” Suit Guy said.
“Without the monitors, there’s no way to track her,” Rose protested. “We can’t bring her back.”
“Oh, I doubt she’ll be coming back.”
“That’s not what you told her.”
“Yes, well, I didn’t want to frighten the young lady,” Suit Guy said.
“You can’t do that,” Rose said. “You can’t send her back so far. She won’t survive.”
“Who knows,” the janitor said. “That’s only a theory, isn’t it, Dr. Rose? You haven’t tried it? Sent someone to a time prior to their birth? Don’t theories need to be tested? That’s science, right? Let’s see . . . sometime around the 1960s? A prime era for a rebellious crusader if ever there was one.”
Sheila commanded her body to sit up but managed only to roll sideways.
Not enough strength. Not enough . . . time.
Sheila had probably thought more about dying than most people in their late twenties, because, of course, she pursued the hazardous vocation of time travel.
Funny, she thought. So much of life is spent waiting for the mundane moments to creep past while anticipating some instant perceived to have greater value than the others. Six more months until Christmas. Three more months and school will be out. Six weeks to spring break. As if the intervals between were all nuisance, something to be tolerated or endured. As if life is a highlight reel instead of the methodical gift of savoring each moment.
Sheila remembered visiting her grandmother, whose name was Amanda, at the start of her senior year and confessing her impatience. “I wish high school would be done so I can get on with my life.” Her grandmother had taken her hand, squeezed, then answered with a melancholy smile, “Oh, my sweet girl, it’s wonderful to make plans. Be sure to find a way to enjoy where you are, though. Please don’t wish your life away.”
And now Sheila realized how right Gramma Mandy had been. As her life reached its culmination, everything coalesced to fast forward, like water swirling down a drain, spinning ever more furiously, until finally, she savored each individual second remaining in her sentient being. Now ten, now five, now two. Then the last precious instant ticked past . . .
She entered the timeless white void of the limbo, suspended for an eternity before she would be spat out at a point so long ago that she had no hope of survival.