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"Why don't they move?"
"They're paralyzed."
"Oh, that's awful."
"No, I mean they're afraid. Paralyzed with fear. And besides they move. Just not all that often. When the consequences are easy to foresee."
She reached out to touch the glass. Just before her nail clicked against it the three bald figures beyond turned their piercing stares to meet her own. She shied away. Had they heard the sound before she made it?
"Why would they be afraid?" she said. "I'm the one that's afraid!" He cleared his throat in such a way that said me, too.
She heard him slipping a hand into the pocket of his jacket. He had done it several times that night and her pulse had quickened at each one.
"For them it's like... well, have you ever heard of a sound of thunder."
When she stared at him he laughed.
"I mean the famous story, 'A Sound of Thunder,' about the man who goes back in time, steps on a butterfly and it changes the world. It sounds stupid when I say it that way but it's really good."
"I've never read it."
"Well then I'll have to think of another analogy. Come see the prediction lab."
The three unblinking figures watched them go. One had stood and come near the glass. His face, like all their faces, was expressionless, unreadable.
He led her from the observation deck and down a narrow flight of stairs to a room with computers lining the walls. The center was full of desks and screens. He took her to the nearest one and thumped a key with a practiced gesture.
"When they do talk this is where we record it. Sometimes they draw pictures too, when something's too difficult or painful to explain, and we scan those in. We can sort by topic or time or place or a dozen other things."
"Are they always right?"
"Well, yes and no. For the near future they're almost always dead on. But further out it's harder. Because everything's dependent. If A then B then C. Well if you get all the way to Z and someone at M doesn't step on a banana like he was supposed to then you'll never get to Z. See?"
"I think so," and she laughed again.
"Will they tell you anything?"
He shook his head. "No, and we make a point not to ask too much. They're here by choice and we don't want to make them feel like lab rats. Sometimes a mucky-muck comes down and demands to know the answer to something or other. What will be the effect of this or that law? How can I win this election? That kind of thing. But when you ask a vague question like that you get an answer just as vague. Or they will just shrug and tell you nothing. You have to be very specific. You want to ask them something?"
Like will you ever propose to me? she thought but didn't say. She shook her head.
"Come on it's fun! Just ask them something unimportant, like what will we have for dinner."
"Are we having dinner?"
He smiled and took her by the hand. The hand, she noticed, was slightly clammy but she did not complain and let him lead her through a double set of heavy steel doors beside which he had to place his hand and say his name.
"Why all the security?" she asked.
"It upsets some people that they exist. They don't think anyone should know the future. Ironically it's the ones that do know their future that hate it the most. The ones that know they're going to end up in prison or alone forever that want to hold out hope that they're wrong. So they deny that precognitives exist, or worse try to make sure they don't."
As the last door opened she grasped his arm with both hands, and they stepped together into the cozy living room which they had seen before behind the glass. The three precognitives were watching as they walked across the hardwood floor. One was sitting on the couch a book open on his knee. The two women were at the small oak table with a game of chess set out before them. None of the pieces had moved at all.
"Who won the game," he said, and led her further in.
"I did," said one triumphantly.
"But I have won the next two," said the other with a grin.
"I'd like you to meet my--"
The precognitives all spoke at once:
She caught her breath and squeezed his arm.
"Sorry," he said and put his arm around her. "Remember, it's not for sure. Especially if it's far out. Want to ask them what's for dinner?"
She shook her head emphatically, not trusting herself to speak.
"Pad Thai," said the precognitive on the couch.
"From your favorite restaurant," said the second.
"And wine," said the third. "At which time--"
"We better go!" he said and steered her toward the door. "You three are talkative tonight!"
They returned to the prediction room. And he left her for a moment to get the predicted dinner from the lunchroom. While he was gone she also tried to see the future. "Far out" he had said and her heart had sunk. She had waited so long already. If he ever asked she was no longer sure what she would say. Funny how she could not see even that far into her own post-present.
He had returned with a pair of plastic bags tied neatly at the top, and said "Let's go up to the garden."
They took the elevator up. He spread an old red sheet beside the Cyprus, on the dark green grass which was getting darker still as the sun sank into the pink horizon. All out before them lay the city and all the other rooftop gardens on which here and there could be seen the lights of other parties.
He struggled with the wine a little and she noticed that his hands were shaking.
Then they ate and slurped their noodles, sitting side-by-side, laughing and remembering their past together. Yet both were thinking hard about the future.
"I've thought of an analogy," he said when they were nearing the bottom of the wine. She looked at him attentively, knowing that her eyes were bright.
"It's like the first time I met your parents. I was so nervous, practically paralyzed with fear. But it wasn't because I was afraid of what would happen then. I was afraid of what would happen later. I was afraid of what it meant."
He paused to sip his wine and she felt her hands grow cold. She clutched her wine between them.
"It's like that for precognitives. Whenever they do anything, even as simple as taking a step or turning on the television, they can't help but following the trail, untying the ball of yarn and following the thread as far as it will go. The problem is, eventually you come to something bad no matter what. Something bad will always happen. But for them, they know it's coming. Yet still they live. They make choices anyway. Really I admire them, living in the face of fear like that."
"That sounds terrifying."
"It's really the same as us. You don't have to know the future to know that bad things will happen. In the end we all have to live on faith. Faith that good exists. And most importantly we have to take the good things when they're right in front of us. While we have the chance. That's something I've had to learn and I hope--I really hope--it hasn't taken me too long to learn it."
He was moving again, putting his hand inside his jacket. She was afraid to look at him. Finally he said her name and she had no choice.
He was on one knee and smiling hopefully, faithfully.
Just below them, in the silent hardwood room, the precognitives were smiling too.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 24th, 2015
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