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The Price of the Future

Veronica Brush is the author of First Grave on Mars and the rest of the Martian Murders series. When she isn't desperately trying to do the impossible by writing the perfect story, she is desperately trying to do the impossible by teaching her dog to fetch (the dog is never going to bring it back). Adding a second dog to the mix has not helped Veronica achieve either of these goals. You can find more of her work at
Eight minutes.
Isaac Poulter sat with his wife and children, all staring at the old digital clock they had managed to salvage. Jenny, Isaac's youngest, sat spinning the hand crank that powered the clock as hard as she could, but her little arms were clearly getting tired.
Someone gasped as the clock started to flicker and dim. Jake, Isaac's middle child, took the hand crank and spun it quickly until the numbers were steadily glowing again.
Seven minutes.
While the others appeared relieved to have the numbers clearly visible, Isaac could only look at his family and feel sorrow. He loved them all so much. They didn't deserve the dirt that encrusted their skin, or clothes that were soiled and ragged, salvaged from ruins of a world that used to be. They should have had a yard of thick grass to play in, under the cool shade of tall trees, and a permanent structure for a house to rest in when they were tired. Instead they had only the life of nomads, constantly roaming through desert and rubble, only possessing what they could find and carry.
He wanted to give them so much more than this barren world, but he couldn't. That fate was in the hands of a man Isaac knew he couldn't trust: himself.
Isaac's wife Amy took his hand and pressed it against the side of her belly. After a few moments, his hand was greeted with a kick from the baby within. Even with the weight of the world on his shoulders, he smiled.
Six minutes.
His oldest child, Kenzie, asked, "He won't press the button, will he, daddy?"
She was only ten, but she had already proven herself exceedingly smart. She loved to hear her father talk about the lab he used to work in and the experiments he used to run. Isaac was often flabbergasted by the questions she would think to ask. She had even helped him figure out how to get the clock to work again. In a world destroyed, hers was a mind that promised hope of a new future.
Isaac answered, "He said he wouldn't."
Kenzie said, "Then he won't. Because you're not a liar, and he's you, right? Just you in the past."
Isaac thought of the conversation he had had with the man. More of an argument. It had been difficult trying to get through to him.
Amy looked at Isaac with a sad smile. She knew him now, but she knew about him then, too.
Five minutes.
Isaac finally answered Kenzie's question, "I was living in a world that didn't understand how integrity could have any value."
Breathing heavily as he worked the crank, Jake said, "But you told him what would happen to the world."
"Yes."
Jake continued, "Then how could he do it, daddy? You were still a good person."
Isaac thought of the man--himself--doubting what he knew was the truth, justifying his actions, and dismissing everything Isaac had said to him, all for the love of a career, which that man couldn't understand meant so little. He had looked at Isaac so confused while Isaac tried to describe the precious faces, which stared lovingly back at him now.
Four minutes.
If he had more time, maybe Isaac could have helped the man better understand everything. But the relic of the machine Isaac had used to get to the past--the same one the man was putting the finishing touches on--only had enough resources for one short trip.
Jake repeated, "You were still a good person, weren't you, daddy?"
At a loss for an answer, Isaac looked at Amy.
She explained to the children, "Good people do bad things and bad people do good things. Most of the time people don't look at each and every aspect of their lives. They look at the whole and see themselves as surviving as best they can."
Three minutes.
For a moment, the children and Isaac all sat in silence, pondering this.
Two minutes.
Kenize said, "Even if he does push the button, nothing will change. I know you and Mommy like the world better how it was, but we don't mind how it is. We're happy!"
"But I want to try ice cream," Jenny chimed in, crossing her arms in a show of stubborn indignation that Isaac tried not to chuckle at. "If he pushes the button, we never get to try it!"
Kenzie said, "Don't be selfish, Jenny! It's okay if he pushes the button, Daddy. We forgive you."
Isaac opened his arms wide and beckoned them all in for a hug. Jenny and Kenzie were squished in one arm and Isaac's other arm reached out and squeezed Jake on the shoulder, as he tirelessly kept the clock running. Amy wrapped her arms around him from behind, and he felt the lump of her belly.
Despite Isaac's best efforts, tears streamed out of his eyes as he clutched on to his children as though that would change anything.
Isaac knew the man he had been. He had seen the look on the man's face as he promised not to reveal his life's work to the first witnesses. Despite being a man who found the gateway into time travel, he couldn't see past his present needs.
One minute.
When he had walked away from himself, Isaac had hoped the man would keep to his word. But he also knew better.
With minutes left in his final chance to save the past, Isaac had done something he hadn't even told his wife about. It was a last resort for the world.
Still clinging to his family, Isaac wondered if this person he was now was a good person who had done a bad thing or a bad person who had done a good thing.
Zero.
The clock read 2:30pm. Somewhere fifteen years ago, Isaac's past self was due to present his invention, the thing that would bring the world to ruin. If he pressed the button and activated the machine, there would be no stopping this future.
With his last minutes in the past, Isaac had found himself alone with the machine and the thought of how much he didn't trust the man he had once been to do the right thing.
So Isaac had taken matters into his own hands. He knew the machine inside and out. He disconnected and rewired an important part of the machine.
If the man ignored Isaac's warnings and pushed the button, the world could still be saved from this destruction, but at the cost of the man's life. And not just his.
2:31.
Staring at the clock, Kenzie asked, "Nothing's happened. Does that mean he didn't do it?"
Isaac said, "Our clock might not be exactly right. Give it another minute."
Already feeling relieved, Amy leaned down to kiss Isaac on the head.
Amy's friend Sage asked, "Did you drop something?"
Amy was leaning over, staring at the clean floor of the train.
"I don't know," she said as she straightened up, not quite remembering what she had been doing. "I guess I thought I did."
"Well, come on! I don't want to have to go around again."
She took Amy's hand and pulled her off the train onto the sunny platform. A few seconds later, the electric train closed its doors and quietly hummed away towards its next stop.
People moved all around the platform and nearby promenade, some in an obvious hurry and others casually strolling as though they had no place in particular that they needed to be. Amy searched all the faces, not sure who she was even looking for.
Sage exclaimed, "Hey, look! We made it early enough, we've got time to stop for ice cream!"
Amy looked up at the holographic clock hovering above the platform just as it changed to say 2:31pm.
Despite the sun, Amy suddenly felt cold. She felt like she had forgotten something crucial. A meeting or someplace important she needed to be at 2:30.
"What's the matter?" Sage called. "Aren't you hungry?"
Amy's eyes drifted down and she placed her hands on her stomach. She felt very hollow and she would never know why.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 16th, 2022
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