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The Men in the Mirror

Written by Steven Ray
Illustrated by Dan Skinner



Three days before it all went down, Charles Robbins stepped out of his car in north Minneapolis. Slinging a camera bag over his shoulder, he crossed the wide but almost deserted street and entered the park, looking for a familiar face.

A thin line of trees hemmed the path, dark branches swaying in the same low, cold wind that swirled their fallen leaves across the shriveling grass. But beyond them all was open and clear, short-cropped lawns and soccer fields sweeping toward a far-off line of stately homes. Plenty of room to spread out, plenty of space to surround oneself with and still have privacy.

He found him about halfway around the path's curving course, sitting alone on a park bench, a bundle of papers on his lap. Across the path another bench stood empty. Robbins walked up and sat down.

"Hi," Robbins said.

"Hi," Chuck replied in the same tone. He glanced around. "I don't remember it being this cold."

Robbins smiled nervously. "Memory has a way of editing out the unpleasant details."

Chuck shrugged as if to say I know that and began unfolding the papers he held.

Robbins dropped his bag to the ground, opened it and busied himself setting up the tripod and camera, the heavy macro lens awkward and cold in the bitter air. He popped out and reseated the battery and memory card, even though he had checked and rechecked both at home just an hour before. It wouldn't do to mess this up.

As always, he studied the other man while he worked. Himself. The man he would be in five years. Or ten, depending on how you counted.

He looked good. Oh, the hair was a touch longer, turning to gray, the face more lined. But Robbins had the kind of face that aged well. In a few years all those wrinkles would somehow pull together the unremarkable features he had been born with and give them depth and definition. If the process continued he'd be a real ladykiller at the retirement home.

Of course, the whole reason they were meeting in this park was because he didn't want to wait that long. Neither did he. Er, the other guy. Er. . . .

Robbins shook his head. Such distinctions made no sense. He'd long ago decided to think of his future self as "him" and to call him Chuck just so he didn't go crazy from pronoun overload or infinite logical regressions.

"So what've we got?" Robbins asked, gesturing at the papers clutched in Chuck's hands.

"Instructions," Chuck said calmly, holding up the first sheet of paper so Robbins could focus the Nikon in on it. "It's time."

Autofocus was useless in a situation like this, and Robbins was grateful for the excuse to concentrate on the mindless technicality of framing the shot. His hands shook as he checked the aperture and shutter speed, but if Chuck noticed he gave no sign.

Robbins snapped two pictures in rapid succession, then examined the results on the LCD panel. He nodded as much to himself as to Chuck, and said as calmly as he could, "Okay, we're ready."

One by one Chuck held up sheets of paper, and Robbins snapped two or three frames of each. There were just nine pages total, including a hand-drawn map; a few minutes later they were done.

"Got 'em," Robbins said, straightening. He popped out the memory card and slipped it into an inside jacket pocket; the rest of the gear went back into the bag.

Chuck waited for Robbins to finish, then got to his feet. "Be back here the day after tomorrow, mid-afternoon. Clear your schedule. We'll talk about the next step." Without another word he turned and walked off down the path, coat wrapped tightly around him, hunched slightly against the cold. Robbins watched until he disappeared around a small grove of trees, then turned in the opposite direction and went back to his car. He had a lot of homework to do.

* * *

The next day at half past two, Robbins mounted the steps of a forlorn-looking Cape Cod a few blocks off the freeway. Leaves stirred in a slight wind, rubbing fretfully against the white clapboard siding, a watery sun barely able to raise a shadow on the sidewalk in front.

Taking a deep breath, he rang the doorbell.

Shuffling steps inside, then a muffled voice through the door, high and raspy: "Who are you?"

Robbins took a step backward so he was more clearly visible through the peephole. "Charles Robbins, Mr. Welken. I called earlier?"

There was a pause, and then the sound of bolts being undone. The door swung wide, revealing a short, wiry man with a shock of white hair perched untidily on his head. He looked Robbins up and down and then smiled, showing crooked teeth. "Ah, yes. The reporter. Come in." He turned and walked back into the house, leaving the door open behind him.

Robbins followed him through a cluttered living room, past a dark, outdated kitchen and into a small office at the back of the house. The rooms were tiny and spare, built during a time when the number of bedrooms was more important than their size.

He took a seat behind a desk that looked like it had been picked out of an office building's dumpster, all angular steel and fake wood panelling. As Robbins walked in Welken waved him into a chair set haphazardly among piles of books and overflowing boxes.

"So, Mr. . . ."

"Robbins. Charles Robbins."

"And you're a. . . ."

"Freelance reporter. I explained it all on the phone."

"Yes. . . ." He leaned back and rubbed his jaw, eyeing Robbins with a startlingly sharp gaze. "And what do you want with me?"

"Well, Mr. Welken, as I explained on the phone, I'm doing a story on inventors and aliens, and you seem to be a bit of an expert in both. Everywhere I look, your name keeps popping up."

His eyes sparkled at that; like every closet genius, he liked the idea that he was famous in some small corner of society. But when he spoke, his tone was amused. "Inventors and aliens? Do you work for the Enquirer, Mr. Robbins?"

Robbins shook his head. "I'm a freelancer, Mr. Welkin. I write stories and try to sell them. Sometimes I work under contract; sometimes I work on spec. This . . . is the latter."

He snorted. "I'll bet." An amused smile creased his face. "You seriously expect me to go on record about alien inventors?"

"Not quite." Robbins took a deep breath, trying to calm the nervous twitters that were suddenly roiling in his stomach. "I don't believe in wasting time, Mr. Welken, so I'll be direct.Where is the artifact?"

Welken's smile vanished. He watched Robbins for a very long time, the index finger of his right hand idly drumming on his knee. "I think I should ask you to leave, Mr. Robbins," he said finally.

"You don't want to do that," Robbins said. "There are a lot of people, both in and out of government, who would be interested in my research on you. You've been careful, but not careful enough."

Welken looked slightly alarmed. "What are you talking about?"

"Comments at conventions . . . Articles in small-circulation science journals . . . Short stories with remarkably well-developed physics . . . All written under pseudonyms, of course, but that wasn't too hard to unravel. The trail is there if you look. Completely understandable; I'm amazed you've been able to sit on this secret for as long as you have."

"Get out." But Welken looked nervous, and his words lacked force.

"Mr. Welken, please," Robbins said, leaning forward. Welken flinched. "I don't mean to threaten you. But try to see it from my perspective. I've been researching this stuff for years. Every lead I get eventually points to you. I don't want to expose your secrets, but I have to know."

Welken's index finger resumed its drumming. But the look in his eye had changed. "Even if I could tell you something, what difference would it make?"

Robbins relaxed slightly. "It would justify the decade I've spent studying this, for one thing." He smiled reassuringly at the older man. "Surely you know what I'm talking about. The search for knowledge for its own sake, because you simply have to know. And maybe, too, it will start me off in the right direction. Because once I know aliens exist, I'll have to find a way to meet them, won't I?"

Welken snorted, genuinely amused. "Aliens are overrated," he said. "But yes, I do know exactly what you're talking about."

He eyed Robbins for several long seconds, an unreadable expression on his face. Then he stood. "Okay, Mr. Robbins," he said with a hint of dramatic flair. "You win. But I won't tell you anything. I'll show you something instead. Something extraordinary. Wait here."

He went out. Robbins heard him pull open a door and clomp down the stairs into the basement.

Robbins looked around the office. Behind Welken's desk were shelves piled high with books, magazines and old coffee mugs. The desk itself was clear except for a couple of pens and a largish crystalline square that looked like some sort of hologram. It sparkled and flickered hypnotically if he stared at it too long.

The wall behind him was stacked to the ceiling with filing boxes that were themselves overflowing with papers. A quick glance showed them to be abstracts of research papers, magazine and newspaper clippings, other random bits of data. Perched precariously atop the shortest stack was an old-fashioned rotary phone, the AT&T label faded but legible beneath the clear plastic wheel.

Robbins waited. Before too long he heard Welken on the stairs again, and a moment later he came back into the office, sat down, and tossed something small on to his desk. "Take a look at this."

Robbins leaned forward and Welken leaned back—but not too far. He seemed torn between wanting Robbins to examine the object and hovering protectively over it.

The thing was not very impressive. An asymmetrical square of bluish metal, about the size of a child's letter block. Short prongs or tubes stuck out of it on two sides, while a third held a tiny numeric keypad, the numbers indicated by clusters of dots rather than Arabic numerals.

"May I hold it?" Robbins asked, glancing up.

"Sure. Just don't touch the keypad."

Robbins picked it up gingerly between two fingers and turned it from side to side, studying it closely. It felt slightly warm to the touch, though he could easily have been imagining that.

"What . . . What is it?" He had to force the words out. He knew exactly what it was, but the enormity of the moment still hit him like a nuclear-powered sledgehammer.

"My posterity," Welken said, chuckling. He eyed the object almost fondly. "A time machine."

Robbins looked at him sharply. "You're serious."

Welken smiled broadly at the expression on Robbins' face. "Oh, thoroughly." He stood, reached out and gently took the device from Robbins' reluctant fingers. He held it up and regarded it, as one might examine a surprisingly excellent glass of wine. "And I'd like to add that it isn't easy grafting controls on to a device built with an understanding of physics that we won't have for another century."

"Then how—"

Welken sat back down. "I found it aboard an alien spacecraft that crashed into the Canadian Rockies fifteen years ago."

Robbins gaped. "How did you know it was a time machine?"

"It wasn't. Took me awhile to figure out. I won't bore you with the details."

"But you said—"

"This little guy was the power source for the ship. I have no clue how it works. But what it does is draw energy from spacetime itself, and converts it to something the ship could use. It's like tapping the Big Bang and riding the blast."

"Sounds dangerous."

"Oh, probably. But the aliens seemed to have it worked out well enough."

"How did you turn it into a time machine?"

"I didn't. It turns out that when you draw energy out of spacetime in one place, you've got to give it back in another place—a place that can be distant in space, or time, or both. Since the amount of energy is, as I said, enormous, the aliens usually chose 'both.'"

"Are you telling me that time travel was a side effect of their engine!?"

Welken grinned. "You got it. I think they considered it an irritating engineering problem."

Robbins looked with newfound respect at the little gadget. "So how does it work?"

Welken turned the device around so the reporter could see the keypad. "Pretty simple, really. You key in the spacetime coordinates you want, and it takes you there. Here." He reached behind him, grabbed a small booklet and tossed it toward Robbins. "I wrote a user's manual."

Robbins picked up the booklet and leafed through it. A lot that Chuck had told him became much clearer as he read.

"Time travel" was a bit of a misnomer, because the traveller never truly left his own time continuum. The machine somehow created a bulge in spacetime, a bubble or tube with the traveller inside it, which reached over to the chosen coordinates. That avoided most of the paradoxes normally associated with time travel.

Most, not all. A traveller could still interact with the other time stream to some extent: Talk to people, for instance, even touch them. But he had to return to his own continuum with roughly the same mass that he left with. And the amount of mass was limited: not much more than the weight of an average adult male.

Robbins glanced up at Welken. "So I could change the past?"

"Yes, but I think you'd find it surprisingly difficult," Welken replied easily. He seemed relaxed, freed, finally able to discuss this with another human being. "Time is rather resilient, with lots of alternate paths to the same destination. Assassinate Hitler, for instance, and you don't prevent World War II; another Nazi steps in to take his place. That's no coincidence; it appears to be a law of interdimensional physics. I'm afraid it's a bit devastating to the 'great man' theory of history."

Robbins considered. "Okay, so change is difficult. I notice you didn't say impossible."

"No, but consider three things. One, it probably wouldn't work. Two, the unintended consequences would probably swamp whatever benefit you'd get anyway. And three, you really want to avoid meeting yourself."


"Because that bubble of spacetime contains a lot of energy. And whatever is inside the bubble cannot exist in the same place at the same time as itself. For all practical purposes, when you're inside the bubble you're an antimatter version of yourself. Come into direct contact with yourself in another continuum and—boom."


"The bubble collapses, releasing all the energy used to generate it. Think matter-antimatter explosion, with the energy released almost equally between the two time streams. You'd kill your past yourself, your present self, and leave a huge crater in both continuums—destroying the time machine itself for a garnish."

Robbins smiled weakly. "So you're saying that would be bad."

"On multiple levels."

They lapsed into silence. Robbins leaned back and stretched, then glanced at his watch. "So how often do you use it?"

Welken looked fondly at the device in his hand. "A few small trips to spotcheck specific theses, all well outside the present day."

Robbins gaped. "That's all?"

Welken nodded seriously. "I don't fully understand how it works, Mr. Robbins. For one thing, you don't experience the effect of whatever changes you make until you return to your own continuum. So you can't test radical changes unless you're willing to risk annihilation. It's one thing for aliens to vent their exhaust into uninhabited space. It's entirely another to meddle with one's own past or future."

Robbins nodded thoughtfully. "Sensible, I suppose. Though I can't believe there are many people who could resist the temptation as you have."

Welken's smile was grim this time. "Which is why I have not alerted the authorities to the device's existence, Mr. Robbins."

"May I . . . May I try it?"

Welken shook his head. "A natural question, but not today, I'm afraid. I don't know you very well, Mr. Robbins, and I'd prefer to check you out and provide a little preflight training before setting you loose in another era."

Disappointment plain on Robbins' face, he sat back. "Another time, then, I hope."

After that there wasn't much more to say. Robbins thanked him for his time, which Welken waved away with mumbled words of deprecation. They stood, shook hands. Welken came around the desk, the time machine held tightly in his left hand. "Let me put this back, then I'll see you to the door," he said, and stepped past Robbins.

The crystalline hologram had a nice weight to it, and a very hard edge. When Robbins brought it down on Welken's skull he gave a soft mewing sound and crumpled, sprawling bonelessly across the floor.

Robbins stooped and plucked the time machine from Welken's outflung hand, stowing it carefully in his pocket along with the manual. Then he went into the kitchen, blew out the pilot light on the stove and opened all the burners. The smell of gas filled the air as he returned to the office and picked up the rotary phone. Pulling a small handyman's tool out of his pocket, he unscrewed the base and rewired the ringer, scraping a goodly length of insulation off the wires in the process. He reassembled the phone, checked for a dial tone and replaced it on its perch.

Moving quickly now, he yanked open the door to the basement and ran downstairs. Ignoring the lab equipment visible through an archway at the other end of the basement, he went straight to the furnace and blew out the pilot light there, too, making sure the gas continued to flow. Back upstairs he paused in the front hall long enough to dial the thermostat up as far as it could go.

Robbins looked around one last time. The air reeked of gas. Welken lay unmoving on the floor, his breathing labored, a small rivulet of red running down his scalp and beginning to pool on the floor. Everything else looked exactly as it had when he had arrived.

He went out and closed the door behind him, careful to make sure it was locked. As casually as he could manage, he walked down the steps, around the corner and another three blocks to where he had left his car.

As he drove away, he reached into the glove compartment and pulled out the unregistered cell phone he had used to call Welken earlier that day. He hit redial while he merged with traffic streaming toward the freeway.

On the fourth ring, he heard the explosion.

Robbins took a roundabout way home. As he drove he cracked open the cell phone and yanked out the memory chips. When he reached the Washington Avenue Bridge he slowed a bit as he approached midspan, checked the rearview mirror—empty—then cracked a window and flung the rest of the phone into the muddy waters of the Mississippi.

Back at his house, Robbins pulled the car into the garage and waited for the garage door to whump shut before getting out. He hurried to his basement workroom, closed the door, and spilled the contents of his coat pockets on to the table.

From a locked gun cabinet he drew out the Nikon. Switching it on, he flipped through the images, then magnified one until he could read the alphanumerics written on the page. He set the camera on the edge of the table, LCD panel toward him, glowing bluishly.

He paused for a moment to admire the time machine, so out of place in the everyday clutter of mundane things that surrounded him. He picked it up, turning it this way and that in the dim light, considering for a moment the delicious power he held. Not just the power of the device, but the power of choice. Chuck had guided him to this moment, and had told him what to do next. But what if he didn't? Could he change the plan even now, a year before yet five years after it had been launched?

The moment passed. He had his instructions, and if he couldn't trust himself, who could he trust? He consulted Welken's manual, quickly configuring the machine. He double-checked the settings, then checked them again. Satisfied, he carefully keyed in the 23-digit spacetime coordinate glowing so cheerfully from the Nikon. Then he picked up a rubber band, strapped the manual to the awkward little block, took a deep breath, and activated it.

With a soundless but dazzling wink the time machine vanished, taking itself and the manual nine months into the future.

Robbins let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. His heart was beating fast, very fast, adrenaline mixing with the beginnings of reaction to the crimes he had committed. He'd always been careful and reflexively law-abiding: the closest he had ever come to illegality was a few speeding tickets. Now in one day he had lied, murdered, stolen, blown up a house, obtained an illegal cell phone and used a time machine. The stress was building inside of him; he wasn't going to be good for much for very much longer.

But there remained one last task. Hands shaking, he removed the camera card and placed it and the cell phone chips in a small pile on the concrete floor. Next he stripped off the acetate coverings on his fingertips and dropped them on to the stack. Then he melted the lot of it to slag with a butane torch, keeping his face turned away from the acrid fumes.

* * *

The next day Chuck was smiling.

"You did it!" he said cheerfully as they sat on their benches in the park, the biting wind ensuring that it was deserted except for a few desperate squirrels. "Trail wiped away, machine delivered to the correct time and spot." He looked at Robbins with a knowing air. "How do you feel?"

"Slept like crap," Robbins muttered. "Had the damn shakes half the night. Couldn't get Welken out of my head." Reading the newspaper that morning hadn't helped; the story and photographs had brought on a fresh bout of trembling. Though at least Welken didn't appear to have any living relatives; Robbins wasn't sure he could have handled anguished quotes from a grieving widow or son.

"You'll get over it," Chuck said reassuringly. "That was the worst it gets. That's why I rushed you through it, so we wouldn't have too much time to think about it. I don't want to be hamstrung by post-traumatic stress."

"How long does it take?" Robbins asked numbly.

"To get over it?" Chuck cocked his head. "About six months. But it gets better gradually. Every day, a little bit easier. You'll be sleeping like a baby in no time."

"Fabulous." The words came out flat, emotionless. Robbins raised his head and gazed around at the vacant fields. "So what happens next?"

Chuck grinned. "Next, we pull the job. Come." He stood, inclining his head toward the distant houses. "Walk with me."

Robbins grabbed his camera bag and followed, maintaining a respectful distance. It was difficult sometimes to be heard above the wind, but he wasn't going to chance running into Chuck if his future self stopped suddenly.

"Do you remember the timeline?" Chuck asked as they trudged along the path.

"Of course. Nine months from now I find the time machine again. Three months after that I launch the operation. I spend the next five years setting everything up. Then we do the job."

Chuck nodded and looked sharply at Robbins, his clear green eyes gazing into their identical twins. "Good. Just one small change, from your point of view." He favored Robbins with a small smile. "We do the job tomorrow."

Robbins gaped at him. "What? Why?"

But he knew. Or at least, he knew the motivation, if not the actual rationale. That small smile said it all. Robbins had always enjoyed being clever. And clearly, this was a clever moment.

"Because if we pull off the heist two days after you steal the time machine, nobody in your continuum will have had time to put two and two together," Chuck said. "In addition, if we succeed, that will guarantee you rediscover the time machine nine months from now, since you're still in your native continuum."

Robbins frowned. "I don't think it works like that . . ." he began, and stopped. Fact is, neither of them really knew how it worked.

Chuck's smile broadened. "According to the histories in my time, it does work like that. Because the heist is never solved and the theft of the time machine is never discovered. So I'm confident that in my continuum, in another six months I will step into the time machine, come here tomorrow to pull off the heist, and return a very rich man."

This sort of talk always made Robbins' head hurt. But he had to trust him; Chuck knew a lot more about it, besides having the advantage of 20/20 hindsight.

"Okay," Robbins said, throwing up his hands. "I'm the boss. What's the job?"

"In good time," Chuck said. "The others will be waiting for us. I only want to explain it once."

Robbins halted in his tracks. "The others are here? We're going to meet them?"

Chuck nodded, that small smile back on his face.

"But . . ." Robbins cast about for the right words. "Is that . . . safe?"

Chuck laughed. "Wait and see. It'll be fine."

"Because you remember it."

He laughed again. "Exactly."

They walked the rest of the way in silence. A few minutes later they left the park, crossed the street and stopped in front of a large gray-stuccoed four-square.

Robbins had bought the place several months ago at Chuck's behest, but had never been inside. Now Chuck produced a key, mounted the steps, unlocked the door and pushed it open. "C'mon," he said over his shoulder as he stepped through.

Robbins followed and found himself in a small foyer, a wide stairway in front, dining room to the right, living room to the left. Wide baseboards stained a rich deep brown shone warmly in the light from the tall oval windows. There wasn't a scrap of furniture in sight.

"I like what we've done with the place," Robbins said as Chuck led the way along a short hallway to the back of the house, where another set of stairs led to the basement. Chuck didn't answer, just flipped on a light and headed down.



It was a full basement, recently refurbished, though in a way not designed to enhance resale value. Wires covered the bare concrete walls, connecting four flat-panel televisions hung in a semi-circle. They all faced the back wall, where a huge projector threw bright white light onto a screen that was easily seven feet square. Extension cords and cables ran here and there across the floor, plugged almost randomly into wall sockets and power strips.

"What . . ." Robbins began, but Chuck waved it away. "Not now," he said. "We've got work to do." He pointed to a corner. "There's a laptop over there. Get it booted up and hooked into the projector."

This, at least, made sense. The vast energy in Chuck's spacetime bubble sometimes had unpredictable effects on sensitive electronics. TVs were fine, but not computers. So for a few minutes Robbins played A/V nerd, pulling the laptop out of its box and getting it set up.

Chuck, meanwhile, was pulling papers out of his pocket and stacking them on his lap. Robbins knew what that meant, so when he finished with the laptop he unpacked his camera and photographed the pages. Then he transferred the images to the laptop and began arranging them for display on the projector screen.

He glanced at Chuck as he worked. "So what's going on here? We're teleconferencing?"

Chuck smiled approvingly. "Sort of. Four-bedroom house, four others. Each gets his own room, equipped with a two-way video connection. Didn't want to risk cramming us all into the same room."

"Except for you and me, of course. Thanks."

"Couldn't be helped. Believe me."

Robbins hooked a thumb at the screen behind him. "They're not going to try to photograph this stuff through the TV, are they?"

"They'll be taking notes."

Robbins nodded, still vaguely uneasy but unable to see a flaw in the plan. He'd always had a streak of overconfidence, but in Chuck the streak seemed magnified, almost cherished. Robbins hoped he wasn't simply seeing himself the way others saw him, because what he saw wasn't all that attractive. It wasn't just Chuck's easy way with Welken's murder, as if they were discussing a bad bout of acne. Chuck was, to put it bluntly, a smug little know-it-all. Robbins just hoped his planning justified the smugness.

Without warning the house above them rang with activity: the distant sound of feet on hardwood and other, less identifiable noises. Then, one by one, the flat-panels flickered to life.

Sitting next to the projector, Robbins suddenly found himself at the center of a disconcerting circle of attention, four versions of himself staring expectantly at him from the TV screens. It was like looking at one of those artificially aged photos on missing-children fliers, except he got to see a progression: youngest on the left, each successive screen adding a year of objective age and somewhat more subjective. Time wound forward as his eyes moved around the circle, finally coming to rest on Chuck, the oldest, as he stepped in front of Robbins and into the limelight.

"Welcome, everyone," Chuck said grandly, spreading his hands before him. "For most of you"—he inclined his head slightly toward the screens on the right—"this won't be anything new, other than copying down different information than before. For the newer attendees, get used to it. You have no idea how odd it is to carry around six separate memories of this moment."

Behind him, Robbins watched the screens with fascination. He quickly decided, in the interest of preserving his sanity, to name the youngest version Chuck1, followed by Chuck2 and so on until he reached Chuck5, the only version he had had dealings with up until now.

"When I first found the time machine," Chuck5 went on, "I had no idea what to do with it. I couldn't sell it. I couldn't bring back extra mass. And I couldn't recruit any helpers because they'd probably just kill me for the device itself."

At the word "kill" the Chucks on the right nodded in placid agreement, while Chuck1 winced slightly and Chuck2 stared stonily ahead. Apparently it would take more than six months to get over Welken's murder.

"I tried the stock tips route, but somehow the immutability of time streams kept kicking in. I hadn't been rich before, so I couldn't suddenly become fabulously rich now based on any sort of steady accumulation of assets. Either my past self wouldn't believe me, or was prevented from completing the purchase, or sudden expenses cropped up that wiped out the profits."

Four Chucks nodded sagely in almost comical unison. Robbins stared at Chuck5's back in surprise. He'd never mentioned that particular effect before.

"I finally concluded that any wealth would have to accumulate after my use of the time machine in my native continuum. That, in turn, suggested the method of obtaining that wealth.

"But I still needed helpers. And I couldn't trust anyone with my secret. I couldn't see a way around that.

"Until one day I realized that I could make a gang out of myself."

He bowed toward the screens, that little "aren't I clever?" smirk on his face. The Chucks all looked slightly bored.

"So here we are," Chuck5 concluded. He turned and gave Robbins a bow this time. "Let's get started."

Robbins flicked on the projector and called up the first page. On four screens four heads bent over pads of paper, scribbling rapidly.

Robbins watched Chuck5. He paced the room, answering the occasional question in a confident voice. Once, their eyes met. The look of almost manic glee on Chuck5's face sent shivers down Robbins' spine and made him sleep even worse that night than he had the previous one.

* * *

The following evening Robbins climbed into his car and drove southeast, out of the city and into the industrial suburbs along the river. A light snow had fallen that morning, and the remnants sparkled and glittered in his headlights as he pulled off the main highway onto a county road lined with gravel pits and wetlands.

He turned into a long, winding entrance road. It cut through a screen of trees and frozen ponds before opening up on to the parking lot of a warehouse. Robbins drove around to the loading docks and parked near a back gate, the service road beyond wending off into the darkness along the river.

He took a pair of bolt cutters to the chain holding the gate shut, unlatched it, and redraped the chain loosely around the center posts. From a distance it should look securely locked, but it would open easily if he had to leave in a hurry.

Tossing the bolt cutters back into the car, Robbins headed across the darkened asphalt to the warehouse and mounted the stairs to the service entrance. As he reached the top step the door swung open, revealing a grim-looking Chuck1.

When you have a time machine that will deliver you to any coordinates you choose, locked doors and perimeter alarms don't mean a whole lot.

"Everything all right?" Robbins asked, frowning.

"Yes. I just—" Chuck1 stopped. "Well, you'll see."

He backed out of the way, and Robbins stepped through into light and noise.

The warehouse was big. Endless rows of shelving rose forty feet to the ceiling and stretched away into the distance, boxes of all shapes and sizes crowding every available inch. Robotic forklifts glided in and out of the aisles, invisible orders directing them to retrieve packages and deliver them to a conveyor belt that ran down the wall to the left. Windowed offices lined another wall, doors shut, their interiors dark and empty.

Except one. With a nod to Chuck1, Robbins crossed the floor to the foreman's office, dodging forklifts as he went.

The office was square and sparsely furnished, just a desk and a couple of chairs. One wall held some personal mementos while a large oil painting of a sailfish covered another. The desk's telephone, monitor and keyboard had been shoved unceremoniously to one side, clearing a large spread of desktop—a spread currently occupied by Chuck5's backside.

He looked up as Robbins came in, his face splitting into that broad and increasingly disturbing grin. "You made it. Everything go okay?"

Robbins nodded, glancing around. "Everyone accounted for?"

Chuck5's grin widened, eyes glittering. "Like clockwork. Chuck1 watching the back door. Warehouse crew locked in the sorting room, handcuffed, gagged and blindfolded, guarded by Chuck2. Chuck3 watching the front. Chuck4 monitoring the security cameras. You and me in here. Ready?"

"Sure." Robbins tried and failed to sound enthusiastic. The more time he spent around Chuck4 and Chuck5, the more they creeped him out. There was something about both of them that just felt wrong.

Chuck either sensed or remembered the hesitation, because the grin faded and his voice grew brusque. "Let's get it done, then. The sooner we finish, the sooner we can go home." He hooked a finger at the oil painting. "Get that down, then help me."

Obediently, Robbins stepped to the wall and carefully lifted down the massive picture, revealing the rectangular safe behind it. There was no keyhole, keypad or combination dial—just a handle recessed into the dark metal next to an inch-square button, in the center of which a red light blinked serenely.

Robbins stared at it. "What's that? Alarm?"

"An alarm is hooked into it, but no," Chuck5 said behind him, sounding like he was exerting himself. "Biometric lock. Fingerprints."

Robbins turned around. "Then how—"

He stopped, mouth open. Chuck5 had shoved the desk chair aside and was hunkered down, hauling someone out of the legspace: a short, obese man with a gag over his mouth and his hands bound in front of him. Both measures seemed pretty unnecessary, since the man was clearly unconscious.

Robbins forced his jaw to start moving again. "Who . . . ?"

Chuck5, breathing hard, finished freeing his burden from under the desk and paused, looking up. "The owner of the company," he said, jerking his head to indicate the warehouse they were standing in. Robbins looked vacant; Chuck5's expression turned exasperated. "The guy we're robbing?"

Robbins shook his head. "I know. What's he doing here?"

Chuck5's grin was positively feral this time. "Biometric lock. We need his fingerprint." He gave a flick of his wrist, and suddenly he was holding a nasty-looking knife, the blade clean and razor-sharp.

"Are you out of your mind?" Robbins blurted out. "What are you doing?"

A look of mild disgust crossed Chuck5's face. "I can't believe I used to be such a wuss," he muttered. He took a deep breath, exuding long-suffering patience. "Look, I know what you're thinking, so I'll save you the long back and forth. We need this finger"—he held up the unconscious man's right hand, tapping the index finger with his knife—"up there." He pointed the knife at the safe, which was a good six feet off the floor. "We can either try to lift him up, or we can take the finger. I've thought about it, and I chose Plan B."

He pulled a small white towel out of his pocket and laid it on the floor. Then he placed the man's hand on the towel and carefully extended the finger.

"Wait!" Robbins took an involuntary step forward.

Chuck5 looked up at him again, knife resting just above the third joint. "It'll take both of us to lift him up," he said patiently, as if addressing a particularly poor student. "You want to risk us touching just to save this guy's finger? Because I don't."

"But. . . ." Robbins didn't know what he wanted, but he didn't need another blotch on his soul so soon after killing Welken.

Chuck5 eyed him for a few seconds, then shook his head wonderingly. "Oh, for God's sake! Get out of here." He raised his wrist to check his watch. "Go check on the others. I'll take care of this. Come back in ten minutes."

Robbins edged toward the door. As he reached it Chuck5 called out, "Wait!"

Robbins paused, looked back.

"Don't forget to bring one of those forklifts with you."

Robbins nodded dumbly and backed through the door, slowing only to grab a cell-phone sized chunk of plastic off the desk.

That piece of plastic was the only reason Robbins was along for the actual heist. It would have been much safer for the job to be pulled off entirely by time travellers, leaving Robbins with a perfect alibi. But the remote controls for the forklifts fell into the category of "sensitive electronics," and they needed him—that is, someone not surrounded by a hydrogen bomb's worth of potential energy—to operate them.

The biometrics would open the safe. The forklift would lift out the contents, leaving no physical evidence of their presence. It was really nothing more than a high-tech smash-and-grab, but then Robbins was a freelance writer, not a criminal mastermind.

Outside the door he paused, then decided to check on Chuck4 first. But he didn't take the most direct route to the security station. Instead he wandered through the warehouse, taking in the spotless floors, the quiet efficiency of the robots, the myriad goods boxed and ready for transport anywhere in the world that a truck or plane could go.

The unconscious schmoe back in the office had spent his entire life building a business out of the efficient movement of other people's products. But the system was built like a house of cards: a slight hitch anywhere—a late plane, a missing order—could have ripple effects throughout the entire operation. There were redundancies built in, a lot of self-correcting processes. The system was, as Welken might have said, "resilient." But a big enough disruption, early enough in the process, could have massive effects further down the line.

As he passed through a section containing plumbing supplies, Robbins tried to imagine what sort of disruption this brief takeover was going to cause. An hour's lost work wasn't likely to be major. But the loss of the owner—currently alone with his disturbingly bloodthirsty future self—might well change the course of the entire company and many others besides. The rosy tomorrow they had envisioned when they went to bed tonight would have been wiped away by the time they arose tomorrow, replaced by a new and uncertain reality. But the economy as a whole would barely notice; in time, another company would rise to take the place of this one.

Such was the power Robbins held in his multiple hands. Welken had been half right; the "great man" theory was meaningless on the scale of human history. Take out Hitler and the Nazis continue; destroy this company and another takes it place.

But on the level of the individual, the "great man" remained powerful indeed. Take out Stalin, and he has no descendants; take out the owner, and his company fails, disappearing into the ocean of the future with barely a ripple.

When Robbins reached the security station, Chuck4 swiveled around in his chair, a comfortable grin on his face. "Couldn't stomach the blood, huh?" he said teasingly. Robbins didn't answer, so he shrugged and turned to look back at the monitors. "Go puke if you have to. I'll keep an eye on the office and let you know—"

The five-foot length of heavy pipe made a soft chunk sound when Robbins brought it down on his head. Chuck4 slumped down in his chair, a thin line of blood trickling slowly down his scalp just behind his left ear.

Robbins took the others one at a time. Chuck3 tried to run, groping in his pocket for the time machine; Robbins broke his arm with the first blow, snapped his neck with the second. Chuck2 was too distracted by his prisoners to notice anything amiss. Chuck1 looked almost grateful when Robbins ended their brief conversation by pulling out the pipe.

By the time Robbins got back to the office, Chuck5 had the safe open. The owner lay slumped on the ground outside the door, his hand wrapped in the now-bloody towel; his finger had been tossed on to the ground next to him.

"That was a lot longer than ten minutes!" Chuck5 growled, sparing Robbins an irritated glance. "What were you doing?" Before Robbins could answer he waved the words away. "Oh, never mind. We're running late; get that forklift in here and get the safe out."

"No problem," Robbins said, and stepped aside just before the two-ton forklift smashed into the office's glass wall at top speed. That speed wasn't much—twelve miles per hour or so—but then neither was the glass wall. The forklift blew through it and plowed into the desk, which slammed forward and pinned Chuck5 against the far wall.

That wall was made of sterner stuff, having been built to hold the safe; it yielded not an inch. Chuck5 toppled face forward on to the desk, howling in agony, every bone in his lower body shattered.

Robbins pulled out the pipe and gave him a good whack across the head; that put an end to the screams.

Using the forklift, Robbins hauled him out of the wreckage and carried him to a spot near the loading docks, dumping him near the other four.

Robbins backed the forklift up, killed the engine, and thought about what to do next. It would have been easier if there were an even number of them; he could have paired them off. Finally he used the forklift to nudge Chuck4 and Chuck5 to within a couple feet of each other, then picked up Chuck3 and raised him several feet off the floor. Hands shaking slightly, Robbins took a deep breath, gritted his teeth, and tilted the forks forward. Chuck3 slid lumpily off and fell on top of the other two. All three vanished with a silent flash.

Mildly surprised to find himself still alive instead of at the bottom of a warehouse-sized crater, Robbins wheeled the forklift around and nudged Chuck1 toward Chuck2 until they, too, vanished.

Robbins shut the forklift down and tossed the remote control away. He half-staggered across the warehouse, finally falling to his knees as reaction kicked in. He tried to rise twice, failed, and finally rolled over on his back and stared into the bright lights hanging from the ceiling above.

Welken's voice echoed back to him: When a time traveller comes into contact with himself the bubble of energy around him collapses, with the energy released almost equally into both time continuums.

But in the case of the five Chucks, none of the continuums was the present one. So Robbins was spared. For now.


Perhaps he had just committed delayed suicide. Perhaps in nine months he would find the time machine, and then three months after that he would disappear in an antimatter explosion while guarding the door of this warehouse. An explosion that would also dig a large hole where his house used to be. A hole that would get progressively bigger over the next four years as new explosions occurred at one-year intervals.

Or perhaps he had just wiped the slate clean, and was now free to chart a different course forward. Perhaps the future was easier to change than the past. Perhaps time travel, and what counted as "change," had a lot to do with your perspective.

Robbins didn't know. But either outcome was preferable to the slow-motion horror of knowing what he was going to turn into and hating it. At least this way he could say he tried.

The reaction weakness passed; his knees gradually stopped shaking. He got to his feet. Keeping his back to the still form of the nine-fingered entrepreneur, he walked over to the loading dock wall and pulled the fire alarm.

With a last look around, Robbins stepped through the door into the welcome relief of an uncertain future.

* * *

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