Part 1: The Seamstress of Elevator Row

The commercialization arm of Dr. Quine’s laboratory occupied the Pillar of Glass on the corner of elevator row. Of the three massive structures that occupied the block, it was the smallest. The laboratory proper was the largest, fashioned entirely of stone and occupying the opposite corner of the block. Offices and administration units occupied the building that sat between the two, sculpted in brushed-metal that was difficult to look at when the sun shone. All were part of the University of Warner, and overseen by Dr. Quine, its most famous and profitable scientist.

Dr. Quine had name recognition with the worker drones that padded up and down the sidewalk below his buildings. His face flickered on billboards and screens in deeply saturating advertising campaigns. “Live the life of your desires but keep the one you have,” had been internalized, subconsciously if not overtly, by anyone who lived in the city.

Wemly worked public relations for Dr. Quine, who hadn’t particularly liked the advertising slogan when Wemly first suggested it. He said it sounded like an ad for your existing life, which was the precise opposite of what they were selling. To which Wemly had replied, “Exactly.”

People wanted a reprieve from their life, but had built up family, friends, and careers that most wouldn’t permanently abandon. There had been loads of psychological research backing up the sentiment before the campaign launched.

In the end Dr. Quine had nothing to do but silently admit he was wrong—something Wemly wasn’t sure he was capable of—and count his money. And Wemly was supremely adept and wringing money from the people who didn’t even know they were harboring the messaging of the ad campaigns.

It wasn’t odd for scientists at the Quine Institute to commercialize their offerings, but none had been as lucrative as the Escapement Mechanism. Wemly ensured smooth interactions between the science and the public, which usually meant a heavy emphasis on style over substance, despite the science being the breakthrough discovery of the century.

This afternoon she would be pulling another time thread loose, and seamlessly integrating it back into the timeline of origin. A stitch job that had been nerve wracking at first, but now was so easy she wondered why she had ever been anxious. The machine did all the work. She was just a glorified babysitter, albeit well paid. What she was really doing was spinning the exorbitant sums invested by the day’s clients into the experience of their lifetime.

Wemly didn’t work out of the top-floor corner office per se, but it was used to present value for the dollar being invested by the clients. Its two exterior-facing walls were a single piece of curved glass. Its floors were dark and polished extinct hardwood, which supported chairs of a contemporary low and wide style in matching blues and oranges, upholstered with dyed animal skins purportedly obtained before the practice had been outlawed.

Wemly walked a quick circle around the room, ensuring it was ready for the day. A soft and pleasant musical motif drifted in from the reception area, indicating the lift from the lobby was in use. Wemly straightened, smoothed her dress, and walked into the foyer to greet her guests.

The receptionist desk sat between the lift and the corner office, and was staffed by an undergrad, Wilson, who dressed the complementary part to Wemly, hinting that indeed things were not the same as the world that had been left behind on the ground floor. Today he was in a tight white shirt that emphasized his gym habit, with black athletic pants that were formal from a distance, but obviously not so when he moved from behind his desk.

Wemly usually opted for a cocktail dress, but one that also hinted at possibilities. Today she was wrapped tight in one of the new synthetics that had become popular, its green dynamically colour-mapped directly from her eyes, which shimmered as she moved, the shades of her iris bleeding into one another. The clients needed to empty their minds of what they thought was possible.

The joke among the research team—if that’s what it was, people contained multitudes after all—was that both Wilson and Wemly were among the top of their respective classes, but played the obliging servants to their clients. Wilson was a fourth year with near perfect grades and two research internships; Wemly was finishing off a postdoc that she hardly needed now give the windfall her current gig had given her. But clients wanted to feel like they were in control, so lab coats had been shed for attire more suited to a night club, and their demeanor shifted so that others could believe the staff at Quine Laboratories existed simply for their whims and pleasure.

It was what Quine sold, and in a strict sense it was true.

Today’s clients exited the lift. The founder of a technology company, eager to have even his limited reins removed from reality, and clinging to his arm, who Wemly could only assume was his mistress. Wilson ushered them both into the large corner office. The nameplate on the door read, “Commercialization Room”.

Stephen Praher—“Call me Steve”—had a full head of short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, and was shorter than both Wilson and Wemly, but slightly taller than who he introduced as his girlfriend, Julia. She looked to be half his age, and the way she so overtly demonstrated affection practically screamed, “I’m being paid”, but Wemly had seen stranger behaviour in the lead-up to a loop, and presumably during one too.

“So I won’t remember any of this?” asked Steve.

“No,” replied Wemly. They all asked the same questions.

“But it will definitely happen?”

“Yes.”

“How can I be sure?”

Wemly pointed to the six scientific papers—all in Nature, with their work lovingly photographed on the cover of the first—that had been framed and hung among large-print animal art on the wall behind her. “The very fact you’re here means you’re at least passingly familiar with the science.”

Steve nodded, and then decided that this knowledge needed to be demonstrated. “Where’s my half of the particle?”

Wemly motioned to the oak desk under the art. At its center was a polished silver sphere the size of a basketball that glowed faintly blue, resting gently on a stand made to resemble two metallic hands reaching through the wood. Like the entire endeavour, the sphere was artifice hiding science. It had been commissioned to hide the mundane chipsets, magnets and wiring. At its core sat a super-cooled Nako reactor that emitted a low-spectrum blue light, which the artist had allowed to escape through 2056 pinpricks evenly distributed across the surface of the sphere.

Wemly detached two identical looking bracelets that clung as if by static force to the surface of the escapement mechanism. Both were a single piece of smooth black polymer, identical except for the half of the tachyon coupling captured in the crystal in the center of the band. They were naturally colourless, but the one Wemly slipped over her wrist before it automatically tightened emitted a constant green glow, while Steve’s was a burnt orange.

“That’s it?” asked Julia.

“Nearly,” said Wemly. She motioned to the contract on the table. Steve nodded and pressed his thumb into the glass. Wilson began a series of questions.

“What is your name?”

“Steve.”

“Full name.”

“Steve Praher.”

Full name.”

“Stephen Andrew Praher.”

“Good. What day is it.”

“Tuesday.” Steve hesitated, anticipating a follow up. “Tuesday, August 29th.” When Wilson didn’t continue, he added, “2033.”

“Good. Have you every committed a crime?”

Steve didn’t answered. He licked his lips. “Are we in the time loop yet?”

“No,” said Wilson.

Steve swallowed. Shook his head emphatically, “No.”

“Have you ever wanted to commit a crime?”

Steve smiled at the question. “It’s not a crime if it’s in the loop, right?”

Wilson simply repeated the question.

“I’ve wanted to explore all capacities of human existence,” Steve said, opening his arms and taking in the room.

“Me too babe,” Julia said, and squeezed his shoulders.

“Good,” Wilson said. “Do you consent to the Terms of Reference of the contract?”

“I do,” said Steve. He pressed his thumb into the glass of the tablet once more. There was a flash of green light indicating personal consent and financial validation. Julia looked nervous, but pressed her thumb all the same.

“Nothing to worry about babe—costs are all mine,” said Steve. Julia leaned in for a kiss, as if completing a rite at the end of any conversation that indicated her obligations to his financial outlay.

Finally, Wemly pressed her thumb into the contract, and in response, a small red circle materialized on the very top of the escapement mechanism. She pushed it.

“When will it start?” asked Julia.

“It already has,” Wemly said. She held out her bracelet next to Steve’s. They both showed identical integers, counting sequentially in lock-step from zero, one every second.

“So we can do whatever we want now?” Julia asked. She seemed to still not believe it.

“Anything not explicitly forbidden by the contract, namely personal injury to the staff at Quine.” Julia was clearly nervous, but Wemly had well-established protocols to rely on.

Steve interjected. “But, if I were to say—punch you in the face—that wouldn’t have happened in the original timeline, right?”

“That’s correct,” said Wemly. “But it would have happened in a timeline, and our employer respects us whether or not we happen to be in a time thread.”

Steve got a strange look on his face. “But you would never know, would you?”

Wemly imagined she had answered this question thousands of times. “No, once the thread is seamlessly integrated, there will be no memory of it, as strictly speaking this is an alternate time loop, that though seamlessly integrated, does not constitute the main fabric of time. We are essentially a loose thread—dangling, technically connected, but not part of the main fabric.”

Steve drew back his hand to throw a punch at Wemly, but it was caught by Wilson before it could get close. Steve tried to hide his surprise at the speed and distance Wilson had covered.

“We take the agreement seriously,” Wilson said, pushing Steve back into Julia’s worried embrace.

“I would have pulled it anyway,” said Steve, but he didn’t sound convinced himself.

Wemly checked her bracelet. “The world is literally yours to do with as you wish, for the next 10,702 seconds.” To emphasize her point, and to help break the social taboos, Wemly nodded at Wilson. He walked to the corner of the room and picked up the sledge hammer resting conspicuously in the corner. He walked calmly to the South side of the curved window, and sent the hammer flying though it, like a baseball player letting go of the bat after a swing.

The noise was loud, and sent fragments of glass back into the room—some even to the doorway—but what surprised Wemly most was the gust of hot air, a sustained wind, that ruffled her clothes and had her swiping her hair out of her face. The sounds and stench of the city leaked into the room: garbage that had been sitting in the sun all day, exhaust, and fried food from the vendors below.

A car alarm from where the sledge had landed. Cries of concern from the people below.

Steve and Julia just stared for a moment, but it seemed to remove a blockage in their brains. Without words, in what must have been agreed to in advance, Steve ripped Julia’s shirt open from the front, sending buttons to scatter with the glass on the floor. In another moment, Julia’s large breasts were swaying as they ran into the lobby. They tried for the lift, but had to wait, repeatedly jamming the button.

Wemly knew she would be embarrassed in the same situation, but Steve and Julia seemed invigorated. By the time the doors to the lift opened, Julia was completely naked and Steve had his hands in publicly inappropriate places.

Wemly stood next to Wilson, peering down through a portion of intact window, watching until their clients exited the building. Some part of her couldn’t believe it was actually happening, but she assumed it always felt like this. The impossibility of knowing what had happened was the biggest drawback to her. What was the point of something—arguably the most vivid experience of your life—if there was no memory of it?

This was the point detractors of Quine and their research inevitably seized upon. One she agreed with. But despite her personal philosophy not matching the company’s marketing campaigns, she did not concur with the scientific attacks that were leveled against it, and it was her job to publicly defend and promote the science behind the business. To rebut the claims that nothing actually occurred and people were paying for a fiction; that a quirk of physics was being used to gaslight people into thinking they had experienced anything at all. Wemly patiently explained the physics time and again, but it was like trying to argue someone out of their religion.

Their detractors would always complain, but there were enough people willing to pay for the experience that business was more than booming. Since Quine had launched interaction with the escapement mechanism to the public, it had become the fastest growing company in the country. Wemly had seen bonuses equal to her previous yearly salary at the close of each of the last three quarters. She still hadn’t adjusted to having money, so it mostly just sat in the bank. She was still a postdoc.

The sidewalks were busy, and an unmoving crowd had gathered around the car with the sledgehammer sticking out of the windshield. People shielded their eyes and were pointing up at the broken window. Wemly wondered if they could see her through the glare and reflection.

As they watched, the crowd’s attention divided between the scene Wilson had caused, and a naked woman striding confidently out of the building. They gaped, and then Steve pushed a man near the edge of the sidewalk out in to traffic. A bus hit the brakes, but not before it connected with the man; it was hard to say whether he had been killed or not, as the bus completely ran him over before it stopped and the body was no longer visible.

Another set of cries rose form the street below. A string of unlikely events unraveling before the uncomprehending crowd. Most people stood still, shocked, some noticing for the first time Julia’s state of dress. None moved to apprehend Steve, perhaps mistakenly thinking it had been an accident. And why would a woman be naked in the street? Perhaps Steve and Julia were the ones who needed help.

This notion was decidedly settled when Steve punched the nearest passerby, an older lady, who crumpled to the ground amid another chorus of surprised cries. Steve had obviously had some training in a martial sport, and seemed to realize it wasn’t a great idea to hang around a mob that was fractions of a second away from turning on him, now that he had verified himself as a villain. He pulled Julia by the hand through the tight crowd, people giving way to the unlikely pair, and soon they were around the corner of the brick building across the street and out of sight.

“Probably nothing new for us to see here,” said Wilson, coming up behind Wemly to peer over her shoulder.

“All in a day’s work,” Wemly agreed.

“Do you think we every do anything that we wouldn’t normally do?” asked Wilson. He was close, and though his breath was hot, it raised the hair on the back of Wemly’s neck.

“I imagine so,” she said, freeing her shoulders from her dress.

“That’s what I thought,” said Wilson. “I wouldn’t pass up an opportunity.”

And he didn’t.

“When will it start?” asked Julia.

Wemly checked her bracelet. “It’s finished.”

Julia stared back disbelieving, then turned to Steve. “Do you believe this shit?”

His expression matched Julia’s words, but he checked his bracelet against Wemly’s. A difference of exactly 10,800 seconds.

“I knew to expect this,” Steve said. “But still.” He shook his head. “What did I pay for exactly?”

Wilson smiled knowingly. “The best three hours of your life.”

“If you say so,” said Steve.

“I do,” said Wilson. “And maybe the vivid dream you have tonight won’t be entirely in your head.”

Steve grabbed Julia’s hand and made to leave, but Wilson stopped them. “The bracelet.”

“Right,” said Steve, and tossed it onto the table with all the reverence of a broken toy.

“We appreciate your business, Mr. Praher,” said Wemly. “Please recommend the experience to others considering the option.” The hardest part of the job was talking about the delicious sandwich everyone had just enjoyed, when all they could remember was the bread.

Steve grunted something in response that probably meant, “Not in your fucking dreams,” but the institute’s research showed it happened 23% of the time; Steve himself had been recommended by a previous customer.

Julia pointed to the corner of the room. “What? I didn’t see that when we came in. Has it been there the whole time?”

“Indeed,” said Wilson. “The sledgehammer is part of our protocol.”

Steve and Julia contemplated what that could mean, but all Steve managed in response was, “Huh.” Then he pulled Julia through to the lobby and the two disappeared into the lift.