I Am a Dream

Time travel experiments never seem to go smoothly, and it will take a team — and their love and patience — to heal one traveler’s wounds.


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A thousand bodies subtly shifted and swayed all around Amit. Though the sweltering summer sun threatened to grind them down, the spirits of those gathered soared in defiance of the August sun, men in dark suits and women in broad hats immune to the sweat pooling under their arms and trickling down their backs. After watching this speech 30 times now, this was what moved Amit the most.

This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.

In the air-conditioned glass dome in which he sat, Amit had no legitimate discontent except for the many tiny pins pricking the soft pads of his feet. The Klineboard had mapped every single nerve ending in his feet and staked its claim. The least the Avança Group could have done was make a massager out of the machine. Time travel need not be painful.

It was becoming a bit boring, though. Even the stories he had invented for the people around him had grown dull. The large woman in a gray dress: secretary to the superintendent of schools. She did not know her boss’s wife’s name because he never spoke of his home life, and this made her work day miserable, but she had heard others whisper behind her back about who could blame the poor man for protecting himself against the meddling woman. The two men snickering at each other: They will ride high on today’s speeches, but one of them will later get high on grass — that was what they called it back then; his boss will notice and fire him, his girlfriend will leave him and take up with the other man; alone, he will join the army and die in Vietnam. The little girl with her head hanging over her father’s shoulder, a sleepy wrist ready to drop her lollipop: She will become a lawyer with dreams of defending the disenfranchised, then turn to real estate and settle into a small fortune that will fizzle away in 2008. Amit had run out of stories for the rest of them, or he hadn’t cared enough to remember.

He tried to curl a toe upward. He could not even flex his foot, the Klineboard’s foot compression chambers were so tight. This was a small price to pay, seven minutes of air-conditioned inertia, to be as neutral an observer as possible, a blank slate, a camera obscura, so that thousands of people — maybe millions, according to the company’s best projections — could see the past for themselves, face to face.

That little girl should have dropped her lollipop by now. Amit watched her, waiting. She did not drop it this iteration.

Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

“Free at last,” he said, deflated the foot chambers, and slowly peeled his bare feet from the pins. It was not easier to rip them off all at once, despite what the others had kept saying.

* * *

You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Heather hated Amit’s constant complaints. She was unimpressed by his claim to be a “veteran of creative suffering.” The job was simple: 30 technically perfect iterations. The routine had become practiced choreography. That was what she saw in the 483 bodies she had so far numbered. Every movement, from this man clapping to that woman scratching her nose, had become the perfect choreography of fate.

Nothing had ever changed because it could not change, not if she were here watching 80 years later. Fate was robust. Fate was a rock. Amit had probably never seen the lollipop girl before.

Dr. Kline’s time machine was becoming the perfect scientific instrument for measuring human history. Heather could do no more than see and hear the world around her. No smell, no taste, and certainly no touch. Whatever swam through the ether on waves was what strummed the fine mesh of copper-uranium alloy that surrounded the glass dome and found its way to her feet. Through her feet to her brain the signal went, and from there, they said, it touched her eternal soul, the real conduit of time travel. In any case, she could not touch these people and they could not touch her. In 30 perfect iterations, seven minutes rehearsed in every muscle of her body, nothing out there changed. Not a single flap of a bird’s wing.

This was the perfection of it, that neither she nor anyone else could play god here. No more mere interpretations of the past. All could see it for themselves. No more secrets locked away by governments or wrapped in myth and legend by religion. Today it was Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963. Tomorrow it would be Dallas, November 22, 1963. And once Congress allotted enough electrical power for the immense temporal translation, it would Jerusalem, Year 33. It would be Atlantis. It would be dinosaurs. Science would be so much less speculation and so much more watching and sketching. Science would be so much less squirming and hedging and so much more sitting still, like she was now, in the serene contemplation of reality. It would be standing post on the castle wall of time, watching everything about the world around her change, except herself.

Heather leaned forward in her seat. “What the … oh, little girl, you better drop that lollipop soon.”

* * *

Joe liked Heather’s metaphors. Whatever it took to sit still for seven-minute increments and to keep Amit quiet through seven-hour shifts was fine by him. He would certainly appreciate it, though, if she sprayed whatever kind of spray it took to get the odor off her feet, or to keep that stink from wafting upward and filling this glass dome. Dr. Kline had forbidden a faster air exchange. People were going to pay a premium to watch Dr. King “live” and they did not want to hear a noisy a/c unit in the background.

For Joe, though, it was not choreography. It was music. These thousands of bodies gathered and swayed in rhythm to this maestro of a conductor. Every response, every nuance, every tremor, fingered the strings of this moment and yet were joined to the hand and arm and heart of a whole life hidden away elsewhere. A composer, even a rock star, when they wrote a seven-minute song, it was the distillation of a life, a soul frozen in time. Who knows, maybe there was some trace of the future in there as well, as if a songwriter entered into all time at once. Polyphonic prophecy.

Joe’s wrist buzzed. He had fallen asleep and his watch told him so. He rubbed his face, hung his hands from the back of his neck, and looked up.

The crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

“I wasn’t out that long.” He scanned the scene.

He could never keep a smile from creeping up his face when he watched the little girl resting her head on her father’s shoulder. She grew drowsy in the heat and not even a lollipop could keep her awake. There it was: her wrist began to falter and the lollipop bounced softy up and down until its inevitable demise in the grass. Amit and Heather would not steal this joy from him.

Joe waved to her.

The little black girl in a white dress slowly raised her head from sub-somnolent oblivion. There was a place between waking and sleeping Joe had long known well, a place where distant worlds spoke, as if in flashes of lightning across a darkened plain. He wondered what this girl saw as she roused herself from sleep. Her bleary eyes met his.

Joe pulled his head back sharply.

She smiled and waved her lollipop at him.

“Drop it, drop it, please drop it,” was all Joe could say.

The lollipop found the little girl’s mouth. Her father pulled her up a little and kissed her on the head. “Free at last,” the father said. “Come on, Clarice. Say it with me. Free at last.”

“Free at last,” echoed the little girl, unknown until this moment as Clarice.

Joe sat with his elbows on his knees, unable to look up. He waited for the applause to die down. The foot chambers deflated. He was free to wiggle his toes again. But Amit and Heather had been right. The little girl, little Clarice, did not drop her lollipop.

“Thirty iterations. All I had to do is plug these pins into my feet and fall asleep. But I waved to her. That’s all it took to break the barrier.”

* * *

“There’s no telling what did it,” Joe heard today’s test coordinator, Dr. Derek Wheeler, say. He was on the phone with Dr. Kelvin Kline.

Amit, Heather, and Joe sat shoulder to shoulder on a thin bench; this, the coffee pot, and the toilet comprised the only human comforts inside the trailer. The glass dome in which these time pilots sat took almost no room. The Lloyd II Supercomputer, used for tracking the Klineboard’s position through space-time in an expanding universe, was barely bigger than a filing cabinet. What pressed all of these bodies together into a breathless closet was the cold fusion reactor behind them, another gift of the copper-uranium alloy found by American soldiers at Chernobyl a couple decades ago. And now even the artificial light, suffused with the faint orange glow pulsing from a glass diode, was suffocating.

Joe leaned forward. Wheeler’s hips swayed only inches away.

“Can you confirm this?” Wheeler muttered. “Yes … Yes, code orange. Agreed. Already there.”

Heather groaned. Joe closed his eyes. They were not leaving this trailer. Not for a long time.

“Just,” Wheeler said. “Just … Dr. Kline, if you … I agree. Fully. But if you just hear me out …”

Amit reached across Heather and rubbed Joe’s back. Joe sat upright. Heather pulled her crossed arms forward and rested them against the arms of the men flanking her.

“All I’m saying, Kelvin, is if we’re still here, and you’re still there, everything’s fine. … Well, why can’t we be sure about that? We’re on the stinking phone together.” Wheeler hung up. He turned around and bounced his eyebrows at the three time pilots.

Joe’s face fell into his hands.

“It’s not your fault,” Amit said.

“No,” Wheeler sighed. “No, it’s not. This is why we test and retest. All possible variables.”

“What’s the damage?” Joe asked.

“To us or to the world outside?” Wheeler said.

“Is there a difference?” Heather asked.

“There is right now,” Wheeler said. “Kline wants a full scan.”

The orange air in the room hummed with three deep groans. A full scan was a line-by-line comparison of two copies of key portions of the internet made on January 1, 2034 — one held by the NSA and one held remotely by the Avança Group in the mobile trailer. This was near the date when Dr. Kelvin Kline’s project received funding, almost eight years ago. A full comparison would reveal alterations made to the past by time travel. It would take hours for the computer to make the comparison, hours before that for approvals to be given, and hours or days afterward for confirmations, approvals, and releases to be signed.

“At least we know how Schrödinger’s cat felt inside the box,” Amit said.

“Can I pee? Is that allowed?” Heather said.

Wheeler nodded. Heather stood up. Amit and Joe spread their legs.

“So, we wait while the world decides whether or not we exist,” Amit said.

“I exist,” Heather said from the toilet.

“Yeah,” Joe said. “Me, too.” He leaned his head against the fiberglass wall and could hear Heather’s pee trickling into the septic tank. No one would have to sign off on that. Only bodily waste was free to go.

* * *

Amit lay on the floor of the capsule between the folding seat and the Klineboard. The sloping glass served as a pillow at one end of his stocky body. His feet did not reach the other slope. With a coffee straw in his mouth, and staring upward at the dark ceiling of the trailer, he felt like Huckleberry Finn afloat on the Mississippi. It was a strange constellation above him. The glass dome surrounding him reflected only the edges of the equipment lit by the standby light of the control panel. The rectilinear forms of the Klineboard and the floor-mounted control panel, where they met the curved boundary of their universe, warped and wove into a spider web. That’s what the human body was for the spirit, a webbed prison. Perhaps that’s all form, when it grows big enough. Space itself was curved, he had heard someone say once. It folded back on itself. The universe itself was a prison. “A prison for the spirit. The soul, too, is a prison for the spirit.” Whispering this brought the sinuous lines of its truth into relief.

Joe was snoring on the bench. The poor man always had bags under his eyes.

It could be anything outside of the trailer, Amit imagined. Kline’s voice could have been a recording made by the machines that have taken over the world in the wake of Clarice not dropping her lollipop. Or by the aliens we had invited. Or those were Kline’s last words before the zombies ripped him to pieces. Or everything was the same, exactly the same, except for the Chinese flag flying over the Capitol and Mao’s statue right outside, or Xi’s, in place of Lincoln. Heather would moan, “I didn’t serve two tours in Taiwan just to open a portal for the Chinese.” We could fight the Chinese, though. Aliens were another story.

Kelvin Kline would soon delete the “story” from history. Everything would be facts. History would simply be “his” — or “hers,” for that matter, but best not mangle the pun. His, as in, belonging to each and everyone.

Joe snored himself awake. He should be sleeping in here, using the glass dome as a pillow, right next to Amit.

All our history was storytelling. If we took the story out of history, with what could we make up the future? This machine, for all its brilliance, could not reveal the future, and was it not the future that really mattered?

* * *

Heather sat on the floor next to the capsule with her back to the wall. She looked inside at Amit, who was lying on the floor and conducting some inaudible symphony with his fingers. Joe had the bench to himself and was snoring intermittently. Wheeler was slouched on the other side of the capsule.

Time was no longer a prison, or a prison march forward. A death march sapping body and soul of energy to save God the cost of bullets. We could play through time now. Time was an open field, a playground. At least until the bell rang and death called her students back to class. What is the present but the past grinding us against the future?

Every house, or least her house, would have a Klineboard closet. Memories would stop mauling her, barking at her in the middle of the night like a dog. Instead of popping a pill from the medicine cabinet, she would sit in the time closet. She would visit those memories and unchain herself from the dungeon wall with the key of facts.

Time travel would heal wounds. That was what she had wanted when she agreed to be a time pilot. She could not change the past but she could watch it. She could watch when her shells hit the Chinese infantry. No, even better than that, she could watch her friends Tibbets and Brown and Valdez as they died. She could kneel by them and pray. She could stand next to herself and tell that girl everything was going to be fine. She was going to live. The war would end.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

The war was still raging in this tiny trailer. A war against ignorance. Her very existence right here, right now, proved that whatever had happened, whatever had kept Clarice’s lollipop in her hand, there was a victory for fate. Kline had only prove it to himself. And to Congress. They wanted proof of victory on paper, signed and sealed. Their soldier’s breathing body was not good enough for them. She might have carried back the disease of another dimension. She might serve as a spy, planting fake news about the world where she only thought she was transmitting facts. But the truths of one world are the lies of another, even when they seem to share the same space. Only by proving that she and her team were not dangerous, that they had no power to alter history, that they would only slip unnoticed through their world, that they had no effect on the lives of others, that they simply went with the flow, that they were like children seen and not heard, only when their owners had neutered them would they be allowed to live freely again, free at last, free when given everything last.

* * *

Joe snored himself awake. He rubbed his face and looked around the trailer. Wheeler was hunched forward, asleep on one side of the capsule, phone in his hands. Heather, on the other side of the capsule, leaned her head against the glass. Amit’s head was right below hers, on the other side. It was almost a tender moment.

Someone had summoned the decency to cover the orange light with a sanitary sock.

Joe’s watch showed that five hours had passed. This was the third or fourth time he had awoke in the two hours he had been lying on the bench. Just like at home. The CPAP would work fine if he did not routinely take off the mask in his sleep. His sleep would then do what it was supposed to do, and not provide a noisy playground for dreams and images. Closing his eyes to this world meant opening them to another. People loved dreams until it meant mornings were more exhausting than the night.

It was little Clarice now. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw her. She saw him.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Was she taunting him with these words?

Joe woke up again. His arm had fallen off the bench. Only 20 minutes had passed since he last woke. Wheeler was still asleep. Amit was poking at Heather’s face through the glass.

Clarice Starling. That would be her name. Joe was the serial killer, the time cannibal. Clarice had been trained as an infant to recognize time cannibals and to follow them to their lairs. Her weapon: one lollipop. It was a lure. He was a ghost in her world. She was the ghost in his machine.

Joe’s hand hit the wall and he woke up again. Clarice’s smiling face fell away from him like a fish sinking back into the dark water. She had held that lollipop out to him and he had swiped at it like it were a sword. Another hour had passed.

Wheeler was texting. Heather was reading a safety manual. Someone’s pee was trickling into the toilet behind Joe’s head. That could only be Amit. No one had reacted to his hitting the wall.

Clarice was Joe’s prison guard. He was a time prisoner. The edge of sleep had become the wall of his universe and she was standing guard. She ran the lollipop along the bars of his cell. “Free at last,” she laughed.

“Free at last,” Wheeler said.

“What?” Heather said.

Wheeler lumbered upward and stretched. “Kline’s satisfied with the first scan. Committee gave verbal approval. Come on. Up and at ’em.” He clapped. “Go home. You’re getting a four-day weekend. Back here on Monday. Eat, drink, sleep, be merry. Rest up.”

Outside the trailer, Joe squinted in the late afternoon light. A cool breeze blew stale sleep off his face. He stood where Clarice’s father had held her. He bent over and rubbed the grass.

It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

The Lincoln Memorial was cast in shadow.

“Oh, look,” Amit said. “It could be anyone in there.”

“Doesn’t this break protocol?” Joe said. “One scan and a verbal okay?”

“Don’t you get it?” Heather said. “This is another layer of the experiment. We’re just test dummies. They’ll prod and poke us when we get back. We’re meat shields for time bullets.”

“That makes me hungry,” Amit said.

* * *

Late Monday morning, Joe sat with Amit and Heather on the thin bench. Whatever Heather was saying, she gesticulated, writing on an invisible slate in front of her, throwing her elbows up and down in front of Joe like a turnstile through which he could never pass. Derek Wheeler stood proudly in front of them like an old-fashioned father in his knit sweater, arms crossed. Kelvin Kline grinned and nodded like a terrier before a descending food dish. Joe’s eyelids hung like thick blankets. His eyes were dry pillows.

“Nature is robust,” Kline said. “The ship righted itself. It’s like a bicycle, you know? It stays upright so long as it’s on course. One little lollipop couldn’t knock us over.”

“What do you say, Joe?” Wheeler asked. “Your three videos this morning show exactly what we saw in the previous eighty-nine iterations.”

“‘Lollipop, lollipop, oh lolli lolli lolli lollipop,’” Amit sang.

Joe shrugged. “Yep.” His hand tightened and he remembered he had a mug of coffee in it. It was cold, milky, and sweet, which meant that someone had made it for him without asking how he liked it, or if they had asked, he had forgotten to respond. “What was the question?”

Kline cleared his throat. “We tracked down every Clarice born between 1959 and 1963. Our little Clarice, Clarice Bowman, née Palmer, is rather alive, going on 83. She was a nurse practitioner for many years. A bundle of grand-babies.” Kline made a little clap.

“Rather alive?” Joe said.

“Alive and well,” Wheeler interrupted. “Uh, right. I think we’re all a bit exhausted from our iterations.”

Joe gripped the coffee mug to keep awake. He was not sure if the others were still talking or not.

Amit reached across Heather to pat Joe’s leg. Heather removed the arm.

“I’m not so sure about nature,” Joe slurred.

“What’s that?” Wheeler said.

“That it’s robust. Is Kline here or did I just imagine it?”

Kline prefixed a subtle laugh. “I’m right here. In the flesh.”

Joe found Kline and spread his eyes wide enough to take in his thin, pale, flaky flesh. “I’m not so sure we should be talking about nature. Doesn’t nature move time forward? Aren’t we breaking the laws of nature? Don’t our eternal souls serve as conduits?”

Kline cleared his throat, but said nothing.

Joe leaned his head against the wall of the toilet. “All I’m saying is that there may have been an outside influence.”

Heather snickered. “Oh, did God come to the rescue and knock the lollipop out of Clarice’s hands this iteration?” She swiped at the air. “Rrrr, thou shall not eat lollipops.”

“Heather, please,” Wheeler said.

“Not God, I think. I don’t know. Maybe. All I know is that I was there.” Joe let his eyes fall shut. “Look, honestly, I haven’t really slept since Wednesday. I’m just thinking nonsense.”

Joe heard only his own nasal breathing. He curled and stretched his toes. Whispered sounds pulsed from Heather’s lips toward Kline and Wheeler, and sounded like “PTSD.”

“Why don’t we all get a little sunshine and fresh air?” Wheeler said.

“Yes, let’s,” Kline said. “We can address Joe’s issues in private evaluation.”

Wheeler sighed.

Joe, with his eyes still closed, smiled at the sound of Wheeler deflating. The test supervisor had been trying to avoid saying exactly what Kline had just said. He opened his eyes and looked at Kline. “Why don’t we talk about my issues right here?”

“Joe,” Kline said.

Heather put a hand up to Kline, stopping some kind of assertive bend forward. Heather nodded at Joe. “No,” she said. “No, here is the place.”

“You see?” Joe said. “This is what it feels like, inside me. This trailer. Bodies are stuffed inside, all shifting and swaying, and Clarice walks out between them all, holding that lollipop out to me. Whether I’m awake or asleep, it’s all the same. I don’t know which world is real anymore, this stuffy trailer and the sunshine outside, or Clarice Bowman née Palmer, August 1963. She’s still alive, sure. Eighty-three years old. But somewhere, and not just in her own memory, she’s always three. That somewhere is right here.” Joe tapped his skull.

“It’s also possible that performing 33 iterations of the same event has simply exhausted you,” Kline said. “We got 98 of our 99 iterations from the three of you to match exactly. In some way, the uniqueness, stress, or simple fatigue of this rendered one instance differently. We’ll just have to — ”

“And the one?” Joe yelled. “Who falls through next time?” He pounded the wall. “When ticket holders come through the turnstile, will one out of a hundred leave forever attached to the place they’ve been?”

“That’s why we run these tests,” Wheeler said.

“What did you mean by saying ‘I was there’?” Amit asked.

“I think we should stop all this and take a break,” Kline said. “We’re in no condition to evaluate the situation.”

“Let him talk,” Heather said. “He has to get the raw experience out.”

“We’ll get clearer data after Joe sleeps a little,” Kline said.

“That’s funny,” Amit said. “Heather said experience and Dr. Kline said data.”

Joe said, “What I mean by saying ‘I was there’ was that it was me. I knocked the lollipop out of Clarice’s hands.”

Kline clasped his hands at his waist. “In these dreams, or …”

Joe shrugged. “What’s the difference now? That’s my point. Every time I close my eyes. I’m there, standing right behind Clarice and her father. It’s me. I knock down the lollipop. It’s me every time. I’m there right now and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to leave. If I’m ever going to sleep again. You talk about a ship righting itself, well, I’m the rudder, and I’m being held under the water to keep this ship aright forever.”

Wheeler was rubbing his hands and made as if to say something, but did not.

“That sounds a lot like memory,” Heather said. Her elbows were locked as she stared into the floor. “A rip in space-time and a wound in the body seem to do the same thing. Lock us into memories.”

Amit cleared his throat. “Time heals all wounds, right?”

* * *

Heather returned to Joe’s bedside at Avança’s Washington office, a coffee in her hand, light and sweet. Dr. Kline came in with her. Wheeler and Amit were still there.

“He’s sleeping comfortably now,” Kline said.

“We hope,” Heather said. “All of the wires plugged into his head will tell us.”

“He’s on enough medication to ensure deep sleep,” Kline said. “Once he wakes up we’ll have a better idea of what he meant by knocking the lollipop out of her hands.”

“You mean, once he turns his story into history,” Amit said.

Such a moment of forthrightness surprised Heather. “What if he’s right? What if he is somehow linked to the past?”

“That will certainly be a new avenue for discovery,” Kline said.

“And it will certainly be the end of your capital funding,” Heather replied, surprised, now, by her own forthrightness.

“You all don’t have to stay here, like he’s a wounded soldier or something,” Kline said. “He’s only sleeping.”

Wheeler turned his head. “If the man is being crowded in his dreams, it’s the least we can do to be a steady presence, to tell his senses where reality is. In the end …” he tapped the rail of the bed.

“In the end, what?” Kline said.

“In the end,” Heather said, “You sent us in together. You think it is our feet and our souls that get us through time, but Joe made another connection. The four of us, we’re one body now. We have to work together, pray together, struggle together, to free him one day from the past, or if the past won’t go away, to be like Wheeler said, always present.”

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  1. Outstanding. Couldn’t put it down. You can read this over and over and get something new to you each time
    Well done.


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