Reality 284

                                               Sunset Season

                                 Time Machine Proliferation

     Of what practical use is a Time Machine?

     I mean actual use, not hypothetical. Time Machines exist, and they are being used for only one practical purpose.

     You may think that purpose is to Visit the Future and find out what is going to happen.

     But you would be wrong.

      You cannot Visit the Future. There’s nothing there. If there was, you would not be able to change anything because the Future would have already happened, including your Time Travel, so there would be no possibility of change. It’s not practical to find out the future if you can’t change it. Traveling there would not be worth the trouble or expense.

       The only practical use of a Time Machine is to Visit the Past. But for what purpose?

                 To observe the Past to find out what really happened?

                 To correct your mistakes and make yourself a better


                  To correct the mistakes of others and bring justice to


        These are noble ideas, but they’re beside the point. No practical person Travels in Time for these purposes.

        You may start off with a lofty goal such as these, but you will find your noble intention crimped by the necessary expenses of Time Travel Technology. Visiting the Past is not cheap. Who’s going to pay for it? Investors want to turn a profit. The temptation to use your Time Machine to increase your wealth is unavoidable.

        A Time Machine is a genie. You may think you have three wishes, but you will discover that every wish depends on having plenty of cash. To achieve anything through Time Travel, you will have to use it to Change the Past for profit. You’ll run out of funds if you do anything else.

        The trouble is there are consequences. One significant Change in the Past leads to a million changes in the Present. Multiply that by the number of greedy people in the world, and you may begin to see the scope of this problem.

        If Time Machines are plentiful, Time Travel and Time Machines will be illegal. That’s not going to stop greedy people from Traveling, of course. Naturally, the Time Criminals will form a Syndicate to coordinate their Changes so they lead to maximum profit and don’t cancel each other out. The result for us in Reality 284 is that a major Change of Reality happens every 2-3 weeks.

        That may not sound like a lot to you, but believe me, putting up with this much change does not make life easy for common, law-abiding people.

        I should know since this is my story.


                                    The Seven Dangers

     There are dangers, dangers all around us as my brother Barlow and I walk down the sidewalk of Locust Street in Harrisburg, Illinois. But we can detect no immanent threat.


                                 Danger #1: Timestorms

     The latest Timestorm ceased hours ago, and there won’t be another for two to three weeks, unless the Time Syndicate decides to make a sudden unexpected Change in the Past, which is always a possibility. I glance at my Wristwatcher, but it isn’t flashing a warning. It looks like a simple wristwatch to the Bystanders.


                                  Danger #2: Bystanders

     There are no Bystanders near us, though of course, they surround us on all sides. I haven’t found the Locals particularly threatening in this Reality, despite it being a Dark Season. This new Reality does not seem as hazardous as the last. The Bystanders still believe God intends to end the world soon. At least they don’t dress in sackcloth like the Locals of Reality 283. The ones we spot on the street look almost normal—for funeral goers. The problem is Barlow and I do not look normal to them. Our clothes are Anachronisms, and that means we’re in Violation of the Forty-Second Directive, and we need to do something about that right away, which is why we enter the Salvation Army Thrift Shop.

     Stares are not good when you’re a Longtimer from a Lost Reality in Time. You need to blend in, slip by unnoticed. So you need to dress like the Locals.


                                      The Thrift Shop

     The store has no other customers at this hour, maybe because February is a slow month for the thrift business. The Bystander behind the counter stops folding and pricing clothes to stare at us. She’s chubby with a pug nose, and she’s wearing a long gray dress that looks like a uniform and probably is since she’s in the Salvation Army. They try to be literal about their figures of speech in the Sundance Season.

     “We’re from out of town,” Barlow tells her, which doesn’t even begin to explain us. “Out of state,” he adds.

     Far out of state. Really far out.

     She frowns at us. She’s trying to figure out where we’re from. Europe? Canada? The Nut House? We came here on the Metro from the big city of Shawneetown, of course.

     “We’re Amish,” I explain. “We’re on Rumspringa.” Now Barlow is the one frowning and staring at me.  He doesn’t tell lies, so of course, he doesn’t talk very much. So I do most of the talking for us. We’re too old for Rumspringa, but I’m hoping the clerk doesn’t know that.

     “You don’t seem Amish,” she says.

     “No one on Rumspringa seems Amish,” I tell her.

     The Salvation Army folks are usually willing to help you if you get on their sympathetic side. That’s why I like to introduce myself. “Hi. I’m Dexter Vann. And this is my brother Barlow.”




        She nods to us. “I’m Beatrice. What can I do for you?”

         “We need some clothes, something ordinary so we’ll fit in and people won’t stare at us.”

     Beatrice seems willing to buy my story for the time being. She narrows her eyes as she appraises me. “Take off that vest,” she says. “You look like Wyatt Earp, the frontier marshal.”

     So I unbutton my vest and slip it off.

     “Those black jeans are all right,” she tells me. “And that white dress shirt. But those cowboy boots—“ She shakes her head and looks at me. “Where did you get those? No one’s worn boots like those in forty years.”


     She blinks. “Is this a costume?”

     “Yeah,” I tell her. “It’s a costume.”

     She takes me over to the shoes, so I sit on a chair and try some on until I find a pair of black loafers that fit. I stuff my vest and boots into my backpack.

     “Are you a hiker?”

     “Yeah, that’s right.” I jerk my thumb at my brother. “Have you got anything that will fit him?”

     Barlow raises his arm like a crossing guard. “Not me. I’ve got a whole apartment full of clothes a couple blocks from here.”

     I roll my eyes. He has on neon green sneakers, gray sweat pants, a t-shirt, and his crimson and black letter jacket from Shawneetown U (which doesn’t Exist anymore). He’s carrying a rucksack.

     Beatrice squints at him. “What in the blazes is that costume?”

     I start to laugh, but my brother doesn’t think it’s funny.


                                      My Brother Barlow

     I don’t expect you to care about my brother, Reader. You never knew him back in Reality 250, when he fit right in and always knew the right thing to say and the handy thing to do.  You never knew him when he had perfect judgment and understood everyone and everything. He never sat down with you and listened to your problems and your hopes and concerns. He never patiently explained things to you and gave you advice and encouragement.

     Why should you care about Barlow?

     You weren’t there seven Seasons ago when he lost his karma as a result of the Changes in Time. You didn’t see the confusion on his face when suddenly nothing made sense to him. He searched for that inner voice that always guides him—and it wasn’t there.

     Things are changing—people, customs, places, values. Everyone he’s ever known has been Wiped Out of Time except his family. He lost his friends, his job, his co-workers, his mentors. Now sometimes he can’t make a decision.

     Barlow fights back. He tries to return to his old self. As each Reality progresses, he accumulates a little karma. He pretends he knows what he’s doing and has confidence. He acts like he’s still in Reality 250. That doesn’t work, but it’s the best he can do. He got his karma back a couple Realities ago, but then he lost it after the last Change. It could come back again. You never know.

     Why should you care? You’re not one of the hundreds of people he rescued or helped. His commendations as a police officer have been Wiped Out of Time. So has his badge and job. No one remembers anything he did. Those people are gone. Those situations never happened. Barlow’s credit with the universe has been erased.

     I’m the only one who knows better, besides my brothers and sisters. I try to treat him like the old Barlow. It’s hard because he doesn’t understand these new Realities or make the right choices anymore.  Every decision is a blunder. I’m not doing much better. The right thing to do has become an opinion. You never know when you’re in danger, so you’re in danger constantly.


                                     Danger #6: Finances

     I take a couple Bystander fives out of my wallet. They have Teddy Roosevelt’s portrait on them instead of John Adams’s. I hope they’re still good. A Change of Currency tends to happen only when there’s a Change of Seasons, but you can never tell. These bills are from Reality 283, and the serial numbers are not going to jibe, but I’m hoping otherwise they’re passable.

     I hand them to the Salvation Army woman. She doesn’t inspect them closely, just takes them up front. She motions to me from the cash register, and I’m afraid she’s noticed something hinky about them.  I figure I’ve just got to bluff my way through it, so I go up front and raise my eyebrows like I’m Little Orphan Annie.

     “I don’t know where you’re from,” she says to me in a low voice, “but I can recognize a couple nice guys who are down on their luck.”

      I don’t know why she thinks we’re nice. Probably because our hair is combed, though it’s not parted in the middle like the Sunsetters’.

     “Your brother can’t even afford Thrift Shop clothes, can he? But he’s too proud to admit it. That’s why he made up that story about having an apartment.  You don’t have to explain to me. I’ve seen it before. I’ve known people who have to wear whatever they can scrounge. I know he wouldn’t dress that way if he had any choice.”

     I have to suppress a guffaw. Wait until I tell our brothers and sisters! They’ll have a good laugh at that. It just goes to show you we look just as strange to the Locals as they do to us.

     She holds one of the fives under the counter. “Give him this. Tell him you found it on the sidewalk. I know a couple poor unfortunates when I see them.”

     She feels sorry for us! Like we’re the Bystanders.

     I want to be polite, so I take the funny money back from her even though I won’t be able to get even a buffalo-head nickel for it from the Time Bank this late in the Season.


                                     Alternate Residence

     Barlow and I leave the shop quickly, ready to run in case she realizes the bill I gave her is an Anachronism and starts squawking about it. I scold my brother as we go on our way.

     “You shouldn’t be visiting your Alternate Residence, Barlow. You know the Dangers of Alternate Life.”

     “My Alternate’s clothes will fit me,” he says, “and they’re free.”

     It’s hard to find anything at a Thrift Shop in his size—because he’s huge. We ought to go to a Big and Tall store, but they’re hard to find, and Barlow doesn’t want to blow his cash on a new wardrobe. We’re Rookies, not Newcomers. He should know better.

     But he won’t listen to me. He’s stubborn, like the rest of my family.

     “I won’t pay attention to anything in my apartment,” he declares. “I’ll just pop in, grab some clothes, and pop out.”

     I groan. “That isn’t going to protect you.” I should just refuse to go, but I know then Barlow would go without me, and he can’t cope with these new Realities. They’re like finding yourself in a foreign country with laws and taboos and unwritten rules that everyone obeys but we don’t even know about. We don’t know anything about our Alternate Selves’ lives, about their friends or their enemies, about their commitments or problems or choices.

     When I was a Newcomer, I couldn’t understand why Alternate Life is so dangerous. “It’s a huge distraction,” I was told, and we can’t afford to be distracted. We need to be constantly alert because our Survival depends on it. But there’s more to it than that. Alternate Life is full of snares and traps and nasty surprises. Even the nice surprises are a problem.

     Alternate Life undermines your morale and sabotages your motivation. You end up fighting your Alternate Self’s battles and leading his life instead of your own.

     Barlow and I continue down Locust Street to Webster and turn left. There are a couple brick mansions to our right on Poplar and a brick church on our left. Even a lot of the streets are made of bricks.

     I take my binoculars out of my pocket. Barlow calls them “opera glasses” because they’re so small. I scout out his apartment complex a block away on the corner of Poplar and Granger. That’s when I spot the lookout sitting on the bench at the bus stop in front.


                                     Danger #3: Timecrimers

     I stuff the binoculars in my pocket, and we dodge traffic as we run across Poplar Street. We’re going down to Church Street to approach the apartment complex from behind on McKinley.

     “There’s a Void Pirate staked out in front,” I tell Barlow. “Sitting on a bench at the bus stop.”

     He doesn’t want to hear that. “It could just be one of the Locals waiting for the bus.”

     I give him my shut-up-you-moron look, eyes glowering beneath my brow, my mouth an upside down U like a sad clown.

     “He’s dressed in black like the Night People of Moonglow, and he has facial tattoos from the Sideshow Season.”

     It’s ​The Fiend, no doubt about it. A stunning Anachronism like us. Catterus and his gang are planning to  ambush us.

     “We can go around him,” Barlow says.

     “That’s not the plan.” We’ve run into an unexpected contingency, and I don’t like it. We’re not prepared to battle Pirates. We need to abort and get the hell out of here. But there’s no changing Barlow’s mind once it’s made up. He’s got to pretend he knows what he’s doing. Otherwise, he has no self at all.

     So we walk down Church Street and turn up McKinley. We get cagey as we approach the apartment complex from the back. We creep up fence by fence and bush by bush and when we reach a small parking lot, car by car. Like we’re doing surveillance on an enemy camp.

     This is a bad idea.

     The apartment complex is comprised of four different buildings—A, B, C, and D. Barlow’s apartment is in Building D.

        Catterus has been hunting us since we crossed him in The Common and one of his crew got killed. It was an accident, but he’s not a forgiving kind of guy. Or a forgetting one. He’s never going to get over what happened back in Moonglow or Valediction. He could have the entire gang waiting in ambush.


                         Danger #7: Yourself and Your Bad Ideas

     We’re the real problem for ourselves—the biggest Danger to us is stupid us and our stupid decisions.

     We creep up to Building D without incident. The complex is five stories high, and the buildings look like sandwiches of floor-length windows between rectangular walls of tan bricks. There’s no additional stakeout that we can see. So we go to the door to Building D, and I insert the lock pick I got from my brother Cooper.

     Inside the door is a lobby with a wall of flat mailbox fronts to our left, each with a keyhole in it. We check the one for 46D just to make sure we’ve got the right place, and I see the name “B. Vann” on the mailbox but also the name “A. Walters.”


                                                    A. Walters

     “Hey, Barlow, your Alternate has a roommate.”

     He comes and takes a look and shakes his head. “I don’t recognize the name.”

     We stand there, staring for a few seconds. A roommate—one of the Dangers of Alternate Life.

     “Maybe he’ll be at work now,” Barlow declares lamely.

     I just want to hit him. “Yeah, and maybe he’s a gun nut like you, and he’ll start firing when we break into his apartment.”

     Barlow scowls at me. “We’re not leaving now. Not after all the trouble we’ve gone through to get here.”

     Bad idea. Coming here was a bad idea. We ought to leave right away.

     But we stay, of course. Barlow heads for the stairs, and I’ve got no option but to go with him because he can’t navigate the B-World on his own.

     There’s no one staking out the hallway—the place is deserted. So I knock on the door to apartment 46 loudly, but there’s no noise from within.

     So far, so good.

     So we reach for the door.


                                Our Errand Blows Up in Our Faces

     The only problem is the door is ajar. That’s our first indication that something is wrong. We look at each other with widened eyes. I want to leave, but Barlow, like the big dummy he is, pushes the door wide open and walks in. And that’s when we get the second indication that something is wrong—because we’re assaulted by this animal odor. A slaughterhouse smell.

     I guess you could say the third indication that something is wrong is the blood on the walls. And the fourth indication is the smears of fingertips in the blood to leave us a message:


                                        YOU’RE DEAD, VANN

                                            I’LL FIND YOU


     We freeze, and Barlow blanches. “Catterus was here.”


     Our plan is blown to hell.

     We ought to leave. We ought to run and keep running into the next Reality. But having come this far, Barlow’s not leaving without some clothes. So he passes the kitchen and breakfast table and heads down the hall. There’s a bathroom at the end with doors to bedrooms on the left and right. Barlow takes the right bedroom, and I take the left.

        I’m still trying to figure out whose blood is on the walls. It can’t be from Barlow’s Alternate Self because his Alternate doesn’t Extend into the Present. Barlow is that Extension.


                          A Nasty Surprise in the Bedroom

     Inside the left bedroom is a king-sized bed with rumpled bed sheets containing a pair of yellow pajamas. This must be where Barlow’s Alternate was when the Time Change started. He Disappeared in the middle of the night, leaving his pajamas behind. But the closet is full of women’s clothing.

     The pajamas and the closet aren’t what stops me dead in my tracks, though. I recoil because I stumble over the body of A. Walters laid out on the floor with a big gash in her throat, next to a huge pool of blood. It hasn’t dried yet, so we must have missed Catterus by less than an hour or two.


                                           The Roommate

     She’s wearing a blood-soaked nightgown, but what makes it obvious she’s a woman is she’s got a figure like my sister Belinda’s. And a face like Belinda’s, too. At first I think it’s her, but it couldn’t be, because we saw her this morning. Looking closer, I notice the nose isn’t quite right and she’s taller than Belinda. There are probably other differences, but I’m in no mood to keep staring at her pale, blood-drained face.

     I guess it’s clear now what Catterus is going to do if he catches up to us.

     I feel like I’m gonna be sick, so I go into the bathroom and throw up into the toilet. Barlow comes out of the other bedroom with a stack of clothing.

     “I found my clothes. My Alternate must be out of town because—“ He looks at me. “Are you all right, Dexter?”

     “No.” I wipe my chin with a towel. “Let’s get out of here.”

     I’m in no mood to explain anything to Barlow, how his Alternate is shacked up with someone who looks like his sister and Catterus cut her throat just for spite. So we leave—finally. Barlow stuffs his clothes in his rucksack, and we creep out the back of the apartment complex and down Church Street toward the post office. I have to pause and throw up again into some bushes, but Barlow is all chipper. He thinks we’ve succeeded in our errand and there will be no consequences.

     “See? I told you it’d be a piece of cake.”

     If by cake he means a cake of plastic explosive, he’s right.

     “Don’t tell Amos we came here,” I growl at him as we pass Webster Street.

     “Came where?” Barlow says.


                                Gunfight on Church Street

     Neither of us wants to hear a lecture from our older brother Amos about how stupid we’ve been. Of course, our stupidity so far is nothing compared to what happens next. Because The Fiend jumps out from behind a bush and points his D-Blaster at us.

     “Catterus wants to talk with you.”

     “Like hell,” Barlow cries, pulling his own gun.


                           Danger #4: The Fourth Dimension

     Getting knocked into the Void of the Fourth Dimension is more lethal than a bullet. You’ll die faster from suffocation and exposure than from a gunshot wound. And the Bystanders can’t take you to the hospital if your body is in the Void. You can’t even Reinchronate unless someone drags your frozen carcass back into the 3-D World.

     Barlow and I dive to the side, me left and him right because a fireball flies from the D-Gun and sails across the street like a comet. It hits a bush and sends it into the Fourth Dimension right in front of a crowd of onlookers outside the post office. That’s a Violation of the 42nd Directive. But the Pirate has already Violated it with his tattooed face, so what the hell, right?

     I can hear the whine of the D-Gun recharging as Barlow tackles The Fiend, and his D-Gun goes flying.  Barlow slugs him, using the guy’s head as a punching bag. Whappatta, whappatta, whappatta. But I pull him off.

     “Come on. We’ve got to get out of here before the Bycops show up.”

     I notice the Bystanders in black mourning outfits across the street, staring at us. They’ve got their phones out, and they’re taking photos and calling the authorities. So Barlow and I hurry away from there. We can hear a siren in the distance. The Void Pirate has Disappeared—and so has his weapon. But we still run because the Bypolice are nothing but trouble to Longtimers like us.

     “What are we running for?” Barlow says, out of breath when we get to Poplar. He bends over, his palms above his knees. “Our victim is Gone. What crime could we be charged with?”

     He actually thinks the Bycops are going to let us go. So I have to explain to him there’s a dead body in his Alternate’s apartment.

     “Who do you think they’re going to suspect for the murder? You the roommate—or some Pirate we tell them about from the Fourth Dimension?”

     He avoids looking back at me as I stare him down.  “How are you going to explain removing your clothes from your apartment? It’ll look like you’re on the lam. They’ll hold you in a cell while they gather evidence against you. You’ll be locked up when the Timestorm comes in two weeks, and you’ll get torn apart atom by atom.”

     He doesn’t say anything, so I grab his arm and pull him with me along Poplar Street to the subway station across from the courthouse so we can catch a train into Shawneetown.

     “We’ve got to call it in,” Barlow says. “We’ve discovered a dead body.”

     “We’re not calling it in, Barlow. We already know who did it, and the Bypolice can’t catch him. Not when he can go into the Fourth Dimension.”

     Calling the Intertime Police would be a waste of time, too. They don’t care if some Bystander has been killed. Billions are killed every time the Travelers Change the Past, and they’ve Changed the Past more than 284 times.

     Barlow has to think it over. He just can’t stop being a cop. “Not reporting it is against the law.”

     “That’s Bystander laws, Barlow. They don’t apply to us. Or the Void Pirates.”


                              Danger #5: Other Longtimers

     We’ve been followed by a group of Bystanders dressed in sack cloth with rope belts. But they can’t be Bystanders if they’re dressed for the last Reality. These are Newcomers, wandering around without a clue. I groan inside because I know Barlow and me are hardly better than Newcomers ourselves.

     There are three of them, two men in beards and a woman in a white head scarf. They’re probably a family. Their gray-haired companion wears a black dress and veil like the Sunsetters. She must be their Sponsor.

     “You’re the Vanns!” She’s recognized us—that is, our Alternate Selves from an earlier Era. I guess she’s hoping we can protect them.

     “We’re just Newcomers like you,” I tell her.

     She doesn’t believe me. She’s heard stories about our Alternates. We used to be the scourge of Death to the Crimers before Catterus’s gang Wiped us Out of Time.

     We’re back now.

      These Newcomers have some cockamamie notion that we’re romantic figures. Romantic, my ass.  Dodging Time Changes is NOT romantic.  It’s a Death World, and we are not equipped to deal with it.

     We’re only Rookies, Reader. We’re barely past the Newcomer stage. We’re still learning the ropes. We’re just getting our bearings. We aren’t dangerous.



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