If you had the chance to total your ex’s car with no repercussions whatsoever, would you take it?
Ever since Vince found that damned photo—and he thought he got rid of everything, the question had never left his thoughts. Sure, next week he would be rich off horse races and lottery winnings. He’d have more in cash than his ex could ever comprehend, but the satisfaction of seeing her panic over her car, headlights shattered and hood dented? That’d be priceless.
And there would be no repercussions. No drawback, no jail time, none of that. He’d get to total the car, and she’d still get to keep it in whatever condition it had been in before. She deserved it, too. Writing such a heartfelt note on the back of the photograph and then going out of her way to cheat, ruining the relationship.
Vince awoke to the sound of his alarm at two-thirty in the morning.
He would freshen up, grab his baseball bat, and drive to his ex’s house. He’d spend a good ten minutes getting some home-run swings in on her windshield and wing-side mirrors. After that, he'd wait for her to come out and panic while he hid in his car, then travel back in time an hour—as much as he could with the old device—and turn off his alarm.
Therefore, his past self would never wake up. He’d never get up to find his old baseball bat in the closet and then wouldn’t go on a drive to smash the car. Would his present self then cease to exist? After nights of staying awake thinking about it, he could finally test the theory with the satisfaction of totaling his ex’s car.
Vince grip-taped the handle of his bat and practiced a few swings in his apartment. He grabbed his keys and the antique pocket watch off the counter, then took the stairs down to the front doors. He pushed them open, stepped out, and breathed in the fresh air. Today would be a good day. Scratch that, a great one.
A bloodied man stumbled up to him. Vince raised the bat to swing.
“Travel back,” the man mumbled, “go turn off the alarm.”
He froze, dropping the bat to the concrete. Was he looking at himself? Blood plastered the man’s face, dark red scabs of it under his nose and ears. A bruise swelled on his forehead, along with several thin cuts over his nose. Vince could spot glass shards in the man’s hair.
His hair. Slicked back like it always was. And his leather jacket, both cuffs now reddened by blood.
It meant something went wrong with his plan. How?
“What happened?” Vince asked.
The man stopped for a second, then froze, his worried eyes now going blank.
“What happened?” he said.
“What happened?” Vince repeated.
“What happened?” his future self said without a trace of emotion.
Vince couldn’t break his gaze with himself. He repeated the words ‘what happened’ until they talked over each other like a pair of broken records. The apartment doors opened behind him, and footsteps tapped against the concrete.
“Feedback loop, Clara. Taze him.”
“Forgot my…uh,” she laughed, “look at him go, Khal! Haven’t seen tech this bad in ages!”
Khal sighed, then shot his taser. The prongs hit Vince in the back of his neck and electricity crackled across the wires. It sent him to the ground, where his head hit and bruised against the stone, his body spasming. Vince watched through blurred vision as his future self snapped out of the daze and took off down the street.
“That’s when we’ll catch him,” Clara said.
“Uh-huh, just need to lead up to it,” Khal replied.
- - -
Clara sat in the passenger's seat and tipped her flask to her lips. The alcohol tasted like hand sanitizer. Cheap vodka that could get her through to the next paycheck. But the taste and all that didn’t matter! It clouded her thoughts, and she didn’t have to think too hard. She adjusted her seat and kicked her feet back. The to-be time traveler rested in the backseat.
“Khal,” she said, “don’t be too in-depth, I don’t carry enough to make me drunk, but what was a feedback loop again? I didn’t know tech that bad still existed.”
Khal tapped his fingers on the steering wheel as they waited at a red light. They took a right turn and drove down a quiet highway en route to a warehouse where they could extract to HQ.
“Hey, did you hear me?” She tipped back her flask again.
“Listen, Clara,” he said, “he would’ve disrupted his existence if I didn’t get my taser out in time. If you keep drinking-”
“Yeah, yeah, you’ll finally report me. And those illegal jumps you’ve been making? Neither of our hands are clean. Now,” she sat up straight and dropped the empty flask to the floor. “It’s been ages since the academy. Explain to me this feedback loop.”
“Him in the back there,” Khal said, his eyes flicking to the rearview mirror, “ran into his future self. He questioned what went wrong, and every thought that led up to him becoming that future self became muddled. Since the only thought his past self had was, ‘what happened?’, his future self could only think the same for the moment. It would’ve gone that way until his future self no longer existed.”
“Hm.” Clara leaned against the door and watched the wing mirror. One car drove behind them. “We couldn’t have left him that way? To phase out of existence? It’d save us some trouble.”
“Then none of the events tonight would’ve happened. We would’ve disrupted the natural timeline.”
“Of course!” Clara said, “our number one motto! No matter how tedious, or how many lives we take, we can’t disrupt the timeline or else that dreaded scary butterfly effect will…” she trailed off, watching the wing-side mirror. The car behind them accelerated with a roar.
“That’s him?” Khal asked.
“Yeah,” she said, “brace for impact, idiot’s going to crash into us to get himself out. Probably have to let this happen.” Clara turned around to face the man in the back seat, who stirred awake. She threw him the key to the handcuffs. “You got some nerve,” she continued, “thinking you can crash into us.”
The car behind them slowed down.
“Clara, he knows now!”
“Good! Swerve and crash into him-”
Khal twisted the steering wheel, the tires screeching against the road. Clara reached for their to-be time traveler’s possessions: an android phone, and an antique pocket watch with one too many buttons—a cute way to travel through time. She threw them back to him. He would need his keys for his car…
Oh, right. She had left his car keys on the ground at his apartment.
The two cars collided on the highway, and the airbag pushed Clara’s head against her headrest with enough force to knock her out.
- - -
Vince shook off the shards of window glass in his hair. Blood dripped off his face from a loose puncture. He undid his cuffs—the drunk cop had given him the keys for some reason—and grabbed his phone and the pocket watch. The side door hung loose on its frame, and he only needed to kick it open to crawl out. The car had flipped in the crash and he survived, thank god. He owed a drink to the man driving behind them.
“Freeze!” the other cop yelled. Vince stood and turned to him, but the cop aimed his gun at the other car—a Mercedes like the one Vince himself owned. Except nobody sat in the driver’s seat. Vince didn’t have the time to think about it. He set the pocket watch to one hour in the past, as far as it could go, and hit the side button.
The air distorted around him. His head spun like a child’s toy. A stream of blood trickled down from his ears, and Vince dropped to his knees on the highway one hour in the past. He waited a few minutes for the wave of nausea to pass before calling an Uber. He could get back in time, turn off the alarm, and none of this would happen. Theory tested and everything—next time, stick to simpler stuff like the lottery.
Yet it took the Uber half an hour to get to him, and a half-hour drive to his apartment. By the time they parked across the street, he could see the two versions of himself caught in the feedback loop.
“What happened?” Vince whispered as he stepped out of the car, watching his two selves repeat the words.
“Buddy,” the Uber driver said, “are you good?”
The driver shook his head and took off.
“Feedback loop, Clara,” one cop said across the street. “Taze him.”
“Forget my...uh,” the drunk cop laughed. “Look at him go, Khal! Haven’t seen tech this bad in ages!”
Vince watched as the taser struck himself. He then felt himself snap out of the loop, his thoughts clear once more. The future version of himself took off down the street while the cops watched the first Vince squirm under the taser’s voltage.
“That’s when we’ll catch him,” the drunk one said.
“Uh-huh, just need to lead up to it.”
Vince stood in the shadows as they cuffed and dragged the limp body of his past self into their car. He had to stop them. He couldn’t charge them. They carried guns—they were cops of some sort. Didn’t have the typical uniform, but acted like them nonetheless. He had to…
Crash into them. That’s how he freed himself earlier, and now he had to return the favor. Then he could travel back an hour and stop the alarm from going off! Genius plan! And to think the drunk forgot to pick up his keys.
Vince wiped the blood from his ears. One drawback of the pocket watch. He grabbed his keys off the pavement and froze. Why not travel back now and turn off the alarm? He snapped open the pocket watch and pressed the side button, to no avail. Neither of the hands ticked. It needed to cool down.
For now, he had to save himself or he would not exist, and his past self would go to some sort of jail.
Two cars beeped as he pressed down on the key’s unlock button—his Mercedes in the apartment lot, and the faint noise of one further off. Vince tightened his seatbelt, then turned on the ignition. He drove the same route as the Uber driver did, this time noticing a totaled car the exact make as his own parked halfway onto the sidewalk. No time to think about doubles. He shifted gears and sped down the road.
A ten-minute drive caught him up to the cops. He slowed down behind them and watched the scenery from the corner of his eye. He’d need to crash in the same spot as before, right? It’d be the spot where his past self would—eventually—be curling over, waiting for an Uber driver.
The Mercedes accelerated with a roar. How did he crash last time? Their car flipped, didn’t it? He didn’t want to kill himself doing this. He braced his head back against the headrest, his fingers tense against the wheel.
Right! The drunk cop had said something as he awoke last time. Something about how they knew he’d crash! He pressed down on the brakes and watched the ticker on the speedometer drop. The car in front of him swerved, crashing into his hood, the impact smashing his windshield. Loose shards of glass sliced at his face.
Vince shook off the ringing in his ears and ducked under the withering airbag. He flicked open the antique pocket watch, clicking the button over and over. Neither of the hands ticked. It still needed to cool down.
“Freeze!” One cop yelled at him.
Vince set the pocket watch forty-five minutes back. It still needed to cool down. “Work,” he mumbled, “damn it.” He set it to a half-hour, pressing buttons he didn’t understand. The pocket watch rattled in his palm. The air distorted, and a deafening pop sounded in his ears. Nausea hit him like a semi-truck as he jumped back in time.
He threw up over the deflating airbag. Blood gushed down his nose and pooled in his ears. He wiped the cuffs of his leather jacket over his face and they came back drenched.
The Mercedes’ clock read 2:18 A.M in red digits.
Fast. He needed to go fast to stop himself. Fast enough and he could turn off the alarm. Worst case, he could get the first version of himself to travel back and do it.
Nausea rolled through his system in waves.
He swerved the car, broken glass raining down on the asphalt, and slammed his foot down on the gas pedal. He raced past the damned Uber driver. Vince coughed up wads of blood over his hands—he had never jumped twice in an hour. His head couldn’t stop spinning, and the car’s motion did not help.
Any more and he’d crash. Be dead for sure. He pulled the car over, parking halfway on the sidewalk, five minutes away from the complex. Too late to reset the alarm—but he could still stop himself if he could get himself to listen! Half sprinting, half stumbling led him to his past self, who walked out of apartment doors with a bat in hand.
“Travel back,” Vince said, “go turn off the alarm.”
The man in front of him froze. The bat dropped to the concrete and rolled onto the grass. His past self looked him over. The bruise on his forehead. The windshield glass stuck in his hair. The blood plastered under his nose and ears. Vince couldn’t find the words to explain-
“What happened?” his past self asked.
Black spots crept in at the edges of his vision. His limbs numb and cold, he could no longer move or think for himself. He repeated the words as he thought them.
“Feedback loop, Clara. Taze him.”
“Forgot my…uh,” she laughed, “look at him go, Khal! Haven’t seen tech this bad in ages!”
The taser struck his past self in the neck. At that moment, freedom of thought and movement returned in one warm flash through Vince's body. He took off down the street. He’d find a safe spot to hide at while the pocket watch cooled down, then finally travel back and turn off the damn alarm.
He stopped to rest one hand on a streetlight, the silver glow stretching his shadow across the road. He flicked open the pocket watch and adjusted the dials. If he couldn't turn off the alarm, he could instead stop himself from attempting to stop himself. It'd prevent everything from happening. One more trip back could fix things.
Two shadows approached behind him.
“Drop the watch or I will shoot,” Khal said.
Vince pressed down on the buttons, to no avail. It needed to cool down. He dropped it to the asphalt and raised his arms above his head. The drunk cop approached—he could smell the cheap vodka on her breath—and cuffed him. She patted him down and found his ex’s photo in his pocket.
“That car crash could’ve killed us,” Clara said, “but we do it all for the damn timeline! I can't wait to see you behind bars.” She flipped the picture over in her hands, reading the back. “What’s this? A love note?”
“The reason,” Vince said, “all this happened. Found it in my apartment a week ago.”
She stuffed it in her pocket and looked over to her partner.
“I guess we're the ones who have to put it there,” Clara said, stretching her arms out behind her. “Looks like we have one more trip to make, Khal.”