Glitches don’t happen nearly enough.
Usually it’s not so bad. An arm here. A foot there. Injuries easy to forgive but flaws hard for Rehabilitation to admit. They sweep it under the rug. Pull the traveler from the program. Tell the public it’s too many travelers in the system, too many for the program to handle, and claim the injury is justice for the remaining time owed Rehabilitation for their crime. The traveler’s sentence is up, and they get to go home.
Occasionally, glitches can be gruesome. A head. A slice through the torso. Skin turned inside out. Disappearance from existence altogether. To the public, irreconcilable behavior on the other side, Rehabilitation claims.
It’s a risk, Michael tells me, he’s willing to take.
I’m a technician. Most of my job is pulling the lever. But if there’s a problem—a glitch, a processing error, a weird noise—I get to open up the machine and look for the piston that misfired, the wiring that’s loose, the piece that’s jammed. I report the problem and fix it before it can cause something more serious.
But like I said, glitches are rare, the opportunities for sabotage minuscule. So Michael remains imprisoned, and I continue to spend my nights alone.
Much of my life before his sentencing contained the warmth of his body against mine in bed—shifts for technicians at Rehabilitation are too long to allow for many daytime activities during the week—and weekends walking the public museums and parks, Saturday nights playing sloppy-drunk pool with friends at the pub down the street.
Now my weekends are empty. Feet propped up on the coffee table. Beer in hand. Chinese takeout growing cold next to me. Old documentaries streaming on the television in perpetuity. Can’t go out with my friends without Michael. That feels like betrayal.
My dreams are filled with Michael and the lever.
That lever is the focus of my attention the majority of my days. Six hours pulling every fifteen seconds. A two hour break on which the day hinges, in which I can eat some lunch or, before his crime, rush home for a quickie with Michael. Six hours pushing every fifteen seconds. From 6am to 8pm every weekday, Rehabilitation rules my life.
A few years ago, I would have thought this job was made-up. Now it’s like I’ve been doing it forever. Every fifteen seconds in the morning, I pull the lever to send a traveler sixty years in the future. Every fifteen seconds in the afternoon, I push the lever to receive them back in the present. 1440 travelers I’m responsible for.
One of them is Michael.
Rehabilitation calls them travelers instead of prisoners, which is really what they are. They’ve been convicted of crimes—some more serious than others—and sentenced to however many years of Rehabilitation the judicial system sees fit. Five days a week for eight-hour shifts of hard labor sixty years in the future. Fewer hours than me. Much, much fewer. But I’d rather pull the lever than do what they do.
When Michael was caught, his lawyers told him not to say anything, so he didn’t. But at the courthouse, when I met with him privately before the trial, he told me the truth.
“I did it, you know,” he said. No flicker of regret crossed his gaze.
“I know,” I said. I didn’t care what he had done. Don’t care. He’s my husband.
They could have assigned him to someone else. There are twenty-four technicians at the Chicago Rehabilitation location. I know it’s random, but it feels like they assigned him to me as some sort of sick joke. Every weekday, I send him future-side at 10:13:15 am and pull him back at 6:13:15 pm. I see him for those brief moments, see his expression blank until he looks at me—then there’s only sadness in his eyes—and try to send him messages from my mind to his.
I love you.
Be safe. Don’t push yourself too hard. Don’t let yourself stand out too much.
I’m working on it. It’ll be soon.
But he never hears me, of course. His sad expression stays the same.
Visitation is once a week—Saturdays—for an hour. I go every time. That sad look is still there. He doesn’t say much, and I don’t blame him. I say a lot, and he probably wishes I wouldn’t. Though if it were me, I would want to hear his voice as much as I could. It would remind me that there’s still something good out there waiting for me. That there’s more to life than sleeping, eating, and working future-side. That there’s more to life than Rehabilitation.
To be honest, it would be nice to have that reminder now. When you’re wrapped up in Rehabilitation—and you have no husband or friends or hobbies or life—it’s all-consuming. All I think about is pulling the lever, pushing the lever, sending travelers future-side and pulling them back to the present. About what their work is like on the other side. About how hard it is and how easy I have it compared to them and how what we’re doing is fulfilling a destiny we know we have already fulfilled and how if we stop, there’s no telling what would happen.
Underpopulation is their problem, future-side; diminishing resources is ours, now. That’s the deal. They send us power created from their limitless, sustainable technology; we send them manual labor. Why not just send us the energy with nothing in exchange, knowing their future depends on it? Because, then what’s in it for them? They are human after all.
For the past fifty years, we knew there was a problem. But people continued to drive low-gas-mileage cars, to produce and consume items with plastic packaging, to leave their lights on for hours on end, to eat cows and drink milk and spray crops with pesticides. To reproduce and reproduce without doing anything to diminish the impact of their reproduction. Fossil fuel corporations continued to petition against regulations and to pay out the ass to stay obscenely rich. State governments continued to give less than two shits about infrastructure and water quality and air quality and trees. High-carbon-footprint buildings continued to be built. Carbon-removing forests continued to be chopped down. People pretended they cared. Governments pretended they cared. But the few people and governments who tried to do something were only met with more people, more demand, more chaos.
When the United States government was contacted by some representatives of a mysterious corporation from sixty years in the future, it was a fucked-up science-fiction dream come true.
Apparently, we will continue to drive cars and buy plastic and leave our lights on and eat cows for the next fifty years. People will die. Lots of people. Tsunamis, droughts, famines, hurricanes, genocides—you name it. We will continue to fuck up until we run out of both fuel and people, and until the idea of time-imported slaves becomes an idea we can get behind.
So here I am, fulfilling my destiny.
With Michael, I didn’t think about what I was doing too much. I pulled the lever. I pushed the lever. I came home to Michael. Not like it’s the most glamorous job. I had some reservations at first, thinking, Do I really want to be part of this system? Culpable for perpetuating a business that has kept certain groups of people oppressed for centuries? That saw my grandfather locked up for three years for a crime he didn’t commit? That involved strange technology and strange people we didn’t know we could trust?
But the alternative, was my thought process in accepting the position, is a future so bleak I won’t want to be in it. That or someone else pulls the lever and gets the health insurance.
This was before Michael’s sentencing. And well before he told me what was really happening on the other side.
When he told me, four visitations ago, that the future side was cheating, manipulating their more advanced technology to keep travelers several days at a time but making sure they still arrive on schedule daily our time, I was enraged. I wanted to report it to Rehabilitation immediately. But when he shook his head, dejected, I knew it would do no good. They might already be aware of the situation. Could be in on it, getting more, unreported energy in exchange for the secret extended sentences. Travelers are tools to them. No longer human beings once they’ve been sentenced.
They hide the glitches from the public. Of course they would be hiding other things.
It’s been eight weeks since our last glitch. A man came through with only half a body. Or rather, only half his body came through. The other half was left behind, sixty years from now, where the Rehabilitation staff likely gawked madly, just as they do present-side when something like that happens. We got his front half. A face so sad and exhausted, unaware of what had just happened to him it happened so fast. The shirtfront with his number stamped on it: Traveler 345682. The toe-end of his shoes, holding onto his ankles by hardly an inch of flesh. His back half we would never see. He’d be buried in two different times. Or burned. Let’s not kid ourselves; they don’t give glitched travelers an honorable funeral. They pretend that shit never happened, like farts in a nursing home.
The glitch didn’t happen on my machine. It was the technician next to me who had to deal with the consequences. A thorough search of the machine to find the wrecked part. Lots of paperwork. Staying late to make sure all the other travelers assigned to her made it through. I am not envious. I’ve been there myself.
And today, I’ll be there again.
It has to be today. There was a glitch on my machine. A man came through without his left hand. Spurting blood. Howling in pain. He grasped at it, the place where his hand had been a moment ago, and he fell to his knees as the blood poured through the fingers of his right hand.
A nice little severance for him.
Vi is next to me in a flash. As shift manager, she’s always on top of her game.
“Open ‘er up,” she says. Medics rush to the injured traveler’s side.
I pop open the panel on the back of the machine and reach my hand inside. I feel around. There’s a cable that’s come undone. It’s shimmied out of its plug.
“Left stabilizer uncorked,” I say. A glitch that has happened before on other machines, but not mine. A simple one, for both the technician and the traveler. We should both count ourselves lucky.
I grab the cable and slide it back into the plug, but I don’t slide it in all the way. In an hour or two, by the time it’s Michael’s turn to be pulled through, it will have shimmied out again.
Glitches are rare. To have two glitches in one day is unheard of. I’m risking getting caught. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take to get my husband back.
Vi takes a flashlight to the panel once I step away, double-checking my work. The shine reflects off the metal and back at me. She sees the cord that had come loose. She touches the base of the plug. She steps away and clicks off the flashlight.
“Alright. Close ‘er up. Have your report to me by tomorrow morning.”
I nod. I’ll write the report tonight, the nod says. And hopefully another report, too, with Michael’s name at the top of it. She didn’t see that the plug was still a little loose. She didn’t see my sabotage.
The medics get the traveler out of the frame in less than two minutes, just barely delaying the schedule. That’s how they do it. Get the traveler out of the way as soon as possible. Before the next one is sent through. It was only a hand. They’ll have it cleaned up future-side in no time.
It’s another thirty seconds after he’s away that my machine flashes the number of the next traveler. I push the lever.
I push the lever.
I push the lever.
I push the lever.
I push the lever.
An hour of pushing the lever goes by. Usually I would lose track of time. But my heart is in my throat. Sweat beads down my temple. I feel the gravity of every push of the lever. This could be the one. This next one could be the glitch. Hold out, hold out. Just another thirty-four pushes. Just another twenty.
Buzz. Hiss. Traveler steps away. Buzz. Hiss. She steps aside. Buzz. Hiss. A guard yanks him out of the frame. Buzz. Hiss.
Traveler 142648 incoming displays on the screen. Finally, finally. A number I’ve memorized. A number that dances across my dreams.
I push the lever.
There’s the usual buzz, then a clunk. The zap as Michael is sent through.
“Shit,” Vi says after a beat. “Got another one.”