You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance

The smiling Time Pocket receptionist showed Disa into the waiting room. It had sofas and leather recliners, a free bar where discreet white-coated staff poured tiny measures of top class spirits, and tables laid out with finger food: miniature scones and delicate cucumber sandwiches cut into crustless triangles. It evoked a sense of separateness, of floating in a stream cut off from the rest of the world. A kind of civilised timelessness. Which was, Disa supposed, the point.

That was why they were there, after all. Timelessness. To have less time. No—to have had less time. A small but very important distinction.

She accepted a glass of Scotch from one of the discreet young men in white and stood at the bar. She wasn’t supposed to be drinking, but then she wasn’t supposed to be doing a lot of things. Not least of which was coming here. Her daughter would be furious, if she knew. But Claudie had been in a state of repressed fury ever since Disa’s decision to stop treatment, so there would be nothing new there.

Claudie had been particularly enraged about this place. Unnatural, she called it. Which Disa could understand, in a way, but so were a lot of other things. Chemotherapy, for example. And the Pocket had been discovered, hadn’t it, not invented? It wasn’t man-made. So didn’t that make it natural by default?

Semantics, Claudie would say, with a dismissive curl of her lip. Claudie said most things dismissively, especially when she was speaking to Disa. Or about her, and her foolish, selfish choices.

Disa took a sip of her Scotch. It burned her lips, and tasted of ashes. She slid it back across the bar and the young man tipped it away without a word. Wasteful, she was. Claudie said that a lot, too.

She wastes, she is wasting, she has wasted, she will waste.

Or will she? Maybe. Maybe not. Nobody knew. That was also the point, wasn’t it?

Twelve months, you got. Or lost. You went in the Pocket and you came out either a year younger, or a year older. There was no way of knowing which way it would go, but that didn’t stop people from trying to work it out. There were systems aplenty, out there. Books that listed mathematical formulae based on your age, mass, height and star sign. Crystals that influenced the geothermal vibrations of the Pocket. Or, for an appropriate donation, previous clients—who were now clearly attuned to the wavelength of the timestream—would channel their energy on your behalf.

Clients like Mrs. Jaclyn Castleton, from the Isle of Wight, who’d gone through the Pocket fifteen times in a row, and went backwards every time. Fifteen years taken off, just like that. Her book, Twenty-Five Again! (a combination of autobiography, gambling addiction memoir and self-help guide) had recently hit number one on the USA Today bestseller list, even though everybody knew the title was artistic licence because her ex-husband had uploaded her birth certificate and proved she’d actually been forty-one that first time, not forty. But twenty-five was clearly a catchier number and who was going to quibble about a single year?

Well. That was the question, wasn’t it?

Claudie, for instance. Claudie would quibble. Claudie would—and did—talk a lot about confirmation bias, and how Disa was only looking at the statistics that backed up what she already wanted to believe. About how there was absolutely nothing anyone could do to influence the outcome of going into the Pocket, no matter what all the books and testimonials said. That the crystals and flower essences and channelled energies were nothing but a waste of Disa’s money. Which, by extension, was Claudie’s money.

Foolish. Selfish.

Disa helped herself to a cucumber sandwich, but it tasted of cardboard. Slightly smoked cardboard, thanks to the memory of the Scotch. It made her feel like she’d licked out a fireplace.

She stopped chewing and looked at the bartender. He looked back at her. Would he hold out his hand and let her spit the unwanted food into it, take it back as easily and smoothly as he had the drink? Probably. It seemed like that sort of place. And he seemed like the kind of man who took last requests.

Disa swallowed her sandwich.

‘I have three months to live,’ she told him. ‘Stage four lung cancer. If I go in the Pocket and it takes me back, I get fifteen months. A year and a quarter. If I go again, it’ll be two and a half years. That would probably be enough to catch it. Neuter it, before it got its claws in. Then I’d have, who knows? Twenty years to live. Or thirty-five, if I do a Jaclyn. Or I could get run over by a bus next Thursday. Or, if the Pocket takes me forward a year, well.’ She shrugged.

The bartender watched her impassively.

‘My daughter, Claudie, thinks this is a very bad idea.’

‘What do you think?’ he said.

She shrugged again. ‘I think thinking is over-rated. I think cucumber is a very pointless vegetable. I think I’d like a vodka.’ Vodka was supposed to be tasteless anyway, wasn’t it? No loss, then.

The bartender poured her an inch of clear, slightly oily-looking liquid over a couple of ice cubes. She brought it to her lips, and wasn’t disappointed.

‘The problem is,’ she said, ‘that my life insurance policy has a clause. An addendum. It considers use of the Pocket reckless endangerment. They don’t like the odds, you see. So if I go in, and it takes me forward, they’ll say that was a deliberate act on my part. I will be the author of my own misfortune. And they’ll cut the payout to my beneficiary. My daughter. Claudie feels that would be very unfair.’

The bartender topped up her vodka without being asked. ‘What do you feel?’

She looked up at him. Was he a robot? The conversation had that generic quality she associated with telephone switchboards. Would you like to be connected to the complaints department? Can we provide a quote for any of your other insurance needs? I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that response.

Did they have robots that sophisticated, nowadays? Maybe. If you could travel in time—well, in a small, localised pocket the size of a cupboard, at least—why couldn’t you have robot bartenders, too? It made sense. As much as anything did, anyway.

She patted his hand. It was very firm. And warm. The marvels of modern technology. ‘Thank you,’ she said.

He smiled. ‘You’re welcome. I think they’re ready for you now.’

Disa looked behind her. The door was open and the receptionist was gesturing for her to come through.

She took her phone out of her bag and checked the display. Fifteen missed calls and ten text messages.

‘It’ll be best if you leave that here,’ the receptionist said. ‘The Pocket doesn’t tend to be kind to electronic equipment, I’m afraid.’

The calls and messages were all from Claudie. They always were.

‘It’s all right,’ Disa said. She slipped the phone back into her bag and clutched it to her chest. Tucked safely inside, she had her copy of Twenty-Five Again! and a deluxe package of crystals, personally energised by Jaclyn Castleton.

‘I’m happy to take my chances,’ she said, and followed the receptionist out of the room.