A Matter of Time

          A high-pitched whine jolted Samantha Carter from her reverie. Was it coming from her dilapidated, piece-of-shit EV? There were no flashing diagnostic lights on the dash. She turned off the radio and pinpointed the source of the sound: her jacket pocket, a beeper she’d carried since 2066; its only function was to warn that the temporal transport device (TTD) had been activated. Her stomach twisted on itself. She took control of the car, gunned the engine, and was soon racing up the landscaped drive of the TimeX Relativity Research facility, a soaring steel and blue-glass complex with a floating-plane roof jutting over a circular drive. A larger-than-life mirror-polished stainless-steel sculpture of Elon Musk holding an hourglass stood in the center of the island. Sam jumped out at the entrance and accepted a video call on her watch from General Chuck Rosen as her car steered itself toward the parking facility. “Carter here, sir. You’re calling about the TTD alert?”


          “I just arrived. I’ll call you when I get to the lab, but I suspect it was a simple malfunction.” Her watch buzzed again. “Got to go, General.” She accepted the new call from Brad, one of the facility security officers.

          “Hey boss,” he said. “Something odd is going on here.”

          Sam suspected something TTD-related, but Brad knew nothing about the device. Its existence was top secret, known only to herself, as chief security officer; the two scientists who’d created the TTD—Sam’s husband, the physicist John Carlisle, and the engineer Dillon Hall; and, of course, top brass at the Department of Defense. The hundreds of other TimeX researchers worked in insular units, according to their specialty, not privy to the work of others. They had no clue a physical time-travel device had been assembled.

          “Explain.” She walked through beeping metal detectors, giving the guards a wave.

          Brad said, “Someone heard a kid crying in Dr. Carlisle’s office.”

          Sam sucked in an uneven breath, rubbing her wedding band with her thumb. If John had planned to use the device this morning, he hadn’t told her, but in hindsight, he had been particularly solicitous last night. After a dinner of pad thai and steamed broccoli that John had prepared, Sam felt him watching her. When she looked up, he said, “You do know how much I love you, right?” She couldn’t remember him ever looking so vulnerable. Or so handsome. She’d climbed onto his lap and given him a long kiss. He’d carried her to their bed, where they spent two hours exploring each other’s bodies.

          “I unlocked the door,” Brad continued, “and there was a baby sitting alone on the floor with a remote control.”

          Sam’s stomach took another turn. That wasn’t a remote control. It had to be the TTD. But where was John? Sam ran, taking the two flights of stairs instead of waiting for the elevator. She found Brad standing over a child in blue, footed pajamas next to a backpack baby carrier with the price tag still attached. The baby was gumming the temporal transporter with the screen facing outward, in Sam’s direction. Dammit. The device operated when the transport button was pressed, but only if unlocked first by the screen’s facial recognition program. Only three faces could unlock the TTD: John’s, Dillon’s, and hers. She was the contingency plan.

          Sam took a step back and pulled the door closed just enough to hide her face from the screen. “Brad, carefully take the remote from the child and put it on the desk.”

          Brad did as she asked and absently wiped his hand on his suit pants. The baby started crying. Sam crossed the room and handed John’s stapler to the baby, who put it straight into its mouth.

          “Oh, no, ma’am, staplers aren’t chew toys. He could hurt himself.” Brad gently removed the stapler from the baby’s grasp, and the crying resumed. Sam wished the kid would pipe down so she could concentrate. Something dark worked its way through her mind, part educated guess from years in security work, part women’s intuition.

          Brad lifted the backpack carrier and the baby said, “Dada.” Brad smiled. He unhooked a pacifier from one of the carrier’s shoulder straps and plugged it tenderly into the baby’s mouth. “When they’re teething, it helps to have something to gum on. Good thing someone brought his binky.”

          “Thanks, Brad. I need you to find Dr. Carlisle and Dr. Hall and send them here immediately.”

          When he’d gone, Sam sat at the desk and eyed the TTD, which was in sleep mode. She relaxed a fraction. John had been here, possibly with Dillon. Where—and, maybe more importantly, when—were they now? She looked at the baby, watched his chubby cheeks alternately dimple and puff out as he suckled the pacifier. He had hazel eyes like John, but maybe all baby’s eyes were that color? She couldn’t tell if he looked like the child in the photos on John’s desk, but nothing else made sense.

          She woke the TTD and scrolled to the operating screen. There were two sets of mapping coordinates, which included latitude and longitude for spatial mapping, and day/date/time values for temporal mapping. She logged onto John’s computer to find a reverse geocoding program. The first set of coordinates were for 134 Poplar Drive, Cary, North Carolina—John’s previous home address—on Friday, August 17, 2063 at 12:10:00 Greenwich Mean Time (08:10:00 EDT). The second set of coordinates, as expected, were for the Research Triangle Park address of TimeX, at 08:14:52 EDT. There was a subentry for John’s home address at 08:14:55 EDT. Sweet baby Jesus.

          Sam called General Rosen and told a lie. “Everything is fine, General. The transport device shows no sign of activity. Dillon and John are checking for the source of the false alarm. I’ll have a report to you later today.”

          Dillon came in as she disconnected. She wasted no time. “Do you know where John is?”

          “I haven’t seen him today.” Dillon seemed not at all curious about the baby on the floor. He was a genius in the field of engineering but never showed much interest in the world outside his lab.

          Her phone rang. It was Brad again. “Dr. Carlisle entered the building at 7:30 a.m. and hasn’t left. He’s not in the cafeteria and nobody I’ve questioned knows his whereabouts.” Sam tried to stay calm, but John wouldn’t rescue his son only to leave him on the floor of his office and go to the gym.

          “Thank you. Please, keep looking.” Sam needed to keep Brad busy, but it was clear to her that John had gone back in time to his old home, returned to his office in the present, and then somehow ended up back in 2063 again.

          Dillon noticed the transport device. “What’s going on? Why is the TTD here?”

          “It was activated about twenty minutes ago. The baby was found locked in here. Alone. Chewing on the TTD. John had to have been here to activate it.”

          Dillon looked perplexed. “Why in the world would he do that? We’re still in the earliest stages of testing.”

          Sam sighed and let her shoulders drop. “How much do you know about his son’s death?”

          “I heard his wife was convicted of murder, but John doesn’t talk about it.”

          “Please keep this information to yourself. John’s ex-wife was sick. She poisoned their son, Noah, for years because she enjoyed the attention she got during his hospitalizations.”

          “She’s a nurse. How could she do something like that?”

          Sam explained that John’s ex had a mental health disorder called Munchausen by proxy syndrome. After two years of torment, the boy died. John blamed himself for not recognizing her abuse because of his preoccupation with the time-travel project. “That’s why I think he used the TTD: to go back to save his boy before the poisoning started. The coordinates he entered are for his Cary home.”

          “God, I had no idea.” Dillon looked at the baby. “That’s his son?”

          “Yes. Has to be. John may have worried that the DOD would take possession of the technology before he got the chance to go back.”

          “Where’s John now?”

          “The data on the TTD indicates it sent him back to his house three seconds after he returned to this office. It had to be unintentional. When I came in, the baby was holding the TTD. Only John can explain. I’m going back for him.”

          Dillon blanched. “That’s not a good idea. The trials have been extremely promising, but we’re nowhere near ready to try an actual—”

          “John just did. Twice. Now he’s stuck, and he needs my help.”

          “It’s just too risky. We don’t know—”

          “If I don’t bring him back, he’ll never see Noah again. Not to mention the risks of having two versions of John in the same timeline. Every minute matters.”

          “Then I’ll go.”

          “No. You’ll lose your job, just like John is going to lose his. They can do whatever they want to me.” Sam only hoped they wouldn’t prosecute John when they learned why he went back. As for herself, she would argue that she had to fix the anomaly of having two versions of John in the same timeline, not to mention bring back the project’s top physicist.

          Dillon nodded slowly.

          Sam looked at Noah, still sucking contentedly on the pacifier. “Could you please take Noah to the daycare center? Tell them I’ll bring his dad to pick him up shortly.”

          When she was alone, the weight of the moment made it hard to breathe. Sam looked again at the photos on the desk. In one, John lay on his side, near a pile of toys that Noah was playing with. John smiled at the camera. It made Sam sick to think that the photographer was most likely the child’s mother. How dare she hurt her own flesh and blood? It was unimaginable. In the other, John held a younger Noah cocooned in a blanket. It was time to go.
          When Sam pressed the transport button, goosebumps rose on every inch of her body, and her field of view shrank to a pinpoint. When her vision returned, she was standing in a kitchen. The scent of burnt coffee filled the air. A highchair stood next to a small dining table with one place setting. A woman’s raised voice said, “Where’s my baby, you bastard?” Sam followed the voice down a hallway with cream-colored carpeting and a few framed photographs, including one she’d just seen—John cradling the bundled baby.

          John spoke slowly. “Sophia, he’s fine. Put the gun down, and I’ll explain.”

          “Where is he? If you’ve done something to hurt him, I’ll kill you.” She sounded desperate.

          “We both know you’re the one who wants to hurt him.”


          “I know what you’re planning.”

          “What the hell are you talking about?”

          “I’m trying to save Noah from you. You’re sick, Sophia. You need help.”

          As she moved toward the voices, Sam took slow, deep breaths, her years of law enforcement training kicking in. She would de-escalate the situation by using her TimeX badge to calm Sophia down—tell her she was a police officer there to help. Sam was sure the badge could fool the woman if she flashed it quickly. But as she pulled it from her pocket, three gunshots exploded.

          Sophia’s voice switched from pleading to demanding. “Tell me where he is.”

          John didn’t respond.

          “I’m calling the police.”

          Sam heard footsteps and ducked into a small bathroom. Sophia did not look in as she passed.

          John lay sprawled on his back with blood running from three wounds. The crazy bitch had actually shot him. Sam struggled to maintain her professionalism, fighting the urge to do physical harm to the woman. She kneeled and spoke quietly to John. “Hold on, baby. I’ll get us back to TimeX.”

          John’s eyes opened, and he gave her a weak smile. “Listen to me. I am not going to make it. Leave me and take John from this timeline back with you. Noah needs his father.”

          “What if I reset the TTD to two hours ago? This can work. Just hang on.” Her hand shook so violently, she had trouble steadying the TTD.

          John coughed up flecks of blood. His breathing was a wet rasp. “Samantha, please. There’s no time.”

          She looked at his ashen face, his chest. A startling amount of blood stained his shirt. He continued, his voice barely audible. “Take my watch and everything in my pockets and go quickly, before she comes back.”

          Sam wanted to scream that John would be fine. Noah would have a father. They just needed to leave. But she knew he was right. The man she loved was being strong. She had to be strong, too. Tears ran down her cheeks as she bent to kiss him for the last time, collected his belongings, and left through the back door. The 2063 version of John would be at work now, but even if Sam had a car, she couldn’t risk going to TimeX and running into her past self. At a safe distance from the house, she called John at his lab. “It’s Samantha Carter from security. This is an emergency.”

          His voice cracked. “Is my family okay?”

          “For now, yes, but we need to move fast to protect your son. Is there somewhere close to your home where we could meet without being seen?”

          “There’s a neighborhood park three blocks north on Sycamore.”

          “Leave your wallet at the lab—in your desk drawer or somewhere the police will find it—and meet me at the park as soon as you can. Move.”

          Sam located the park, one of those green spaces urban planners imagined as oft-frequented community gathering spots but which typically went unused. After she checked for cameras and found none, she stood near a beech tree at the edge of the small parking area. A siren approached, no doubt heading for John’s house. The police would discover a woman babbling about her husband kidnapping their son, supposedly vanishing into thin air with “her” boy. And they would find John, bleeding to death from wounds inflicted by the ranting woman.

          John arrived at the park fifteen minutes later, a stricken look on his face. It was a shock to see him alive, in perfect health, after she’d just watched the life draining out of him. Resisting the urge to throw her arms around him, Sam had him leave the keys in the ignition of his car and deflected his questions. “I’ll give you answers when we get back safely.”

          “Back where?”

          Ignoring that question as well, Sam guided John into a thick copse of sweet bay magnolias and activated facial recognition on the TTD. “Close your eyes for just a second,” she said as she grabbed John’s hand and keyed the transport button.
         John blinked and looked around. “What happened? Where are we?”

          Sam opened her mouth to explain, but the office was different. The desk stood on the opposite side of the room and none of the photographs were familiar. Where were the baby pictures of Noah? Where were the honeymoon photos, including her favorite—her smiling up at John as the two of them stood barefoot in the turquoise water of Kauai? Her heart sank as she realized her John must have died and no longer existed in this timeline. This was someone else’s office now. “We’re at TimeX, five years in your future. Let’s get Noah from daycare and head to my office.”

          Sam thanked the daycare staff as John rushed forward. Noah’s face lit up and he said, “Dada.”

          John brushed at the baby’s fine hair before picking him up.

          In the privacy of her office, Sam got John settled on a small couch with Noah. “I need to spend a few minutes on the computer before we talk.” She searched the internet for John Carlisle. Knowing what she’d find didn’t dull the punch in her gut. She read about John’s murder five years ago at the hands of his wife, Sophia Carlisle, and heard again the gunshots. Sophia was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, despite her lawyer’s plea that she was mentally unfit to stand trial. She was also suspected of foul play in the disappearance of her son, Noah Johnathan Carlisle, whose body was never found.

          Sam checked her employee file and was relieved to see that her status was unmarried. It would have been another blow to find herself married to a man she not only didn’t love, but didn’t know. Finally, she checked her home address; it was unchanged. When they’d married, John had sold his place and moved into Sam’s. They’d never gotten around to adding his name to the deed. She took a deep breath.

          Noah was sleeping, wrapped in John’s arm. Sam cleared her throat and began. “You are now in the year 2068, transported by the temporal transportation device that resulted from your research and mathematical calibrations in collaboration with Dillon Hall.” She held the TTD up for John to see. “If Noah hadn’t been brought here, now, your wife would have killed him. This morning, you, as your future self, used the TTD to rescue him from Sophia.”

          John shook his head in disbelief, denial, or both, and pulled Noah closer.

          Sam pressed on. “Sophia is mentally ill. She poisoned Noah by regularly injecting a salt solution. He spent two years suffering, in and out of the hospital, before dying at the age of three. Sophia was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to sixteen years in prison. You divorced her and continued your work on the TTD.”

          John’s shoulders shook, and he began to cry. It was a terrible thing to hear, but he had to know. “I’m so sorry to have to tell you these things. Should I give you some time?” He shook his head, so she kept going. “After depositing Noah here safely, future-you got inadvertently sent back alone. I went to get him and was in the house when Sophia shot him in cold blood. She called the police and told them her husband had somehow disappeared into thin air with her son, then reappeared alone. Future-you knew he was dying and begged me to bring you to 2068 so Noah would have his father. I just confirmed that Sophia is still in prison, but this time, it’s for murdering future-you.” Sam couldn’t bring herself to tell him that she was married to the other John. It hurt too much, and what was the point?

          John kissed the top of Noah’s head. “Will we be safe?”

          “We need to get you both new identities—then you will be. You obviously can’t continue as John Carlisle with Sophia in prison for killing you. When 2068 John died, his contribution to the research over the last five years disappeared, so a functional TTD didn’t exist here until now.” She tapped the TTD on her desk. “The DOD will be very excited about having this, as well as the physicist who helped build it, and they have the power to create new lives for the two of you. I’ll set up a meeting.”

          “Right now?”

          “Tomorrow morning, if General Rosen’s in town.”

          John looked relieved.

          “I want Dillon Hall at the meeting too, so we’re all on the same page.”

          “Dillon and I have worked together for over three years.”

          “In this timeline, Dillon will have been working with another physicist for the last five years, but they haven’t progressed as far as the two of you were able to.” She called Rosen first. The situation had changed since she’d lied to him earlier this morning. Now she would be giving him good news. The assistant put her through immediately. “It’s Sam. Would you be able to make a meeting here tomorrow?”

          “I’m flying back from D.C. early in the morning. How about we meet at ten hundred hours?”

          Once she had arranged for Dillon to be at the meeting too, Sam was ready to quit for the day. The past couple of hours weighed heavily. “We’re all set; let’s get out of here.”

          John followed her out, holding Noah. Sam led them to her EV. She didn’t have a car seat, so John sat in the back with Noah as she drove to a Super Target to get baby essentials.

          “But where will we stay?” John said. “I don’t have any way to pay for a hotel.”

          “You’ll live in my house.” Our house. “I’ve got plenty of room.” They bought everything a one-year-old needed—a surprising amount—and some clothes for John. Everything was delivered an hour later. Sam helped set up the crib and left John to settle in. She was a stranger in her own house now that her John had been erased from her life. She finally allowed herself to mourn him. In her bedroom, she pulled the pillow from what used to be John’s side of the bed and inhaled, hoping desperately to smell something of him. Her John was gone, yes, but she still had John in her life, which was something no other widow had ever gotten. Even so, she pounded the pillow with her fists until, exhausted, she pulled it tight to her chest and cried.
         Dillon and Rosen remained quiet as Sam spoke. When she finished, the general said, “That’s quite a tale. Do you have any proof that this actually happened?”

          “Yes, I have John’s current driver’s license and TimeX Relativity ID.” She held them out toward Rosen, but he wasn’t interested.

          “Those can be easily faked. Do you have any other proof?”

          “This,” she said, producing the prototype TTD and placing it on the table. The general’s eyebrows went up. Sam nodded at John. “And to prove that this person is John from five years ago, all you have to do is sample his DNA, and get two radiographs—one of his right forearm, the other of his left wrist. Then exhume the body of the John Carlisle who was murdered and do the same. That John will have the tracking chip all TimeX employees got two years ago. He will also have a healed fracture of the right radius. He broke it on our honeymoon last year.”

          John looked at her and quickly looked down. She hadn’t planned to mention her marriage but then decided that she deserved to do so. They should understand what she’d lost. “This version of John won’t have an RFID chip or a radial fracture, and his DNA will have fewer age-related mutations than 2068 John.”

          Rosen nodded. “Good. That’s concrete. I’ll get people on it.”

          “One other thing, General. Can you get your people to create new identities for John and Noah?”

          “I’ll do that as soon as they confirm your story. Dillon, I’ll leave you and John to secure the device and start reverse engineering it.” He rose to leave. “Keep this on a need-to-know basis. And the people in this room are the only people who need to know.”

          After Rosen departed, Dillon exhaled, looking drained. He spoke to John first. “I remember when we worked together before—well, before. I’m looking forward to working with you again. As soon as we have Rosen’s go-ahead, I’ll get you set up with an office and lab space of your own.”

          John nodded. He seemed to be adjusting to his new reality. There was a determined look in his eyes.

          Dillon turned to Sam. “If, as you say, that’s only a prototype, I gather you took a huge risk going back to get John. So many things could have gone wrong.”

          “It was worth any risk to myself to save him.” She snuck a look at John, even as she felt an ache for her John, lying dead in the past. She had no idea if this John would grow to love her, or if she would love the version of John who hadn’t been forged in the fire of suffering and loss. Instead of letting the trauma break him, John had used it to fuel his work on the TTD, no doubt hoping to accomplish exactly what he had yesterday. She would happily share the house with this John and with Noah, take life as it came, and hope that time could heal them both. She handed the TTD to Dillon. “I suggest the two of you make major security improvements—for starters, make the device infant-proof.”

          “Speaking of which,” Dillon said, “should we go to the lab and get started?”

          John nodded. “I’m ready.”

          After they left, she opened her desk drawer and took out a black trifold wallet. John was nostalgic about his wallet choice, preferring to carry the same style his father, and his father’s father, had carried. Sam knew how damaging it would have been to leave John’s wallet in the past, but she hadn’t known until she was back that the wallet held what was now the only tangible evidence of their marriage. There was a photo from the reception, John stooping so Sam could feed him a bite of their wedding cake. And there was the photograph from their honeymoon that Sam loved so much. The image transported her to Kauai. Turquoise water lapped at her shins. John’s hand supported her as she arched to look up at him, anticipating their future together.

Tobi Pledger

Tobi Pledger is an emerging writer living in Durham, North Carolina. She is a veterinarian—specializing in avian and exotic animal medicine—currently working as a staff assistant at Duke University. She has been published in Catamaran.