The light still to come (sci-fi short story)

‘you know you’re the first reporter they’ve let in here for nearly 10 years? It’s been that long I’d assumed they weren’t going to let anyone see Zapruder now other than close family and friends until he finally, you know, bit the dust’ said the nurse conversationally, ‘then again I suppose if they were going to let anyone in it would have to be someone with a little… notoriety’, she added with a flirtatious wink.

The nurse walked through the meandering hallways of the facility, escorting the reporter, a handsome man who dressed like an undercover detective, with slicked-back hair, sharp features and a voice rougher than sandpaper. The two of them approached another of the security doors spaced throughout the ward. Armed guards patrolled all around the white-walled corridors in their pure-white body armour. Some of them stood so still that they were almost invisible until they shifted stances and their shadows jerked spasmodically about the walls. The nurse showed her ID to one of the guards, and the guard wordlessly opened the secure door.

‘Well maam, the world needs to know what finally happened to the last of the legendary time-travellers’ returned the reporter, ‘Most of them are lost somewhere in the vast maze of space-time, Zapruder is the only traveller the government have managed to trace for centuries. They’ve managed to keep his whereabouts quiet for a long time, but now things have changed. There are too many underground meddlers, deviant scientists, too many who have access to the scientific archives and are unaware of what their heavy-handed dabbling with time and space can lead to. They need to know the repercussions. Even the greatest geniuses of time-travel throughout history, past and future, became wise to the extreme dangers of temporal distortion of any kind. Zarkov, one of the original scientists who was there at the very beginning of it all, described it best. He said that before time came to be wielded by man, it was like an almighty river, and this great river was the original timeline. But as man began to alter time, to shape it to his own will, the sides of the river began to breach into masses and masses of tiny tributaries, an infinity of vein-like streams, branching out and eventually seeping into one another until they became so muddled that there came to be still bodies of water. These are places where time is so clogged, that entire histories end in nothing more than singular moments… fixed and unmoving for all eternity.’

the nurse stared at him wide-eyed, her mouth opening and closing faintly, as if all the questions in her head were jammed before she could choose which to ask. Long moments passed. Still tangled up thinking on his words, it took her a few moments before she could speak.

‘I.. I.. I once read this crazy theory. It said that whenever we experience deja vu, that uncanny feeling we experience is actually the distant echo of an alternate timeline, a timeline where time had stopped at that exact moment. In one of those lakes of time you mentioned I suppose. It said that the closer you get to that blocked timeline, the more likely you are to be dragged into it’s field… to feel its steady pull, slightly slowing each and every moment until eventually time simply stops… and remains stopped forever’ she said, and her face momentarily showed a look of terror ‘whenever I experience deja vu now, I always have this strange feeling of being on the brink of infinity, as if I’m experiencing my last few moments’.

‘There are a great many theories on time out there but the fact is, the vast majority of them are wrong’ replied the reporter, quickly, trying to set the nurse at ease. ‘In fact, oddly enough, the original scientists like Zarkov and Tremblany were the closest to a truly mathematical theory of time. You need to remember maam, the timelines in which we’re situated are among the safest of all, the least scarred. The tributaries of our timeline are so small and insignificant that they are almost unnoticeable except to the most sophisticated machines which are programmed to seek them out’.

She smiled gratefully, before bringing him to a stop. He saw there was a faint film of tears in her eyes, and he cursed himself and his trigger-happy tongue. They were stopped in front of some double doors, above which a sign read: DEMENTIA WARD.

‘this is as far as i can go’ said the nurse.

‘Okay thank you. It was nice to talk to you’ he replied

‘and you Mr Nash’. She turned and slipped away into the bleached corridors.

Nash went through the double doors and into the ward.

As he entered the large room, he was momentarily stunned, barely noticing the many patients who wandered around dazedly, muttering and humming tunes of the distant past and future. The ward was decorated in such a motley patchwork of styles, it was as if in here, time itself had imploded, and all the fragments from past, present and future had been cobbled together like the shards of a broken mirror. One part of the room was adorned in ancient Greek decor, with stone columns and graceful carved statues of deities. Another part was decked out to look like a saloon bar of the Wild West, along with all the old cork-stopped bottles of liquor and the splintered, weathered woodwork. Elsewhere there were more futuristic motifs: shifting, simulated landscapes and ghostly figures were projected by tiny machines which buzzed about like flies. Nash also noticed some strange glowing metallic items which were covered in symbols, and he could not decide if they were the objects of some vastly ancient tribe of man or from some immeasurably distant cosmic future.

in the ward there were 8 patients that he could see, 4 men and 4 women. He scanned the men’s faces but knew instantly that none of them were the man he had come here to see.

He heard a voice coming from somewhere at the back of the ward, a woman’s voice, a strong and authoritative voice, which had more intent, more inflection to it than any of the other voices around him. He made his way towards this voice, threading through the many rooms as if through a museum, each room an exhibit of a different age, a new era of human past or future. As he moved towards the voice at the back of the ward the lights grew steadily dimmer, then their hue began to change, from white to blue, first a pale, icy blue, and then steadily to electric blue, thrumming as if from a gigantic neon sign. The light made Nash feel he was getting colder, moving through some arctic cavern, even though the whole ward was the same temperature. Nash saw that the blue light seemed to emanate from one room, the same room from where he heard the woman’s voice.

He hesitantly pushed open the door, which was slightly ajar, and drew in a sharp breath.

The gigantic room was decked out to simulate the control room or bridge of a space shuttle. There were flickering control panels all about, screens displaying spatial geographies and various modules with vacant seats where a crew might sit. On the far side wall was an enormous TV screen on which there was a moving picture of outer space. It was so realistic that for a brief moment Nash felt the floor begin to sway ever so gently, his body aligned with the image as the ship steadily drifted through space.

And then he saw the woman in the corner of the room. She was stood next to a bed and  continued to speak freely, openly, as much to herself as to anybody within close proximity to her. She continued to talk absently as she went about her routine, checking the wires and the screens which were attached to the bed which was turned away from Nash to face the large screen which displayed the moving image of space.

Nash could jut about see the profile of the man in the bed, his face lit up by the many stars on screen, and he immediately knew that this wizened figure was the man he sought. The man of legend, the last-known time-traveller in existence, who had traveled across millennia, who had explored and altered and conquered timelines innumerable. The man was Louis Zapruder.

After a few dazed seconds, Nash knocked loudly on the door causing the woman to jump, almost dropping her tray which she carried on her arm like a waiter. She made her way brisquely towards Nash, frowning menacingly, as she neared him Nash saw that she was powerfully built, and her frame was barely contained by the grey uniform she wore.

‘What are you doing wandering around here unescorted? Almost gave me a heart attack you did’ the burly woman said, seething. She shepherded him back out of the room with her wide build and closed the door to Zapruder’s room behind them both.

‘Another nurse showed me here, said she couldn’t come in and so left me at the door’ answered Nash, a little more intimidated than he’s have liked to admit.

‘well I suppose it’s not all your fault. There’s so few visitors allowed here it’s no wonder that the protocol is so shoddy. Are you the reporter everyone’s been talking about? The hotshot who only writes about the big celebrities? I’m Mona by the way, chief nurse of this ward, nice to meet you’ she said, with the barest hint of a smile.

‘Carson Nash, and to you too’ he said quickly ‘when can I speak to Zapruder? I’ve been given authorisation to speak to him and I’d like to start as soon as I can’

Speak to him?’ she barked, incredulously ‘no one has spoken to Mr Zapruder since he came here I’m afraid, he speaks only to himself and to people who are not yet of this world’

‘what do you mean by that? sounds like some mystic bullshit to me’ he said, immediately regretting his words and gazing off like a guilty schoolboy

‘I assume you have some idea of what dementia is as seen as you’ve come to write a story about someone suffering from the illness’ she smiled a little more broadly now, seeming to enjoy being the one to talk down the big hotshot reporter she’d so much about the past few weeks.

‘I’ve some idea… trapped in the past, stuck in a loop, not fully aware’ he said, clearly wanting to move on from the topic

‘Mr Zapruder’s case is a little more complicated than that. What do you suppose “the past” means for a man who spent most of his younger life thousands of years in the future?’ she asked.

‘Okay his past then, the past as perceived by his inner world, by his own psychological chronology’ he replied, somewhat skeptically.

‘But there’s a problem isn’t there – his past has not yet occurred… do you see the paradox?’

Nash remained silent, thinking it over.

‘You’re right in saying that ordinary dementia sufferers are stuck in a kind of loop of the past’ she continued, ‘they see images from their younger years, from the chronological past, over and over. But Mr Zapruder’s younger years are way off in the distant future, and so he doesn’t see images from the past over and over… he sees the images from the future over and over. He’s reliving moments right now which will not happen for another 5000 years.’ Said Mona, her gaze now distant, awed.

‘Well can I still go in and see him? I need to write something about his condition at least, the world has a right to know’ said Nash.

‘Go ahead’, she replied ‘just don’t touch any of the wires or screens on his bed and don’t block his view of the screen, he likes to look out there, it seems to remind him of better times, of times yet to come. – oh and if he says anything about seeing the light, come and call me, he sometimes gets agitated after saying that for some reason and I might need to sedate him’

‘OK’ he answered simply.

She walked off towards the museum part of the ward where the other patients were, and Nash opened the door to Zapruder’s room, this time closing it gently behind him.

He made his way over to the bed, walking slowly, reverently, as if afraid to break the concentration of a Buddhist monk in deep meditation. Zapruder’s eyes were open wide, they were intelligent, brilliant emerald eyes, eyes still youthful and full of wonder, somehow separate from his shrunken, withering body.

‘It’s a pleasure to meet you Mr Zapruder’ whispered Nash, expecting and getting no answer.

Nash sat down on a chair placed next to the time-traveler’s bed. Nash found it much harder than Mona to keep talking without an answer, and preferred rather to sit in silence, to simply share the presence of this great man. Nash looked around at the many objects which rested on the tables around the bed. Mementos brought by friends, many new articles bearing his name.

Zapruder remained still and unmoving, and continued to gaze at the large screen. Nash looked over at the screen that kept Zapruder’s attention, and gazed at the stars for what seemed like a long time.

Then, as he gazed silently at the screen, he heard a faint voice behind him..

‘do you see the light?’ whispered Zapruder, his voice as delicate as the finest sheet of paper.

Nash looked around at him, stunned by the sudden emergence of his voice.

‘did you say something Louis? Something about the light?’ asked Nash

Zapruder continued to stare at the screen, silent. But he seemed more alert now. More aware. After a few more moments waiting for a response Nash again looked over at the screen and at the stars gently rolling by. He stood to go and fetch Mona, but caught something in the corner of his eye, something on the screen. A small light had appeared in the center of the screen, a little brighter than the other stars, gradually getting bigger. It started as only a minute spot of light, but it was growing with each second, getting slightly larger and brighter, like some glitch on screen, some programming flaw.

‘the light… see the light…’ muttered Louis again

‘yes. I think I see it too’ said Nash, hypnotised by the growing shimmer

After a few long moments the light seemed to take on more of a shape, more complexity, and Nash realised then that it wasn’t expanding at all, it was getting closer. Was there an asteroid programmed to appear on screen? Was this the white light that was causing Zapruder distress? As the seconds passed the object came nearer and nearer until it filled up almost 80% of the screen with it’s burning white light and then came a sudden flash.

At that exact moment the lights in the ward flickered off and on, and Nash could feel the floor of the ward rumble. Ripples appeared on the surface of the water in a glass on Louis’s bed.

‘impossible’ Nash muttered

But as he looked back to the screen he saw that there was now a crack in the dead center, a crack which was arcing outwards, like an invisible spider were weaving a web.

Just then Zapruder grabbed Nash’s hand, and looked straight into his eyes,

‘You see the light?’ he said urgently ‘then we must go from here’

Then the window to the room blew inwards and swept them both out into space.

***