“Can I help you?” Dax stood up and quickly covered the screen with his body. It was five minutes to closing time and he wasn’t interested in helping on yet another bored teenager, or house partner, or grandpa, or history student, or whatever to fulfill their sick time travel dream. He had his own problems, thank you very much.
“Dr. Ooren sent me,” the girl said, walking into the lab, keeping her eyes on the floor. She looked like she was still in her teens, perhaps a first-year college student. She was fidgeting and pulling down the sleeves of her oversized gray sweater over her hands and fingertips. She was thin, with dark circles under her eyes, and she didn’t look like she wanted to be in his lab any more than Dax wanted her there. Which was not at all.
“We close at five.” Dax pointedly glanced at the time displays on the wall. It was just about five in the afternoon. He had already loaded the jump for his own time visit — he allowed himself several exquisite minutes of suffering every Friday evening, after closing hours. He was treasuring his chosen suicide, taking his time, enjoying every strangled breath and body spasm. Should have locked the door, he thought bitterly. But it was too late now — the girl was here.
“The doctor said that if I didn’t come here, he would make me go to the hospital,” she explained.
Another death seeker, Dax sighed demonstrably. “So what are you looking for?” he asked, perhaps he could make this quick. “Death by execution? A touch of torture? An accident? Something gruesome or just your run of the mill death? What did the good doctor prescribe this time?”
The girl pulled out a piece of paper from inside her overstretched sleeve. Dax took it. It was an official prescription for Suicide Therapy. Attempts to cure a death wish by experiencing the real thing via a time travel emersion visit was a thing now. Dax got several clients week walking in with a doctor’s note. “So did you attempt it yet?” he asked. They usually did.
She nodded yes.
“More than once?”
The girl pulled her sweater sleeves down even further. Dax guessed razor blades to the wrists — a stupid suicide. She probably didn’t even cut along the vein, he thought with scorn. Those who meant it, cut along the vein to get the job done. The cross-cutters were just attention seekers. “You don’t have to tell me,” he said out loud and tapped on the keyboard behind his back to exit his own planned time jump. When the screen cleared, he sat back down in his office chair. “Name,” he asked as he pulled up a blank time travel profile form.
“Cleopatra,” the girl said in a small voice.
Dax’s fingers skipped over the keys, he felt a shudder run down his whole body. That was unexpected. Just a sick coincidence. It meant nothing. Nothing! He looked at the girl again. She was medium height and slight of build, perhaps even thin — it was hard to tell underneath that shapeless sweater. Her hair was long and fine and simply hanging down her shoulders, unlike the common fashion of the day. It was golden and looked like it was her natural color — again unusual for her demographic which preferred multi-colored complicated weave arrangements. Perhaps she is older than she looks? Aside from the golden hair, she was strikingly monochrome — gray sweater, gray tights, gray runners, gray lipstick. Probably gray underwear, Dax thought sarcastically, but despite himself, he was intrigued. “Cleo what?” he asked.
“Just Cleopatra,” she said.
“I see,” Dax said, typing Cleo Patra into the form. “You don’t have to give me your address if you don’t want to. It’s not required–”
“I wasn’t planning on it.” It wasn’t defiance, just a fact. Like her visual appearance, the girl’s voice lacked all color, leaving Dax free to add his own emotional interpretation to her statement.
“Okay. I will use Dr. Ooren’s referral for the rest of the profile,” he said. That wasn’t procedure — Dax was required by law to verify the identity of all time jumpers — but he wanted this visit over and done with. “The doctor noted that this is ‘psychological treatment’ and so your time trip will be paid by the general health fund,” he intoned the government-mandated script.
Cleopatra just nodded.
Dax fingers flew over the keys with the speed that only came from thousands of hours of practice. “So where is Dr. Ooren wants to send you? What death do you need to experience?” Dax continued his interrogation. When she didn’t immediately answer, Dax launched into the standard Suicide Therapy spiel again, he gave up on doing his own jump this evening. “If you are not sure, we have a standard questionnaire that would help you identify the most appropriate time, place, and individual…”
“I know the time and place,” she interrupted him.
“Good, good. When is it?” he asked, but he knew the answer as soon as she stopped him. And he wasn’t going to let her go there. Not to his Cleopatra. That suicide was his and his alone. And he was already bonded to that time and space, anyway. His consciousness slipped into the body and mind of the most beautiful woman in the human timescape effortlessly now — the agony and ecstasy of a well-developed time link. There was no sharing… No interrupting the inevitable.
Dax looked back at the “Cleopatra” in his lab; she stared back. Time passed. “She is mine,” Dax finally said. “Pick someone else.”
“I can’t,” she answered.
“Riiiiight,” Dax droned. “Well, and I can’t send you then.” He stood up and made to shut down his terminal. “It was a pleasure doing business with you, Ms. Patra, and Dr. Ooren. Now please leave. It’s after closing hours–”
“I’ll kill myself,” she said.
“Suit yourself.” He looked at the time display again, making sure she understood his meaning — after hours.
“Please,” the girl said in a small, dead voice. “Dr. Ooren said it was the only way.”
“Well, Dr. Ooren is wrong. That way is already taken.” Each death could only be witnessed by one person — one bridge from future to past; no exceptions, no duplications; just one-on-one temporal connection. And Dax claimed that one…well, not officially, as in the government maintained time travel database. But it was his nonetheless. Dax has been traveling to that event in time for over a year now, slowly approaching the moment, savoring every second like a connoisseur of fine wine.
The girl calling herself Cleopatra sat on the chair opposite Dax. She wasn’t leaving, apparently. “Tell me about her,” she said. The tone of her voice was almost pleading, almost. It had the quality of falling ash. It was pallid, flat, and chocking with just a hint of despair. It was nothing like the confident commands of the Real Cleopatra, whose voice was dominant even after the snake spilled its venom into her perfect breast and death was certain. The Real Cleopatra’s death was going to be defiance, a fuck-you to the men of her time. That woman radiated power, and Dax loved experiencing it through her spirit and body. The Real Cleopatra was nothing like the shriveling hoary thing that couldn’t even cut her wrists properly. Dax felt disgusted by her…and yet he couldn’t look away. There was something about that hair…or perhaps her skin? Dax was sure he knew just how her nipples looked like, and how they felt… He shook his head to get rid of the vision.
“I can’t help you,” he said. “And I would like to close the facility for the weekend now. Go back to Dr. Ooren and tell him to put you in the hospital. Or whatever.” Perhaps if she was locked up, he could get the two days reprieve to live out the entire suicide himself this Saturday, before the feds ordered him to surrender the last few precious minutes to this sniveling insipid woman.
Dax wiped his palms on his charcoal jeans. He felt sweat seeping down his back too. Breaking the time bridge in the middle of death was just not done. The addiction to the event grew stronger the closer one came to the moment of death. He couldn’t really stop now even if he wanted to. If they pulled him, he would be the one visiting Dr. Ooren forever…or until his own suicide.
“Please,” Dax begged. “Just go.”
She stood up and left. Dax exhaled and waited for her footsteps to stop echoing down the hall. As soon as he was sure she was gone, he dashed up and locked the door. Would she go to Dr. Ooren? Would she report him? Or…or would she go to some other time travel facility and make the same request? Dax’s heart was beating so fast he was having a hard time breathing. He looked at his desk — Dr. Ooren’s prescription for Time Travel Suicide Therapy was still there. He forced himself to calm down — the girl couldn’t just go someplace else. No one would take her. Who would? And it was after hours, way after hours. The more Dax thought, the better he felt. He just needed to get out of here, lock everything up, including that prescription. And tomorrow morning, he would come extra early and do the time jump. The last jump.
He rushed to get through the checklist for shutting the temporal rift systems down and tiptoed out of his lab and the section of the mall where the time travel facility was located. When he was finally out on the street, he felt safe.
Today was going to be the day. The moment he had been postponing for over a year, stretching the pleasure of anticipation, experiencing each treasured instant to its fullest, was here. Dax took an extra long shower, put all clean clothes, and even shaved for the occasion. He wanted to be perfect for his perfect death…for her perfect death.
It was still dark when Dax left his apartment. There was no one out on the streets yet. It was quiet and damp. He rushed. The mall cleaning crews opened the building at four in the morning to get the place ready for the next day’s onslaught of clients. He planned to wait for them by the service door.
Dax prepared an explanation in case anyone inquired about his early arrival, but no one cared. He was able to walk through the whole building unharrassed. No one cared, no one paid any attention… she wasn’t there waiting for him… Dax didn’t realize just how tense he was until he sat at his desk, making sure to lock the door to the lab. No more surprises, no more clients.
He went through the checklist of powering up the time rift portal. The Cleopatra Suicide program was one of the many listed by the government as “special access required” time jump, meaning it needed additional purple stamps of approval for the lucky time traveler chosen to experience that particular death. Dax discovered it almost a decade back and only got the nerve to venture there seventeen months ago. He started extra early, days before the venomous snake sealed Cleopatra’s fate. His first jump lasted almost twenty-four hours — longer than any other in his lifetime. When he returned, his every molecule vibrated to the tune of Cleopatra’s existence. He was in love and completely intoxicated by the power of her life force and imminent death. He tried to stop after that first jump but simply couldn’t restrain himself for more than a few days. He knew he was addicted. She was his…or, more accurately, he was hers. Since then, he allowed himself only one jump a week, Friday night. And only for an hour max. Sometimes, two. Three, at the most. When he went over that, Dax punished himself by pushing his scheduled jump to Sunday morning. He was physically sick by then — the need gripping him in its icy cold unguis. The closer he got, the more his real-life revolved around the anticipation of the jump. Now it was all about it. He slept and ate and worked for the times he could assume her. And today, it would all come to an end.
Dax logged himself into the system and loaded the Cleopatra Suicide. His hands were shaking. He felt light headed. He could feel his heart beats in his ears. The screen showed a loading bar: 10% complete. 20%. 30%. 40%. 44%. 46%. 47%. 48%. Dax waited, sweat soaking his shirt. He waited. Waited. The loading bar didn’t advance past 48%.
Something wasn’t right. It usually took seconds to load a jump program. Seconds. Dax looked at the time display. It seemed to move at a normal speed. The loading bar did not.
“It’s just a glitch,” he told himself. The sound of his own voice calmed him somewhat. “The system is just powering up.”
He sat and watched the screen. After ten minutes, he shut the system down and started the boot-up sequence again. It’s just very early, he thought consolingly to himself.
Dax tried to whistle, demonstrating his own insouciance to the universe. But he never whistled before. Dax was not a whistler…or a hummer… The sick sounds his lips were generating were making him nauseous. He stopped.
He tried to load the Cleopatra Suicide again. This time, it wouldn’t even come up. The lock on the file indicated that it was already in use!
Dax was soaking wet. He could smell himself — fear! The official, government suctioned time travel agencies were closed on weekends and holidays. Only do-it-yourselfers and the underground, unlicensed facilities were operating, and none usually so early in the morning. That Cleopatra girl-woman was behind this. He was sure. She went to some hack and he sent her back, he facilitated a time jump without the prescription. Dax glanced quickly at the mangled piece of paper in his garbage bin — Dr. Ooren’s note was still there.
Close eyes. Inhale through the nose. Exhale through the mouth. Stop shaking. Control fingers. Relax.
Dax straightened his back and opened his eyes and launched the dark time web — the illegal time portal application. The dark time web was outlawed decades ago when people went mad or missing after simultaneous time jumps into the same psyche. The updated temporal protocols used fail-safes to prevent double jumps into the same time, space, and person. But all Chronos Technicians had dark web on their systems “just in case.” Dax used it to book the Cleopatra Suicide time slot for himself, that first time.
The room feels suffocating. I hear people whisper. The snake is gone — someone must have dared to remove it off my chest. I look down and see just the tiniest droplets of bright red blood glistening on my bare breast. Surprisingly, I don’t really feel pain. There is a duality to the moment — I am here, in my rooms, my girls all around me, my advisors cowering in the corner farthest away; and I am also someplace else, floating in the infinite universe, time meaningless, pain and other bodily concerns irrelevant. Is this what death feels like? If so, it is manageable. Even good, in its own way.
I try to read the emotions of those around me. I know some are genuinely concerned for me. But most worry about the change in their lives that my act of defiance would bring. I don’t blame them. My death is an end to an era. Their lives were about mine. Their wills were mine to command. They wove into me, and I took them all and made myself and my kingdom strong…
My kingdom! Mine! It is mine! Give it back! You bitch.
What? Is that the call of madness at my death door?
Madness? I show you madness. You stole this death from me. You went behind my back and stole what was mine! Now get out! Get out! Get out!
Who is this? How did you get into my heart?
Your heart? I’m in your head, you bitch! Tell them to pull the plug now. Or I’ll–
Wait. Who are you? Are you in the room with me? I don’t see a raving lunatic in here. I’ll have you killed! I’ll tell them to cut you slowly and hang you upside down from my windows until you bleed–
Cleopatra, my queen? Is that really you? You are not that Gray Thing that–
I am the Queen! I am the Queen until the moment of final breath, then I will become a Legend.
It is you! I’m so sorry to interrupt. Please continue.
What? Continue what? You sniveling–
It was just a mistake. Really, just pretend I’m not here. Go on with: “Their wills were mine. Their lives were the tapestry I wove in the creation–”
I didn’t say…think that. Where…who are you? Are you here to take me to my other life? My immortal life? If so, I am ready. I am yours to–
No, no, no! Please just ignore my presence. I am not even here, really. Please forget I’ve said anything.
What is it now?
I don’t think this is going to work.
That wasn’t right. Dax pulled himself out of the time jump. Even his molecules felt out of alignment. Someone was screwing around the Cleopatra Suicide event, pushing him out of it. And, worst of all, interacting with the Subject. That was just never done. Never! Dax felt sick. He needed to stop that Monotone Woman and her team of unethical Chron Hacker.
Dax pulled himself back to the time terminal and started to search the jump threads logs, looking for unauthorized connections. Even on an early Saturday morning, there were thousands of temporal jumps initiated all over the world. Rules and regulation, treaties and laws be damned.
It took some careful sleuthing, but Dax found the Blanched Bitch. She was just a few blocks away. He knew the guy who was working her — no license, operating out of his mother’s basement. How did she find him? He must advertise on one of those death chats, Dax thought bitterly. Honest Chronos Technicians were getting squeezed on all sides these days — government regulations on one side, psychologist and ethicists on another side, media attacking yet another, and Chron Hackers everywhere! And let’s not get started on historians and the Temporal Archivists Association.
“There,” Dax said and pounded the desk in satisfaction. “Let that Anemic Witch pull out of that.”
Dax leaned back in satisfaction. Ms. Patra was being sucked into one of the slave girls about to be executed as soon as Cleopatra let out her last breath. She wanted to experience death, well she got one.
Dax waited until the temporal jump was executed and blocked all unauthorized technicians out of that time and space for the next twenty-four hours. That should be enough to get that Whey-faced Waif off his back. Tomorrow, he could return back to his lab and try to set things right with his Cleopatra.
Problem solved. Dax whistled all the way out of the mall.
Dax got comfortable and jumped. This time, there were no loading problems, no temporal errors. He felt the familiar sensation of the time warp in his bones, his spine twisting ever so exquisitely out of alignment with his present time stream, pain and pleasure mixed to perfection in the cocktail of temporal addiction. He closed his eyes…
…vomit forced itself up. The head span and span. Leaning to the side, he let it out. A squeaky voice swore. Dax opened his eyes…
He was in a dark room, lying on a dirty sofa. A man was standing over him, cursing about the vomit on his rug. “Mom will kill me,” he kept saying over and over again, punctuating the statements with colorful curses.
“Sorry,” Dax said and sat up. He looked down — he was wearing a gray sweater — the gray sweater! He let out a scream like one of those women make in bad horror movies.
“Whoa there. Don’t you freak out on me, missy,” the man said, waving his hands at Dax. “You’ve asked, I’ve delivered. This was a clean transaction. And now look what you have done — you messed my place up.”
Dax tried to stand up. His body was refusing to take orders. He stumbled and almost fell into his own vomit…no her vomit. “What happened?” he asked. The sounds coming from his lips were making him panic. He lifted his hands to his face. They were small, almost kid-like. A lock of golden hair fell over his eyes.
“Why don’t you leave now?” the man said. “I need to clean this up before my mom finds this mess.” He looked resigned to the task.
“I think there has been a mistake. An error,” Dax said in his new voice. He checked himself out. He was wearing gray tights and sneakers, same as he noted on Ms. Patra last Friday night. He pulled his sweater and looked down his collar — he was wearing a gray silk bra. I knew it, a thought slicked past his awareness. “I think there was a temporal glitch. Perhaps you can show me the time jump logs?” he asked, faking politeness.
“Whoa. Whoa. Whoa there,” the man started to wave at him again. “I don’t share that kind of stuff with my clients. It’s all proprietary information you know–”
“I know,” Dax said. “Look, there has been consciousness swap of some kind. I am the Chronus Technician from the mall. You know, from up the street?” The man looked at him like he lost his mind. Which was what in fact happened to Dax…or was it his body? “I just need to see what happened and fix it. Okay? Just let me see your terminal.” Dax tried to get past the man to get to the illegal temporal terminal.
“Go now, or I’ll do something that you will regret,” the man said.
Dax noticed that he pulled a taser from his back pocket. “All right. All right!” Dax threw his hands up, revealing dark purple scars across both wrists. “I can check the logs from my own terminal,” he barked at the man. This was bad enough, he didn’t want to be tasered, too.
Dax left quickly, practically running a few blocks to the mall. The girl’s body proved to be in good shape. It would have taken Dax much longer…
The door to the lab was locked. Dax pounded the door — he didn’t have a key…obviously.
It took awhile, but finally, the door opened. Dax looked himself in the face.
“What do you want?” Dax’s body asked him.
Dax took a moment — it was hard to think, staring himself in the face. Ugly, old fart, he thought about the Dax’s body. “Look,” he said. “There’s been a temporal rift problem. You got my body, and I want it back. So if you just get out of my way, I will set this all straight.”
The body of Dax didn’t move, blocking the door. Dax tried to push past it, but this girl’s body was like a feather hitting a mountain. “Please, sir, move out of my way,” he said again.
“Madam. Whatever you are. I don’t really care. I just want my body back. And I will try to get you back to yours too. Don’t you want that?” he practically was pleading for this mountain of flesh to move out of his way.
“You? You did this!” The body assumed a threatening stance and Dax took a step back.
“I…I didn’t do any such thing. Some woman, Cleo Patra-something, hired a Chron Hacker down the street. He did this. I was a victim like you. See?”
The brute at the door just stood there, looking at Dax stupidly. Honestly!
“Look, just let me in. I’ll use my terminal to fix this, okay?”
The mountain moved to the side and let Dax into his own lab. He practically leaped into his office chair and started typing. The terminal rejected him — his biometric scan failed…of course!
“Hmm? Can I get you to come over here please?” Dax turned to the body watching him from the door of the lab. “I need you to log in for me. Okay? You know? You took my body and now I can’t get into the system. So you have to log in, and then I can work the temporal rift to fix this. Okay?” He spoke as one would speak to an idiot.
It worked — the body walked over and loomed over his head. Dax grabbed its hand and pressed a few keys with its fingers. The terminal flashed clear access. “Finally!” Dax exhaled. “Thank you. Please sit over there. You are making me uncomfortable hanging over my head like this.”
The body shifted and Dax got to work. He saw that the moment he launched himself into his Cleopatra Suicide, another time stream joined in — the Gray Girl was hurled into his spacetime. How?
“I thought I had her locked inside the slave girl,” he murmured softly.
His body stared at him.
The visuals of Cleopatra’s final moments were flashing on the screen — the snake, the bite, the swarm of slave girls…
“You! You pulled me into this discussing flesh!”
“What?” Dax asked. He really didn’t have time for more hysterics today.
“You! It was you in my head. You were trying to destroy my destiny. You were trying to prevent the Birth of a Legend!” the hoarse male voice was saying. “And I almost thought you a god…”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You will do better than beg! You soul-snatching miscreant. I will have you cut and hung out of my window to bleed slowly–”
“My Queen?” Dax felt cold and sick inside. Something horrible happened that shouldn’t never ever happen.
“I am a Goddess to you, you sniveling–”
Dax fell on the floor and prostrated himself before Cleopatra. Nausea that started in the foul basement of that idiot Chron Hacker reinserted itself with fresh vigor. And as the Goddess berated Dax, he projectile vomited all over his own feet…her feet…his body’s feet. Damn, this is a mess, he thought.
Time passed. It always did. Dax found himself sitting in the corner of his lab, curled into a ball, rocking rhythmically to some temporal beat only this girl’s body recognized. Cleopatra, in his former Dax body, sat in his office chair and stared. There was still vomit on her worn snickers and jeans.
“Done?” she asked imperiously.
“About time. Now listen carefully to me.”
Dax nodded again.
“You are my slave. You will always be my slave. You will serve me until you die or until I decide to kill you.”
“You will use this time magic to do my bidding. You will show me my kingdom and the kingdoms of my enemies. You will get me access into their bodies and hearts.”
“From now to the end of time. I will command time. I am Cleopatra. And you are my slave.”
This story first appeared in the Alien Dimensions Magazine — a science fiction, fantasy and metaphysical short stories anthology series featuring amazing authors from around the world.