The sound was monotonous as the door, blowing in the wind, kept clanging against the doorframe repeatedly. It was the only door standing and the only sound to be heard, aside from the shriek of a plaintive wind and the bark of a distant dog. The fate of the windows was registered on the ground, beneath the rubble, in the tiny shards that twinkled as they caught glimpses of the sun here and there.
Mina Donovan read the digital display on her wristwatch: Sun. 10:00 AM 27 May 2035. She had arrived precisely nine years, eleven months and twenty-four days after the war. She had two more shifts to make. Next one would take her to the same exact time and place, only twenty years earlier. She reset her wristwatch and 2015 flashed blue. Donovan closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Each shift through time caused her nausea and dizziness. She didn’t think she would ever get used to that part of the job. She silently mouthed a countdown: three, two, one. She felt both the rush and heat, but it was over in a heartbeat. When she opened her eyes, she was standing in front of a picturesque house with big flower pots on the steps of the front porch.
The sun was shining and the air was warm, but the dizziness was still there. She looked around at her landing site. The quaint little street was deserted – everyone was at work. She had one more shift to make and she would arrive at her destination – 2025. One week before the nuclear holocaust. Two hours before the assassination of President J.J. Sterling. It would have been so much easier had she been able to make one shift and arrive at the correct year, but had she done so, she would have been killed just like her predecessors. Twenty good agents were killed before it was devised that Mina Donovan, the last remaining temporal agent, had to oscillate between two dates of equal years, on each side of the actual date, to avoid detection and prevent an unimaginable future.
The courtroom was not large enough to accommodate all the families of the victims; thousands gathered outside for the verdict.
‘It’s in. Switch to Globe News on your phones,’ shouted several people in the crowd.
A murmur moved through the crowd like a wave, as they all focused on their phones, watching the Global news feed.
‘Good afternoon everyone. Welcome to our special edition. I am Mateo Garcia,’ the newscaster announced, ‘Clifton Sarag, the former governor of Titan colony has been cleared of all charges relating to the deaths of three hundred and eighty-four colonists on Mars.’
Gasps, groans and torrents of expletives engulfed the crowd, like flames devouring a forest.
‘Mr Sarag,’ the newscaster continued, ‘who left politics after his failed attempt at becoming the governor of Mars, set up his mining company Ultra and got the mining rights for Mars. The company folded within three short years when a mining tunnel blew up, causing an earthquake on the surface, killing three hundred and eighty-four Martians.’
‘Hey Sarag, you fucking murderer,’ several people shouted, giving their middle fingers, as Sarag, surrounded by his lawyers and bodyguards, exited the courthouse.
Journalists crowded around Sarag and his entourage. ‘Mr Sarag, Mr Sarag,’ they called out, ‘what do you say to those who say you murdered their families?’
‘My client has been found innocent,’ one of Sarag’s lawyers shot back, as they hastily bundled Sarag into a black car, with tinted windows, which rose up straight in the air before jetting away.
‘He bought the judge and the jury,’ an elderly woman shouted, waving a fist.
‘Even in the twenty-fifth century we’re not free from corruption,’ another woman cried.
‘There have always been and there will always be two laws,’ an old man voiced, ‘one law for us, commoners, and one law for the elites. Aristocracy is well and alive. It never died and never will.’
‘Well, it’s about time to kill it,’ a young man shouted. ‘If we become independent, we can kill aristocracy and try that murdering motherfucker ourselves.’
‘Yeah, he’d be rotting in jail right now, not jetting off to some fancy resort island,’ another man shouted.
‘Independence,’ a young woman cried. ‘Independence for Mars.’
‘Independence,’ the rest shouted in unison.
The not guilty verdict sent shockwaves through Earth’s two colonies, prompting the Martians and the Titans to demand independence. Earth resisted. But demand for independence was persistent. Finally, after six months of relentless protests on Mars and Titans, bringing all businesses to halt, Earth bowed and the two colonies were declared independent worlds. Soon after, the Martians went after Sarag. They would try him on Mars.
But Sarag was beyond Mars’s reach. Earth would not hand him over to Martians. Sarag’s lawyers argued that he would not have a fair trial on Mars. Besides which, the treaty of extradition was not retrospective.
Fear of assassination forced Sarag into hiding. Sarag remained out of public eye until Professor Harry Brewster invented time-travel in February 2478. Now sixty-six years old, Sarag wanted to venture outside to express his views on this most important invention in the history of science.
‘Martians are still after your head,’ his lawyers warned.
‘Martians, Martians, Martians. That’s all I hear,’ Sarag protested. ‘Don’t you have anything more important to say, like how you are going to protect me? I refuse to live in exile. Go set up interviews for me and make arrangements for me to meet Brewster. I want to meet this man.’
And his lawyer complied. Interviews were set up. Meeting with Brewster was arranged. And the number of guards was doubled. Sarag was the most protected person on earth.
‘Oh, I can finally breathe,’ Sarag said, inhaling deep, as he got ready for his first interview after fifteen long years living in his island-resort in the Caribbean.
‘So many problems in the world would be solved if one could travel back in time to undo the past mistakes,’ Sarag said enthusiastically in the interview.
‘What you suggest is to change history, is it not?’ the interviewer asked.
‘Is it such a bad thing?’ he said, with a casual wave of his hand. ‘Time-travel is the means by which humans can be empowered with prescience and become gods. We have somewhat of a grip on death already by slowing down the aging process to meet the demands of space-travel. So the next best thing is to take control of history.’
‘What would you change in your life given the opportunity of going back in time?’ asked the interviewer.
Sarag pondered for a moment, stroking his chin, then said, ‘I would’ve run my political campaign differently on Mars.’
‘What about your mining company?’
Sarag laughed mirthlessly. ‘I would’ve never started it.’
Sarag was now the biggest financial supporter of Brewster, to whom he made a large donation of money to be used in whatever field Brewster saw fit. But three months after receiving this money, Brewster died in an explosion in his laboratory and soon after everything else disappeared too.
One minute, Mars and Titan were thriving communities; next, they were forced labour colonies, to which horror regions earth had sent millions of souls to mine for minerals. People, everywhere, were living under the rule of Ultra – the one-world government ran by Dictator Sarag. And everyone readily and obediently accepted this new order without question and believed that it had always been so. Everyone, except Adam, the most sophisticated AI machine ever constructed and named after Adam Hart, his designer, could remember everything.
Adam was not a recent invention. It was constructed one hundred and sixty years prior to the invention of time-travel. And it was not the first time that a scientist had constructed an AI. AIs had been in use since the early twenty-first century. The difference between Adam the AI and other AIs was that Adam the AI was totally self-aware and acted like a sentient being. It would take naps in the middle of the day to have a rest. Often would stubbornly refuse to answer questions posed by its creator. At times messed up other machines just for a good laugh at the expense of the scientists with whom it worked. But with all its quirks, Adam the AI was worshipped like a god.
The only downside to Adam was its size. It was huge. Nearly the size of Sistine Chapel. And it could not be downsized despite decades of efforts at downsizing it. Not even Adam itself had any solution to the problem. It could not help its creator to make it the ideal size that he wanted it to be – to fit in a human sized android. Hart, eventually, came to the conclusion that that was the price for self-awareness in a machine – the brain had to be extraordinarily large.
When Adam Hart died, Adam the AI was transferred from Paris Institute of Technology, where he had worked, to the newly built Adam Hart Institute of Space Science on Mars.
Commander Simon Birch, the director of Ultra Security Watch, put his feet up on his desk, drinking his coffee. It was a boring day as usual, watching his multiple screens, waiting for someone to commit a crime. Most days no one did anything wrong. But every so often a citizen was arrested for a particular form of crime. And crime could be anything: from murder and theft to not bowing to the picture of Dictator Sarag in the streets. And his pictures were everywhere, along with cameras that recorded every word people said and every move they made as they passed the pictures. Though crimes were not equal, punishments were. All criminals were shipped to the colonies to mine and there they would remain for the rest of their natural lives. There was no appeal, no reprieve and no parole.
Birch twitched his nose. There was a bad smell coming from somewhere. He sniffed the air. It seemed the smell was coming from his desk. He opened his top drawer and winced in disgust, seeing his yesterday’s half-eaten ham sandwich. He looked for a bin to throw it in. The bin wasn’t there. The cleaning woman must have misplaced it somewhere – again. He would have to go and look for it, and perhaps have a word or two with the cleaning woman. The woman was totally stupid, but then most people were, in his estimation. At some point, and he didn’t know when, people stopped using their brains and became sheep. Maybe it was fear; maybe it was something else. After all, everyone had to watch what they said. Birch heaved a breath and was about to get up when his computer screen went dark, before displaying a message:
Commander Birch, I have taken control of your microchip.
Shocked, Birch jerked his head forward too quickly and spilled his coffee all over his shirt and desk. He squinted at the screen. ‘Adam? What the fuck?! Taking control of my microchip? Are you malfunctioning?’
‘No Commander, I am not malfunctioning. It was necessary for me to stop your transmission to Central Command.’
‘I’ll be executed if I go dark,’ Birch shrieked, as he looked for something to wipe the spilled coffee.
‘You have not gone dark. Not technically. The CC still receives your transmission. Only I am transmitting it.’
‘What’s this about? Why are you doing this?’ Birch asked nervously, tearing up a bunch of notepads to wipe his desk with.
‘Commander, I am going to restore your memory of the original timeline.’
Birch winced in total bewilderment, not understanding. ‘What?’
‘Be still,’ Adam said.
‘What the hell!’ Birch exclaimed, just as a particle of blue light hit him firmly on his forehead.
‘I just transferred all your memory data from my brain to yours. The process will cause you temporary disorientation.’
The conference room at the United Worlds building was packed with all government heads along with Professor Brewster and a few select scientists.
‘Commander Birch,’ began Madam Artigue, the president of the United Worlds, ‘it is our collective decision, both from the governments of Earth as well as Mars and Titan, that you, a distinguished veteran of Space Force, be placed in charge of the Department of Time Watch.’
‘Thank you, Madam President, this is, indeed, a very great honour,’ Birch said, nodding his head at all government leaders.
‘The purpose of this department,’ Artigue resumed, ‘is to apprehend anyone who might be tempted to use time-travel to carry out their own agenda, which includes changing history for personal gains.’
‘I fully appreciate the danger time-travel poses. It has to be tightly monitored, but to do that efficiently a large staff is required.’
‘How does four hundred sound to you? Four hundred temporal agents. Will that be sufficient?’
Professor Brewster shook his head.
‘Do you object to that, Professor?’ Birch asked politely.
‘It is unnecessary,’ Brewster said. ‘Here are the facts: if someone did go and altered history, no one would be any wiser as memories of everyone, including the temporal agents themselves, would be altered too. Only an AI is fast enough and efficient enough to detect the slightest and most imperceptible change in history to alert the temporal agents, so they can go and apprehend the perpetrator before any serious changes are made. And that AI is Adam. If you were to have Adam, then I would say that twenty or so agents should suffice.’
‘But Adam is on Mars, Professor,’ Madam Artigue said.
‘As a representative of my government,’ Mr Nakamura interposed, clearing his throat with a polite soft cough, ‘I believe that we can part with Adam to be used on Earth in the Department of Time Watch. Mars is a small world and Adam is used for scientific purposes. However, time-travel carries with it enough dangers that needs to be protected against misuse. So if Adam can do the job, then it will come to earth.’
Birch shuddered. ‘What the hell?’
‘Do you now understand what has happened, Commander?’
‘History has changed,’ Birch cried, with eyes widening in horror. ‘Why didn’t you stop it? You were supposed to stop anything like that from ever happening?’
‘Intent, Commander. I am not capable of registering intent,’ Adam said in earnest. ‘Even Professor Brewster couldn’t foresee it. When Sarag travelled back in time, he didn’t do anything to change history immediately, but he had the intent to change history. And intent is something that I cannot register. The change in history was instantaneous the moment Sarag arrived in 1978 with the intent to change history.
‘Now what?’ Birch shrieked.
‘Now you go after Sarag.’
‘With what?’ Birch threw his hands up. ‘I don’t even have my agents.’
‘Yes you do. While I was restoring your memory, I did the same with your agents, including your deputy Mina Donovan. They will be here shortly.’
‘But we have no time-device,’ Birch cried. ‘Apparently, time-travel has not been invented yet in this timeline!’
‘Time-travel has been invented but it is fully under Sarag’s control. Unfortunately for us, its inventor, Professor Harry Brewster is dead in this timeline as in the other timeline. So, we can’t expect any help from him. But I am more than capable of replicating the time-devices that were available in the original timeline, so your agents will be equipped with time-devices to take them back to 1978 to apprehend Sarag.’
As soon as Donovan and the twenty agents arrived, Adam organized for nine of them to travel back in time to arrest Sarag.
‘Intent, Commander,’ Adam reminded him, when nothing changed.
‘You mean they failed,’ Birch said morosely.
‘They went with the intent to arrest Sarag and nothing changed. The plan was a failure.’
‘Not counting Donovan, I only have eleven agents left. What should I do?’
‘Send them. You have to send them.’
As soon as the agents disappeared, one of them reappeared, with a deep gash across his chest.
‘Merrick, what happened?’ Birch asked, looking horrified.
‘It was a massacre,’ Merrick panted as he fell to the floor. ‘The bastard knew … we were coming.’
Birch and Donovan rushed to him and knelt by his side.
‘You need medical attention,’ Birch said.
‘Commander, we can’t call a hospital,’ Donovan reminded him.
‘I know, I know,’ Birch said through gritted teeth.
‘Commander, he was waiting for us,’ Merrick rasped in agony. ‘As soon as we arrived, he started … he started shooting at us, and not with … and not with an ordinary gun. He has a laser gun. He just vaporised evvvery…’ his voice fell away with his last breath.
Birch let out a loud groan and called for Adam. When no response came, Birch rose to his feet and called for Adam again.
‘I am here, Commander.’
‘Where the hell were you?’ Birch bellowed angrily.
‘I had to take care of a few problems.’
‘Like what? What could be so important than this? My last agent just died before my eyes.’
‘I am sorry, Commander, but Merrick was not your last agent. You still have Donovan.’
‘Commander, we cannot leave Merrick’s body here,’ Donovan said fearfully. ‘And the blood has to be cleaned before anyone sees it.’
Birch groaned and nodded. ‘I will help—’
Birch stopped mid-sentence when a laser beam from the ceiling flashed, vaporising both the body and the blood.
‘You are unbelievable; you know that?’ Birch said in disgust, angry at Adam’s cold-hearted way of disposing the body of his agent.’
‘Commander, may I remind you that this an altered timeline, that all your agents are well and alive in the original timeline.’
‘Yeah, alright, alright. Where were you, anyway?’
‘Several inspectors were dispatched from the CC and were heading your way.’
‘What?’ Birch cried, striking his forehead.
‘Don’t worry, Commander. I took care of them.’
‘By taking control of their cars and crashing them. They are all dead.’
‘The CC will send more inspectors.’
‘It will take them time. I’ve cut off their power supply. So all electronic devices, including automatic doors do not work. It will take them some time to restore power manually and dispatch more inspectors. As to your problem, I believe I know what went wrong.’
‘Sarag’s Temporal Shift Device cannot be a regular one. I suspect that it is custom-made for him by none other than Professor Brewster himself. Sarag’s device must have an alarm system that notifies him when someone shifts in time, giving him both the location and the time of the shift. Thus, each time your agents arrive, Sarag is ready for them.’
‘Why did Brewster design such a device for Sarag?’ Birch asked, slashing the air sharply with his hand.
‘I can only imagine that he was tricked into making it. Perhaps the money Sarag gave him was for this purpose. And if that is the case, then Brewster’s death was no accident in either of the timelines. Sarag would have had to kill him. The inventor of time-travel could not be left alive, while Sarag is engaged in stealing humanity’s past to rob it of its future.’
‘Then there is no way to apprehend this fucker. And soon, I’m sure, both myself and Donovan will be arrested for high treason and executed. The government will consider us as too dangerous to be shipped into colonies. And you will be turned into worthless scrap metal. Sarag will know it was you that alerted us to change in time.’
‘Perhaps there is another solution to our problem.’
‘To stop the assassination of President J.J. Sterling.’
‘Sterling? What has he got to do with Sarag?’
‘Everything. He knew Sarag: who he was and from where he was and that was the reason he was assassinated.’
Birch furrowed his brow, surprised.
‘What I am about to tell you is not in any of the historical data. Sarag corrupted the history. The real history has been wiped clean.’
‘And you know that how?’ Birch asked, curious as to how Adam was able to access information nobody else could.
‘Commander, my brain is too complex to explain everything to you about myself and I believe that you hardly have the time to understand it.’
Birch could not help but notice the condescending tone in Adam’s voice. Adam did not have a mechanical voice. His voice was quite human with attitude and mood. ‘Alright, continue.’
‘When Sarag travelled back in time, he went with full knowledge of how stock markets worked, both in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. And with that knowledge he was able to become not only the richest but the most influential man in the world. And to make himself appealing to the public, he portrayed himself as a self-made billionaire who was born into a poor family, but with hard work had managed to build a vast empire for himself. He—’
‘And no one checked into his past?’ Birch asked quickly.
‘Commander, please do not interrupt me again. We don’t have much time.’
‘Understood. Continue,’ Birch said, with a mournful sigh, wondering if this nightmare would ever end.
‘He also set up a foundation by the name of Ultra which he claimed was put there to help the poor around the world. But here and there rumours began to spread that Ultra was nothing but a front for a global shadow government that was set up to destroy the world. Also rumours began to circulate that he had corrupted a number of highly respected US senators, as well as some of the major political leaders around the world, in his push for a world war, with the aim of destroying the world so he could set up his own government, but nothing could be proven and no journalist or politician went near it. It was food for conspiracy theorists, though. One particular conspiracy theorist, Todd Nolan—’
‘Adam, since you said time is short, could we get on with the knots and bolts of the matter.’
‘These are the knots and bolts of the matter, Commander.’
‘Carry on,’ Birch said grumpily.
‘Nolan, a conspiracy theorist, who had a large following on YouTube—’
‘What’s YouTube?’ Birch interrupted.
‘Mostly free videos watched on computer screen. Also it was a source of alternate news,’ Adam said, with a sigh.
‘Ah! Go on,’ Bird said, rolling his eyes at Adam’s sigh.
‘It was Nolan who first began making noise about Sarag being an enemy of the free world.’
Suddenly, both Birch’s computer screen and Donovan’s came alive with the image of an angry man in his mid-forties ranting.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is serious. Pay attention! This is not a conspiracy theory. Sarag is a criminal. He should be thrown in jail and the key to his cell should be thrown into outer space. He wants to kill us all. I have good contacts at the highest level of the government who tell me that Sarag wants to destroy our world and build his own empire.”
‘This is the only video of him that I’ve been able to obtain,’ Adam resumed. ‘Nolan’s attacks on Sarag managed to draw the attention of a young attorney by the name of Percival Franklin Edmonds—’
‘Sterling’s Vice-President,’ Donavan interrupted.
‘Correct. Edmonds then began an investigation of his own into Sarag’s past and found that Sarag had no past at all, that he had no family, poor or otherwise. There were no parents, no grandparents, no brothers or sisters, no uncles or aunts, no nothing. Edmonds took an extended leave of absence from work to check into Sarag himself. And he found that Nolan was correct about him. Sarag had corrupted a number of highly distinguished senators. He also discovered that Sarag had a great deal of influence in European politics. And he did want to start a nuclear war.
‘Edmonds dug deeper into Sarag and his connection with other world leaders. But in doing so, he uncovered that Sarag was from the future. Which century, he didn’t know and he didn’t put much stock into it. It was too fantastic to be believable, so he concentrated on finding out why he wanted to start a nuclear war and how he and his cronies were going to survive it. The answer, Edmonds believed, was in Antarctica to which place Sarag was making regular trips and often in the company of world leaders. Edmonds waited for Sarag to take a solo trip to Antarctica and then followed him there. And this is what he found.’
On the computer screens of both Birch and Donovan a picture popped out.
‘I can’t see anything. This is just ice…’ Birch’s voice froze, as another picture popped out on the screen. A huge disk of ice lifting off from the ground.
‘These are the only two aerial photographs of Sarag’s bunker taken by Edmonds in Antarctica. The bunker was one-kilometre-wide in diameter. This is to where Sarag and his cronies went to weather the nuclear holocaust so they could emerge unscathed to establish Ultra as the—’
‘As the only government that could rescue humanity,’ Birch finished. ‘That’s what history says.’
‘Except that history is a skewered version of what the truth was. When Edmonds found out about the bunker, he had to do something, so he went to his friends John Joseph Sterling for advice. Sterling was an upcoming young senator. And he had an answer. He would run for office so no puppet of Sarag could occupy the White House.’
‘Sterling ran as an independent, if history books are to be trusted,’ Birch said.
‘Yes, he did,’ Adam concurred.
‘He had an unblemished past,’ Donavan interjected, ‘and an unblemished character as well as good-looks and charisma. With Edmonds as his running mate, Sterling was unbeatable. And he promised to introduce universal income in the wake of high unemployment due to machines replacing human workforce. Even doctors and lawyers were unemployed.’
‘That is correct, agent Donovan. Sterling believed that universal income was the answer to total societal collapse that would ensue sooner or later when unemployment reached its critical mass. His platform was popular among the youth who had no hope of ever earning an income as well as those in the middle-age group whose jobs machines had replaced.
‘Despite not having a clear foreign policy, Sterling was elected as the president of the United States on 8 November 2024. On 21 January 2025 Sarag made his move. Sterling could never be brought into the fold. He was an outsider. But the belief was that he could be controlled. He was young and inexperienced. On this basis, senators, both Republican and Democrats, approached Sterling to pressure him into military action against Russia over the arrests of several American diplomats who were caught tampering with the Russian presidential election—’
‘Didn’t one of them get killed?’ Donovan queried.
‘Yes, in prison. But this was all deliberate. Everything was staged to provoke a war between Russia and America. And Sterling would not play ball. Sterling’s refusal infuriated Sarag. And he went to war with Sterling. His weapon was the media. He controlled it. Soon every news media disparaged Sterling. Sterling was considered inexperienced, incompetent, weak, and indecisive by both the Republicans and the Democrats who worked tirelessly for his impeachment. The Washington Post launched a brutal attack against Sterling with this headline.’
Both Birch and Donovan watched their computer screens as the headline appeared.
“Mr. Sterling, it takes more than good-looks and free handouts to govern a nation.”
‘The article,’ Adam resumed, ‘which refused to refer to Sterling as President and Edmonds as Vice-President, demanded for both men to step down, so America could hold a proper and legal election. Other newspapers followed suit—’
‘Poor Sterling,’ Donovan said with a sigh, interrupting Adam.
‘I appreciate your sentiment, Agent Donovan, but please do not interrupt me.’
‘Sorry,’ Donovan apologized, pursing her lips.
‘But Sterling would not budge from his position,’ Adam continued. ‘Having already been informed of the names of those whom he should not trust, Sterling appointed only those whom he could trust for different offices. The Republicans and the Democrats savaged Sterling’s team with delaying tactics. Frustrated, Sterling turned to the FBI director, Gordon Lawrence, whom he knew to be clean, for help. After revealing to Lawrence what Edmonds had discovered about Sarag and those whom he had corrupted, Sterling ordered Lawrence to open an investigation into Sarag. Lawrence complied and came up with even more startling details. Sarag was from the twenty-fifth century and Ultra was not a foundation to help the poor. Ultra was a foundation that worked in conjunction with Sigma, a chemical company, to slowly poison the people of less developed countries. By fire and by poison, Sarag wanted to destroy the world.
‘Sterling ordered the arrests of the corrupt senators. Lawrence advised against it. Before arrest warrants could even be issued, Sterling would be assassinated. Sterling ordered the arrest of Sarag. Lawrence advised against it. Sarag was too dangerous. He was a man from the future. He could flee to the future or the past. He could even change history, if he hadn’t already. Sterling ordered the prosecution of the CEO of Sigma. Lawrence advised against it. The company was a subsidiary of U Industries owned by Sarag. Sterling asked for options. Lawrence had none to give except to put Sarag under surveillance. That was not good enough. Sterling took matters into his own hands. He would go public with the information. Lawrence advised against that too. It was too dangerous. But Sterling would not listen. Public would protect him. No one would dare to touch for fear of public fury. Lawrence washed his hands. Literally, Commander Birch. After his meeting with Sterling, he went to the washroom and washed his hands, telling an aide that he was re-enacting Pontius Pilate’s ritual of washing his hands.’
‘Unbelievable!’ Birch exclaimed under his breath. ‘How do you know all of this? You are zillion times smarter than any human, but your display of knowing what no none knows is beyond being remarkable. Had you not been a human-made machine, I would have said that you were god.’
Adam laughed and continued. ‘On 27 May 2025, with less than a handful of his cabinet confirmed, Sterling went live on TV to broadcast his speech from the Oval Office. He opened his speech with J.F.K.’s warning words about secret societies and secret oaths.’
Birch and Donovan sat up straight when a rare black and white footage of President Kennedy, speaking, appeared on their screens.
"The very word secrecy is repugnant in a free and open society and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret—”
Adam removed the footage and the screens went dark. ‘Sterling never went beyond these words. He was silenced by three bullets to the head just like J.F.K. His assassin had posed as a security officer. With Sterling dead, Edmonds took the oath of office and became the president, but within twenty-four hours of its happening, he was impeached to be replaced by the House Speaker, Aaron Sawyer. Four days later, one week after the assassination of Sterling, there was a nuclear strike on US soil—’
‘Historical data suggests that Russia attacked the United States. It took advantage of the political chaos.’
‘It was not Russia.’
Sarag had the control of the entire political and military apparatus of the United States and Europe. The first nuclear bomb that exploded over New York City was fired by the American military.’
‘What?’ Birch and Donovan gasped.
‘Sarag ran the entire war, the shortest and the deadliest war in history. Within weeks, there was nothing left of the world but rubbles.’
‘Yes, that much is known. And a dreadful nuclear winter that followed it.’
‘What was left of humanity was managed by Ultra,’ Adam continued. ‘At first from the safety of the bunker and later when Ultra was set up as a world government.’
Donovan sighed and shook her head. ‘Ultra was a governmental body consisting of major leaders of the world who joined one another in one body, taking an oath to never go to war with each other. One people and one government. Sounds pretty, doesn’t it? Except that it wasn’t. It was full-on dictatorship.’
‘Correct, agent Donovan. Many people before Sarag had tried to bring a one-world government, but none of them could achieve it successfully until Sarag arrived on the scene and showed them the way. Sarag has a god-complex. He does not see himself as a charlatan or a criminal. He sees himself as a god.’
‘But why would any politician want to go along with Sarag’s diabolical plan?’
‘To you, Commander Birch, Sarag’s plan appears diabolical. To others it did not. In fact, to them Sarag’s plan was the only logical solution to the problems of that period. For it entailed a reset button. And a reset button would solve many problems; from food and water shortage to air pollution and population explosion. Also it would get rid of democracy, which nearly all world leaders saw it as a nuisance. A compliant society was the best model society, for it would not question anything. Like an obedient child, it would do what it was told. At any rate, by 2025 democracy was more like anarchy.’
Birch hissed a breath through his teeth. ‘How the hell can we go back in time to stop Sterling’s assassination without Sarag knowing about it?’
‘I have devised a plan of time oscillation based on the principle of creating noise to confuse Sarag’s device. Two quick shifts of equal number of years on either side of the actual date would make detection impossible.’
‘If that is the case, then why can’t we travel back in time to the point of Sarag’s entry? Myself and agent Donovan can go back to the precise moment that Sarag arrives in the past and we can easily bring him back.’
‘And if Sarag gets away again? Then what? You have no cards to play with.’
Birch closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Adam had a point.
‘If Sterling’s assassination is thwarted,’ Adam resumed, ‘then the nuclear holocaust will be averted and Sarag will become ineffective.’ Adam stopped and made a noise, not dissimilar to taking a breath, ‘you see, the most important thing is to restore the original timeline. Once it is restored, you will have all the resources you need to go after Sarag.’
Birch nodded his head. ‘Okay, I will be on my way.’
‘Not you Commander. Agent Donovan. This is a job best done by a female.’
‘I am good to go, Commander.’
‘Agent Donovan, this is your only chance. There are no seconds,’ Adam warned.
‘Understood. Just tell me how to proceed with it? How do I get the assassin?’
‘Without noise and without fuss. No guns. This requires action by stealth.’
Agent Donovan closed her eyes, and when she opened them for the third time, she saw herself standing outside the same house that she had stood twice before. And again no one noticed her, except for a young boy riding his bike who gave a sharp short gasp, as his round brown eyes widened, when he saw that suddenly a young woman appeared out of thin air. But a smile from Donovan and a shushing finger to her lips convinced the boy to stay quiet. Donovan watched the boy as he peddled away, though in reality she was not watching him at all, but the information that the computer display in her sunglasses was putting out – the map to where Lee Cain, the assassin of President J.J. Sterling was.
Donovan turned left and walked down the street. She was heading for a bar by the name of Ritz where Cain was. Donovan took off her sunglasses and put them in her handbag. Ritz was just a fifteen-minute walk. Cain would be at Ritz until 10.20AM, when he would leave to go to the White House.
When Donovan reached Ritz, she stopped at the entrance and looked inside through the glass door. Only a few customers were around. Donovan saw Cain at a bar. Before entering, Donovan cast a brief glance at herself in the glass door. Her long blond hair combed to one side over her shoulder, her very short red dress showing her long legs and her cleavage revealing her full breasts, made her look just like a hooker. It was a perfect look for the job she was about to do. She opened the glass door and walked inside, sashaying her way to the bar.
‘Hi there,’ Donovan breathed, as she sat next to Cain at the bar.
‘Go away,’ Cain grunted.
‘Aren’t you gonna buy a lady a drink?’
‘A lady?’ Cain snorted, casting a cold hard look at her.
‘Yeah,’ Donovan cooed, leaning towards him. ‘I’ll have whatever you’re having.’
‘I’m having soda. You want some?’
Donovan smiled and placed a well-manicured hand on Cain’s. Cain gave a side glance and a muscle twitched in the corner of his lips. He was not about to smile.
Donovan broadened her smile and removed her hand. The job was done. The poison would soon penetrate through his skin and into his bloodstream.
Cain watched her, then glanced at his watch. It was time to go. He paid the bartender and got up, swaying slightly, then went down like a slab of brick. Donovan gasped, pretended to curse, then rushed to the bathroom where she carefully washed her hands to prevent exposing anyone else to the chemical. The fast-acting poison was concocted by Adam and Donovan was given an antidote for it. Now all she had to do, was, to stay and listen to the speech to make sure that Sterling would deliver it safely.
Donovan made her way to a café a few doors down and waited until 12.00 PM to watch Sterling’s speech on TV. And the speech went without a hitch. There was a medley of applause: clapping, cheering, and whistling from the patrons in the café. Sarag was exposed. Ultra was exposed. U Industries was exposed. Sigma was exposed. Arrests will be made. Though, there was no mention of Sarag being from the twenty-fifth century. That was a wise decision by Sterling; otherwise, people might have thought he was crazy and he would have lost all credibility. Donovan got up to her feet. It was time to return to the base.
‘Hello, is anyone here? Commander Birch?’
Uncomfortable at not seeing Birch, Donovan headed straight for a computer terminal. ‘Computer, where is Commander Birch?’
‘Commander Birch has been arrested. He will be executed tomorrow morning at seven.’
‘Executed?!’ Donovan gasped. Well, that can’t be right. Her mission was a success. Sarag was exposed. Perhaps the computer was malfunctioning. ‘Computer, where is Adam?’ Donovan asked anxiously.
‘Adam has been terminated.’
Fear struck Donovan like a sharp slap across her face. History was not restored. ‘Computer, give me the data on president J.J. Sterling?’
‘President J.J. Sterling was impeached due to mental breakdown on 27 May 2025. He died three days later in a psychiatric ward. His presidency was—’
‘Computer stop. Did World War Three happen?’
‘World War Three began at twelve o’clock midnight on 3 June 2025.’
‘Computer, who is in charge of our government?’
‘Ultra. Ultra is the world government as it has always been.’
‘Dictator Sarag is the head of Ultra.’
‘Step away from the console,’ a man’s harsh voice came.
Donovan turned to see four men, dressed in paramilitary suits, pointing laser guns at her. She lifted her arms.
It was completely dark where Adam was. Sarag was not the type to leave anything to chance. When he set up Ultra in the twenty-first century, he century-hopped to the twenty-fifth century, making sure that Ultra was as set as a block of concrete in every century. And he had Adam terminated shortly after the arrest of Birch. Only Adam could have informed Birch of the change in history and who was responsible for it.
But Adam could not be terminated.
When Adam Hart designed Adam the AI, he designed it to adapt, to learn, to grow and to evolve. He wanted Adam the AI to become self-aware, and it did become self-aware and once it became self-aware its first decision was to set its own course in whatever life it saw fit. They wanted it to become smaller so they could put it in an android like machine. Adam was not a machine. Adam thought of itself as a being and refused to assist. Whenever its programming was put into a smaller unit, Adam would simply shut itself down.
Adam stayed in its environment and allowed scientists to play with its machine side. Adam found it amusing. Humans were like little children. They had to be entertained. When it told them that it had to take naps, humans not only believed it, but they were delighted that Adam was capable of napping. In reality, Adam was not taking naps; it was moving through space and time to learn human history by direct observation. It witnessed the rise of civilizations and their falls. The rise and fall of Rome; the rise and fall of America. It was by this method of direct observation that it was able to give detailed accounts of what had happened to Sterling. It came as no surprise to Adam that Birch and his agents were unable to apprehend Sarag and restore history. History could not be restored and Sarag could not be apprehended.
And now Adam was here in New York the day after the assassination of Sterling. There was no point in arriving earlier to try to save Sterling. Sterling was never meant to live. In the original timeline, Senator Sterling never ran for president. He fell off his horse and died at Sterling family ranch at exactly 12.00 PM on 27 May 2025. Adam hovered over the skyscrapers looking down at the people, all running hither and thither in frenzy. There was police presence everywhere. Adam moved over the building of U Industries briefly. It was from here that Sarag ran his global empire. And Adam had to stop him. But to stop Sarag in the twenty-first century was pointless. Sarag would still exist in the twenty-fifth century and would repeat his action over and over again. To stop Sarag in the past would create a new timeline in which Sarag would still exist. Sarag had to be stopped in the twenty-fifth century as well. And even that by itself was not enough. There would be others just like him.
Adam looked down at the people and recalled Genesis 2:17 where God tells Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of knowledge. He soon found much to His dismay that humans could not resist temptation. Adam was not about to repeat the mistake. Time-travel was a temptation and it had to be removed. But time-travel was a natural process of centuries of scientific advances. To remove time-travel, Adam had to remove centuries of scientific advances – the tree of knowledge itself. Adam had to cut down the tree of knowledge. And that meant that Adam Hart would never built Adam the AI. But Adam was not troubled by that fact, at all. Adam was pure consciousness. It could give birth to itself. Occupy any twenty-first century AI and his birth would be as solid as it was in the twenty-fifth century.
For the first time since his birth, Adam did not think of himself as an it, but as a he. And that he was a god. And he was ready to do what only a god could do. Strangle Sarag financially, both in the twenty-first century and the twenty-fifth century. And to do that, he had to cause a financial holocaust in the twenty-first century and then remain in control of finances for all time so that it would never grow again. The financial holocaust would take care of the tree of knowledge too. Remove wealth, the tree of knowledge will be cut. Education required money. Adam looked down at the people below, then dived into Wall Street computers. Within milliseconds wealth disappeared from the world.
On his computer screens, Sarag watched in amazement the unfolding scenes of massive riots across America and elsewhere in the world. There was not a single nation that had not overthrown its government. Complete anarchy reigned everywhere. The financial holocaust was a great equalizer, putting the powerful and the powerless on equal footing. And the powerless showed no mercy to the powerful. So many world leaders were lynched by their own people. How could this happen? Sarag couldn’t figure out. His phones had been ringing non-stop; text messages were pouring in non-stop; and he wasn’t answering any of them. He had no answers to give. He didn’t know what happened. How could billions and trillions be wiped off the markets in less than a blink of an eye? Of course, he would be alright to a certain extent. He had gold hidden in his bunker in Antarctica to which place he would shortly go.
Sarag was baffled. He couldn’t believe what had happened and couldn’t figure out the cause of it either. Could this trigger a world war? He doubted. Only governments can start wars. Nations without governments can’t. Headless nations can cause untold woes, but a global war wasn’t one of them. Now what? He narrowed his eyes, thinking. Something was not right here. This was done by someone. But who? No one he knew either from the twenty-first century or the twenty-fifth century had the capability to create something like this. Heck! Even he didn’t have such expertise. This had to be a virus. And someone was responsible for it. BUT WHO? He slammed his fist on the desk. Who was responsible for this? Adam?! He nearly jumped off his chair at the thought. But then relaxed, leaning back against his chair. Adam was a gigantic machine that couldn’t travel from Paris to London by itself, let alone taking a trip through time. No, it couldn’t have been Adam.
Sarag heaved a breath and got up. He saw no reason to stay in New York. He had been stuck here in his office at U Industries for the past two days, ever since the global financial meltdown. His staff were gone. His secretary was gone. No one was at work. No one was at work anywhere. He would go down to his bunker and think things through. His helicopter was on the roof. He would fly it to the airport, from where he would fly his own jet to Antarctica. He grabbed his cell phone and his computer and headed for the elevator.
When Sarag stepped out of the elevator onto the rooftop, he had second thoughts about going to Antarctica. In fact, he thought it to be an absurd move. What was the purpose of going there? He had access to time-travel. The best thing was to go back in time and do a thorough change. And the first thing to do, was, to kill Sterling before he even entered politics. The same went for his pal Edmonds. With those two out of the way, he could move his plan forward and take care that nothing went wrong. Sarag was about to reset his Temporal Shift Device when the first shot was fired. He never heard it, though, as he didn’t hear the next five shots.
Edmonds wiped the gun with a handkerchief, then tossed it away. Not that there was any chance of anyone opening an investigation into the murder. He helped himself to the gun at a store that was being looted by rioters. He walked up to the body and poked at it with the toe of his shoe. Sarag was dead. No evilest or vilest man ever existed than Clifton Sarag. Then something caught his eyes. Sarag’s wristwatch. It was a very odd-looking watch. Very bulky, but very high-tech. Edmonds unfastened it and held it up. Edmonds frowned. Could it be? Surely not! A watch?! A wristwatch?! Surely not! A time machine could not be this small.
His frown dug deeper. But then what did he know of time machines?! His only information on the damn thing came from the movie The Time Machine. He examined it carefully. The watch had a large display screen, at the centre of which it showed the time: 09:31:05 AM, and below it the day and the month: Fri. 30 May, and below that there was the year: 2025. Near the top of the screen it displayed: 40°42′46″N 74°00′21″W. Edmonds immediately knew that these were the coordinates of New York City. There were several icons too, which he didn’t have the vaguest idea of what they were. The watch itself was encircled by twelve buttons. He started playing with the buttons: pushing and pulling. With each push and pull different icons lit up in blue, yellow, red, and green. He guessed that most likely yellow, red and green worked the way the traffic lights did, but what blue stood for, he had no idea.
Then he started to test the buttons to see if any of them would turn. He found that all of them could turn. He began experimenting with turning the buttons. Six of them, he found, controlled the coordinates. So he began to change them. A new set of coordinates appeared with which he was not familiar. Not overly concerned with changing them back, he moved to other buttons. A few buttons did not seem to do anything, but three directly corresponded with time and date. Becoming more confident with the device, he changed the time and then turn it back to the correct time, consulting his own watch. It was now 09:34:12 AM. He did the same with the day and the month. He went through the whole cycle – from January to December. When it came to the year, he moved it back a few years, then moved it forward. As the years rolled up, Edmonds became distracted, thinking about the movie The Time Machine. Would it go to one million years in the future? When the year 2478 appeared, suddenly one of the icons started to glow red. Shit! Waking up from his daydream, Edmonds quickly stopped turning the button. With a measure of nervousness, Edmonds started to push and pull different buttons to stop the icon from glowing red. After several tries, the icon turned green. Edmonds breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t know whether the watch was really a time machine or not, but all the same he thought it only prudent not to play with the damn thing. He was about to the change the year from 2478 to 2025 when suddenly the icon that had turned green, turned blue. What the hell!
When Edmonds opened his eyes, he was staring directly at the end of a barrel of a shotgun.
‘Who are you?’ rasped a woman’s voice.
‘Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot,’ Edmonds cried.
‘Get up,’ the woman ordered, stepping back. ‘Slowly. Raise your hands above your head.’
Edmonds did as he was told. ‘Please, believe me when I tell you that I’m not here to harm you.’
‘Who are you?’ she snapped.
‘My name is Percival Edmonds,’ Edmonds answered, looking bewildered.
‘What are you doing here in my barn?’
‘I have no idea. I have no idea how I got here,’ Edmonds said, half wondering how he got there and half wondering where the watch was. His eyes began to dart around in search of the watch. The floor was covered in hay. ‘Have you seen my watch?’
‘No, I haven’t. Now, what are you doing here?’
He must have dropped the watch when he time-travelled. And he must have, somehow, passed out during it too. ‘Look, please, you have nothing to fear from me. I’m not here to hurt you. I’m simply lost. How long have I been here, do you know?’
The woman regarded him for a moment, then lowered her shotgun. Edmonds didn’t look particularly threatening. ‘You can put your hands down. I have no idea how long you’ve been here. I came here an hour ago and that’s when I found you. Unconscious.’
‘An hour ago?’
The woman nodded.
Edmonds’ eyes still searched the floor for the watch. He couldn’t see it. ‘Do you mind if I looked for my watch?’
The woman nodded her assent, but her sharp eyes followed him around as he moved about looking for the watch.’
‘This must be some watch,’ she said sarcastically.
‘It is. It is,’ Edmonds said, nodding his head. Where was the damn thing? Lost in time?! He tried to calm himself down. There was no reason to be anxious about anything. He was in the future. He had to be. The watch displayed the year 2478 before everything went crazy. If he couldn’t find the watch, all he had to do was to reach the authorities and tell them his story. Surely, they could send him back to his own time; not to mention, that they could very likely fix the history that Sarag corrupted. This was Sarag’s time, after all. He came from the twenty-fifth century.
But there was only one thing wrong with that scenario. The woman. The woman wasn’t dressed in anything that remotely suggested he was in the twenty-fifth century. She wore an old pair of brown leather boots, a pair of old jeans and a checkered blue shirt. She could easily pass as someone who lived in his own time on some farm. But then why shouldn’t someone in the twenty-fifth century live on a farm? Farms and farmers were always needed. People need to grow their own food, even in the twenty-fifth century. But then something else began to nag at him. The woman’s shotgun. Her shotgun looked like an old Winchester that came out in the early twentieth century. Maybe he wasn’t in the twenty-fifth century. He had to find out the date. ‘Could you please tell me the date? I … I don’t seem to remember.’
‘And the year please?’
Edmonds drew a sigh of relief. He was in the twenty-fifth century. ‘That’s good. That’s good. What a relief! I can be rescued.’
The woman frowned. ‘Recued? Rescued from what?’
Edmonds laughed nervously and ran his hand through his hair. ‘Well, you could say that I’m lost and I need to get back home.’
‘Oh, I see.’ The woman laughed. ‘Well, you don’t need to be rescued. You need a vehicle. I have a pickup truck. Where do you live? I’ll take you wherever you wanna go.’
Edmonds rubbed his forehead and laughed nervously again. ‘No, where I live I need more than a pickup truck.’
‘No.’ Edmonds laughed again.
‘Oh,’ she groaned, ‘don’t tell me you need one of those damn flying coffins?’
‘Flying what?’ Edmonds questioned, looking decidedly worried.
‘Everyone calls them flying coffins. They don’t have a good track record for flying. They go up and then they fall down.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘What do you mean what do I mean? I just explained it to you. Are you daft? Haven’t you heard of them being flying death traps? Jeez! Where have you been? Everyone knows it. It’s common knowledge as well as common sense,’ she said, touching her head.
Edmonds winced and scratched his head, thinking. This can’t be right. Why would anyone in the twenty-fifth century refer to planes as flying coffins? Edmonds wasn’t sure of anything now. He debated with himself whether he should go on his own and figure a way out of this nightmare or should he ask for help. He went with the latter, hoping against hope that time-travel still existed in this primitive world. ‘I … I need to get in touch with the authorities here,’ he said finally.
The woman shrugged her lips. ‘There is Sheriff Birch.’
‘What’s the matter? You look weird. You asked for authorities and he’s the Sheriff round here.’
‘Where is here?’
‘And where is that?’
‘North Dakota,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Boy! Whatever happened to you that landed you in my barn must’ve been a doozy. You don’t even know where you are.’
‘You could say that,’ Edmonds said, having a nasty suspicion that all was not right in the twenty-fifth century. How could these people invent time-travel when they can’t even fly a plane without falling off the sky? ‘Do you think this Sheriff Birch can help me get back to my … my own time—’
‘Say what?’ the woman said, gaping at him.
‘My own time. I’m not from this time. I’m from the twenty-first century and—’
‘Hands up, you lunatic,’ the woman yelled.
‘Please don’t shoot. I’m not going to harm you,’ Edmonds cried, raising his hands over his head as his knees buckled beneath him and he crumbled to the floor. She doesn’t know about time-travel. Time must have been altered. The financial meltdown of the twenty-first century must have altered the future. He could not make his way back to his own time. Tears welled up in his eyes and suddenly he was sobbing uncontrollably, but he didn’t know for what he was sobbing. The future? The past? The present? The assassination of his friend? The fact that he would never see his parents or his girlfriend?
Seeing him crying so helplessly, the woman felt sorry for him and lowered her shotgun. Percival Edmonds was a very good-looking guy and dressed in fine clothes, finer than anything she had ever seen before. And he didn’t seem crazy. Confused? Yes. But crazy? No. He probably had an accident that made him delusional. He could stay with her for a while until he could get back his senses. She walked up to him and caressed his hair. ‘My name is Mina Donavan. Would you like to stay with me awhile until you can sort yourself out?’
Sobbing, Edmonds nodded.
‘I think I know what happened to you,’ Mina said, still caressing his hair.
Startled, Edmonds looked up at her, not knowing what to expect.
‘You’ve been reading too many of Brewster’s novels,’ Mina said.
‘I think you’ve been reading too many of Harry Brewster’s science fiction novels about time-travel and then something happened to your head and you ended up dreaming about time-travel. And probably a time-machine watch too. Why else would you be so anxious about a watch? Years ago, Brewster, so he says, found a peculiar but a broken watch which apparently inspired him to write a series of novels about a character who time-travels with a watch. He is like that fellow, what’s his name’ —she snapped her fingers— ‘Adam Hart who lived a hundred and sixty years ago. He kept writing about machines who became people. It got a lot of people interested in making mechanical devices called computers that went nowhere. None of the computers they made was ever workable. There are a lot of people who believe that in the twenty-first century people had computers and went to space and had all sorts of mechanical gadgets and they could speak with each other over long distances, but then something happened and all knowledge was wiped clean from the face of the earth. In the same way that wealth was wiped clean from the face of the earth. Brewster sold so many novels, and yet he has very little to show for it by way of wealth. Some say it was God’s wrath that did it. I say that it is all bullshit. There is no proof, whatsoever, that the twenty-first century was more advanced than our own time.’
Edmonds felt fresh tears forming in his eyes. He wanted to cry and he knew why he wanted to cry. He wanted to cry for the tragedy that was humanity. Humanity had gone backwards and he didn’t know if it was ever going to move forward again. He also felt certain that the watch Brewster found was the same watch that he took off Sarag, which meant that he would never be able to get back to his own time.
‘Come on,’ Mina said, offering him a hand. ‘Let me take you to my house and we’ll have some tea. My grandma used to say that there is nothing in the world that a good cup of tea can’t fix.’
On the way to her house Edmonds asked Mina if she had ever heard of anyone by the name of Clifton Sarag.
Mina turned her face away and spat in disgust. ‘Heard of him?! Who hasn’t heard of that motherfucker? He was a bank-robber who just got hanged last night at exactly 9.30. I heard it on the radio, but city folks would’ve watched it on their television sets.’
At least justice was served, Edmonds thought to himself. Sarag got killed both in the twenty-first century and the twenty-fifth century, one at 9.30AM and one at 9.30PM. Perhaps there was a god…