As the wind harmonized through the trees, the child sang to herself. The universe made melody all around her with its instruments of nature and reality. Though no one else heard it, the child remained content to listen to the symphony.
For all the disease and societal ills cured by technology and science, the one plague that continued to ravage mankind was bureaucracy. Deena Haden came back to this thought frequently, most often in the atrium where she spent her lunch breaks watching the National Administration of Scientific Endeavors and Aerospace Development campus slowly transform from spacious haven of greenery into yet another monstrous eyesore of misdirected government spending, useless acronyms and reckless reappropriation. NASEAD did well to hold out as long as it did thanks to nostalgia. Deena understood that the love of science in popular culture tended to be cyclical and much like NASA before it, NASEAD faced the inevitable decline.
There would always be something to replace what was lost, but it didn’t ease her mind. Where science fiction promised unnatural monstrosities brought to life, it seemed political science created worse abominations of red tape. Once again, Deena would have to face one of that monstrosity’s underlings.
Even if the hideous orange of construction signage and obstruction made visibility difficult, Deena spotted Senator Crupe’s limo as it turned off the far avenue and passed through the front gate. Deena tapped out a quick message on her watch to let those in her department know that the vultures had finished circling and were on their way to the feast.
Deena made her way down to the spacious lobby, her echoing footsteps lost in the clomping noise made by her nervous partner. Erik Embiid dragged his heavy shoes across the speckled green floors as he paced the full length of the foyer between the security desk and the faux marble statue of a young girl in pigtails. So That the World Never Forgets its plaque read. On happier days, the foyer was a great place to hum.
“You’re doing yourself no favors, Erik,” Deena called as she reached the last trio of steps.
“I don’t see how you aren’t nervous,” Erik’s response, not halting his circuit. “How can you not be nervous?”
“Not the first senator I’ve dealt with, nor will it be my last. We’ll just do the song and dance and hope it changes.”
Erik continued to worry out loud, but Deena understood as well as he did that he would merely ramble on, unconscious of the fact that she would be distracted by the echoes of his shoes. He recognized his own propensity to go on like this just as she did, but Deena also realized her own tendency to drift in thought when she focused on ambient sounds. Though the idea remained unsaid, they knew their oddities made them good partners.
“Here we go,” Erik said, the sound of the limo door slamming bringing him from his stream of thought. Standing between two imposing security guards in suits were the visitors in question. The more impressive of the two was a brown-haired woman in glasses meant more for fashion than function. She towered over her companion, likely a star athlete at whatever university the senator plucked her from. Deena couldn’t decide if she was fresh off of graduation or simply hadn’t seen her enthusiasm broken by the political machinations of the short and squat Senator Crupe. Deena saw enough of the senator in public media to be convinced that he had the mouth of a sour puppet and the teeth of a dusty electric piano. She wanted to give the assistant some credit to her profession, but Crupe seemed the type to hire the right out of college darlings to be either trophy staff or potential conquests, willingly ignorant of qualifications and aptitude. Deena hated to make judgements, but people like Crupe made it easy, rarely skewing from form.
“Welcome Senator,” Erik said as the Washington tandem stepped through the automated door. He offered his hand to the senator, receiving only a half-hearted grip in reply.
“Good to be here,” Crupe replied, his lie obvious to everyone but him. “Some building you have here.”
“We like it,” Deena chirped, but the senator barely registered any recognition of her presence.
“It’s very- help me out here,” the senator went on.
“Neo art deco,” the assistant answered, not bothering to raise her eyes from whatever program she monitored on her tablet computer.
“Architecture was never my strong suit,” he said in his overly false smile. Deena wondered if she could play Chopsticks on his incisors. “Now, I didn’t catch your name, son.”
“Dr. Erik Embiid,” he replied to the senator who was likely his junior by a few years.
“Good to meet you, Erik,” the senator laughed, most likely in the process of forgetting the doctor’s name. “How about we kick off that tour?”
Crupe slapped Erik on the back, pushing him in a direction away from the two women, even if the senator hadn’t a clue as to where he was heading. Erik turned his head to Deena in protest, but she rolled her eyes and waved him on. She would gladly embarrass the sexist bastard later when she told him she was the project lead. As the two men walked away, the assistant stepped up to Deena, handing her a campaign sticker.
“We hope we can count on your vote in the senator’s upcoming re-election campaign.”
Deena kept her hands in her front pockets, looked at the sticker of red, white, and blue and then back to the assistant.
“Why would I vote for anybody that’s trying to take my job away?”
The assistant shrugged and followed after the senator and Erik. Deena let out a low breath, dreading the long afternoon. Taking a moment to center herself, she focused on the sound of her surroundings. After a lingering look at the statue of the young girl, Deena followed the echoes of three sets of feet.
Never had Alina seen the trees greener in the spring and though she knew much of her life lay before her, she could remember every spring since she was five, each possessing their own character and song. Her family enjoyed nothing more than to spend their weekends in the open air, just as the other local families did, taking in the oasis in urban turmoil. The vibrant colors of April and May seemed only to exist within the walls of the park, the result of a rare effort by city planning to preserve anything of natural quality. Her brothers would often run off with the other children to play, expelling the impossibly endless energy that grows exponentially when youngsters herd. Alina’s mother and father would find a spot to lounge under one of many oak trees gifted with blessed shade and relish in birds singing and the silence of children’s laughter. Picturesque captured life in the greenspace, a word that did not extend beyond the sidewalks and brick walls.
Erik drove the four-person golf cart flawlessly in spite of their unwelcomed guest’s gift for distraction. Crupe barely gave Erik a moment to get a word in, letting up only to breathe, and even in those brief moments, the senator filled the space with exuberant body language. Not a single word pertained to the tour or their destination. Embiid found himself subjected to stories of Crupe’s college exploits and the inner workings of American government through a highly politicized point of view. Deena watched the nameless assistant, just to gauge her responses. The brunette’s glasses covered eyes never left her tablet. Deena wondered for a moment if the assistant heard it all before but soon realized what the assistant did long ago. Ignoring Crupe’s seemingly endless talking would serve her much better.
As the cart drove along the path from the administration building to the main lab, Deena eased back, hands still in her pockets and watched the passing trees, each planted in honor of those men and women who dedicated their lives to long service with NASEAD. Though firmly rooted and looming, they’d be replaced with something metal or plastic. All that honor would be lost except in the memories of those who will be forced to move on.
There would always be something to fill the space.
The park possessed the old-world character that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the city since the reality of the times left little for things other than necessity. Yet, cracks in the streets and aging edifices meant more in Alina’s mind than just age. Things were falling apart slowly and though a twelve year old shouldn’t be burdened with such thoughts, this too was a reality. The world ripped at its own seems and where conflict ended, another would quickly take its place. It was all a discordant song.
“So, this is where it’s all going,” the senator declared. His tune had decidedly
changed over the course of the tour. Where Erik pointed out innovation and the future, Crupe saw tax dollars bleeding away. To this point, he only saw generic project titles. Had he seen any descriptions, he likely moved on. If his campaign was to be believed, these funds would be better spent oversees keeping the enemies of the nation decades behind. In the space of the past hour, Deena had grown to resent the senator more than she thought possible and she despised the senator’s assistant for being an enabler.
“You would be correct,” Deena answered, following with a pointed “for once” under her breath. For the first time that afternoon Crupe turned his attention towards her, obviously taken aback by the fact that anyone other than Erik had spoken.
“Senator Crupe, this is Dr. Deena Haden, project lead for…” Erik began.
“And what does it do?” the senator interrupted, waving his fingers and turning his attention towards no one in particular.
His finger, in all its circle waving glory, pointed to the black and silver dome that loomed above. Flat finished beams crossed in regular patterns that oddly looked like a nest. The floor countered that, built on hexagonal, translucent panels of dull white materials. Crupe may have been unimpressed, but nothing would have impressed the man short of fireworks and John Phillip Souza. Science rarely equated patriotism until it could be weaponized.
“We call it Temporal Observation and Navigation,” Deena explained with no expectation of her audience understanding. To his credit, Erik tried to rephrase.
“Or chronological archaeology.”
Crupe said nothing, attempting to hide his confusion. It was the assistant who saved him, chiming in to say what the senator was missing, all without looking up from her device.
Wide eyed, Crupe suddenly put his full focus on the magnitude of what lay presented before him. Deena couldn’t decide if the senator was terrified or excited. Neither possibility thrilled her.
“You’ve invented time travel?” he asked. “Honest to God time travel?”
“Not exactly,” Erik started.
“Make up your mind, son,” the senator interrupted. “Do you have it or not?”
“What we have, Senator Crupe, is a way to examine the past in ways we never have before,” Deena began as she wheeled in a mobile podium. With the flick of a few buttons, the nest chamber came alive. “Significant events throughout time echo rather profoundly, more so than others.”
“Meaning?” asked Crupe, squinting at a few of the overhead lights.
“Time gives off its own signals, somewhat like echolocation,” Erik replied. He stepped to Deena’s position, pulling from it two sets of headgear. As Erik handed a pair to the senator, Deena offered one to the assistant. Willingly oblivious, she sat in the corner.
“So, this is not time travel?”
“Our project works under the idea that time isn’t just a conceptual entity, it is a product of man. Because of this, time has resonance,” Erik explained, ignoring Crupe’s question. “And our chamber measures that resonance, analyzes it and reconstructs what we perceive of the past.”
“It’s a fancy television,” the assistant called, “stuck on the history channel.”
“Right,” the senator’s answer as he examined the headgear.
“How’d she get stuck with him?” Erik whispered to Deena.
“Come again?” the senator asked.
“With the chamber, we can search temporal resonance with an approximation of a time construct, or as we call it, an echo,” Deena went on. “Just as certain dates have great resonance, so do certain places and people.”
“You’re losing me here,” the senator grunted. “Just tell me why we’re dumping billions of dollars into this program.”
“Two years ago,” she resumed. “President Charles inauguration.”
Erik and Deena slipped on their headgear. Wisely, Crupe followed suite. The hum of the chamber grew louder as the nest went dark. Multiple projections from every fixture and beam created a holographic display of Earth, leaving the four people in the room to appear as if they were standing in space, at least to those wearing headgear. The assistant saw nothing but the flashing lights in the dome. As Deena operated the computer on the podium, the scope began to sharpen.
“Millions of people watched the telecast,” Deena explained. “And the location is easy. Better yet, thousands were there that day. Historically significant and resonant. Loved the speech. President Charles made an excellent echo for this test run.”
Suddenly Crupe, Deena and Erik found themselves standing next to President Charles as he took his oath of office. Crupe stepped towards his oft political opponent and reached out into the holographic ether. The senator ran his fingers through the President’s face, indicative of the disrespect Crupe notoriously showed.
“The laser light show is certainly impressive,” Crupe said. “But holograms have been on the market for decades.”
“Do you happen to remember where you were that day, Senator Crupe?” Deena asked.
“It was a busy day. I-”
“Took me a while to find you, Senator,” Deena said as she navigated her way through the virtual Washington. The scene shifted rapidly, moving from one familiar D.C. landmark to another. “But there’s enough scuttlebutt even this far south. Let’s see what you were up to at the National Archives.”
“I think you’ve proven your point,” the senator said, trying to put a stop to any further exploration. “This isn’t just replay. You can seek out other events.”
“Exactly,” Deena smiled. “The closer we are to the echo, the stronger the resonance. The further out we move from that echo, the more difficult it is for the chamber to analyze unless we can find another strong echo.”
“In theory, you could see any past event?” Crupe asked, finally grasping the subject.
“Dependent on resonance, yes.”
“What about the future?”
“We’ve not nailed that one down,” Erik interjected. “We don’t have an echo to lock on to. If an event hasn’t occurred for us, we don’t know what to search for. Resonance is dependent on many factors.”
“Plus every expedition we go on takes quite a bit of prep work and power,” Deena added before getting to the whole point of the tour. “And of course, funding.”
“Even still,” the senator’s mind wandered, “the applications for this are incredible. Intelligence gathering-”
“Would have similar problems,” Deena cautioned. “Resonance deals in hundreds of thousands to millions of people recognizing an event. Spying on a conference room of five isn’t going to work.”
“So the National Archives…”
“You were within the radius of the echo,” Deena answered, knowing the senator was regaining steam. “I found you by luck.”
“You don’t blackmail very well,” Crupe said in a rare moment of vulnerability.
“I’ll take your word for it,” Deena said. “Still, the intent of this project is not for intelligence or military purposes.”
“Even if that would weigh considerably in your favor?”
“Senator, I’m smart enough to realize that once Pandora opened the box, all that came out was ripe for weaponization,” Deena said, oddly resigned. “It’s the hope that is left in the box that I get to shape in order to help the world.”
Crupe didn’t speak for a moment, the silence even rousing the assistant.
“It’s a fair point, Doctor….”
“Show me what you hope to do and I’ll try my best to see if that can be justified.”
“Are you familiar with the Red Orphan?”
“The Red Orphan?” the senator asked, interest piqued.
Deena nodded and stepped aside as Erik cracked his knuckles before taking her place at the podium. Reinvigorated, she approached the senator as President Charles inauguration blinked out of its holographic existence, replaced by the nest chamber of black, silver and hum.
“We all know the story,” Deena began in a flourish of moving hands, the nest changing as Erik manipulated the controls.
“Systems online,” Erik called. “Date and location set. Chronolocation in five. Four.”
“Tensions in eastern Europe were at an all-time high, which if it wasn’t so disastrous, it would be impressive given the history. Yet another attempt at peace centered on Athens, Greece because, for once, it looked as if there was a legitimate chance something could be brokered, even if that belief was razor thin.”
“Echo located,” Erik drummed. “Chronal matrix centering.”
The nest transformed to a crowded park. Nearby, a road ran along its length, lined with throngs of people, each waving flags of peace and nationality. Crupe remained silent, suddenly standing amidst people who would see the most violent time in the world’s history. Deena took a deep breath knowing that she was about to watch and narrate something beyond difficult. History resonated more in difficult moments.
Alina looked around, wondering where the sudden hum was coming from.
Crupe and Deena stood amidst the internationally flavored crowd, looking in both awe and curiosity. Erik worked behind his panel, the only piece of equipment visible in the hologram recreation of the parade crowd. The assistant seemed to be sitting on thin air as her chair faded away under the power of the nest.
“Do you see her?” Crupe asked excitedly.
“Resonance is off the charts,” Erik called from his instrument panel. “She should be around here.”
“But it will be difficult in a crowd this size. Keep an eye out,” Deena went on.
“You can’t lock on or something?” Crupe asked.
“That would take further funding, Senator. This is, after all, a work in progress. Perhaps an extra pair of eyes would be helpful.” First Deena’s, then the eyes of Erik and Crupe fell upon the senator’s assistant. Suddenly aware of her summoning, she rolled her eyes and stood.
“Headset?” she said, shutting off her tablet and holding out a hand. As Erik went for the headset and the others went back to looking, the assistant stepped forward into a walk, revealing the image she had previously been blocking.
A girl in red.
“Alina,” her mother called. “Alina!”
She only heard her mother on the second call of her name, the distraction growing with every passing moment. Alina walked toward her mother who wore simple clothes but never looked anything less than wonderful to her daughter.
“Do you hear that?” Alina asked.
“Hear what?” the reply as her mother brushed off the grass and dirt a child will naturally collect while playing in a park.
“The humming,” Alina said, eyes still wandering. “And the singing.”
“You and the singing. Always with the singing.”
“It’s different now though,” Alina added.
“It may just be the parade,” Alina’s mother said in finality before pulling two red ribbons from her pockets. “Now, let me make your pigtails so the wind doesn’t blow hair in your eyes.”
“There, approaching the crowd from the park,” Crupe said, his excitement echoing his engagement. Deena and the assistant approached the holographic image, squinting with scrutiny.”
“Is that really her?” the assistant asked. “She’s with a family. She’s in red but not an orphan.”
“It’s always been suspected she was a refugee,” Deena countered. “And do not forget how many people died in the riot. Her entire family may have lost their lives.”
“Why is she constantly looking around?” Crupe asked, oddly observant.
“Does she know what’s coming?” the assistant added. Then almost in a panic, she asked another question.
She lost several nights sleep since finding out about the procession of diplomats, something she had never seen in person, only heard about. But Alina found herself unable to focus. The humming had grown louder, and the singing shifted in beautiful but unusual ways.
Why is she constantly looking around?
She held her mother’s hand as the two of them walked behind her father and siblings. None of them could hear it. None of them could understand or want to.
Does she know what’s coming?
Never had the echoes whispered so loudly. Never had these ghostly voices been more than idle noise. Now they seemed near her, among the people. Now at the parade, they were harder to hear.
But not impossible.
“She can hear us,” the assistant said. “Can she hear us?”
“No, she can’t,” Erik said with a confidence that started to crumble. “She shouldn’t.”
“I thought you said this wasn’t time travel,” Crupe pointed at Deena.
“It’s not, Senator. We are not actually there with the girl,” Deena tried to explain. “We can only see and hear her.”
“But she can hear us,” the assistant said louder, as if that proved her point. “Look at her. Something other than the parade has her attention.”
“I’m starting to see anomalies,” Erik called from his panel. Crupe rushed to look over the scientist’s shoulder as if he could understand what he saw.
“Meaning what?” the senator asked.
“Meaning stay calm,” Deena answered before joining them at the electronic readout. “The resonance is growing incredibly.”
“Meaning we’ve most likely reached the point we wanted to see, the point when the world dove into the biggest war since the twentieth century.”
The crowd grew quicker than Alina could keep track of. People drew in tighter to see the procession, their excitement louder with every second.
We are not actually there with the girl.
The echo startled her, leading her to look at the adults who towered above her. She could see none of their faces as they looked to the street. In the panic, she lost her mother’s hand, but there came an opening in the crowd, ever so slight.
Meaning stay calm.
So, she did.
Alina could see the street and the barrier. She would wait up front and watch the figures who passed. It wasn’t far from where the family had planned to be. She had been lost before and always found.
We’ve most likely reached the point we wanted to see.
“That’s where it starts,” Deena said, looking up from the panel of lights and anomalies.
“Are you sure?” Crupe questioned, still more focused on the panel.
“I’ve studied this picture endlessly, Senator,” Deena answered. “I’d recognize this spot anywhere.”
“We’re approaching the timeline marker. Procession in route,” Erik announced.
“In all that crowd is someone with the gun that sets this off,” Deena resumed, as the limo of significance turned the corner. “Whoever it is takes the shot and the secret service responds. In the chaos, the agent fires.”
“And the Red Orphan-” Crupe whispered to himself.
“Becoming the most famous image of the last one-hundred years because that one stray bullet starts a deadly riot that almost burns Athens to the ground,” Deena continued. “Changing the world for the worse.”
That’s where it starts.
“What starts?” she wondered. The parade? The procession was on its way, and she found the sheer number of people in sunglasses and black suits fascinating. But they looked, and sadly felt, like a uniform of their own and uniforms made her weary.
Are you sure?
Alina was sure. But this was a moment of hope, a march towards something better. All around her optimism screamed. Still, over that she heard the echoes and singing.
Then she felt a shift.
Are you one-hundred percent sure she can’t hear us?
The echoes came stronger.
The limo came closer.
She can hear us.
She nodded, thinking they’d stop arguing if she showed her agreement.
Did you see that?
Alina could no longer watch the procession. The echoes came too loud, even among the people around her. She tried to find their source, but swiveling around, she could find none. Only people cheering. That, and the man behind her, hands in his pockets.
Do you see him?
Alina certainly did, a blond man in a terrible need of a shave, a change of clothes and a happier disposition. A twelve year old should never judge but something about him-
The anomalies are off the chart.
Alina couldn’t turn away-
Who is she staring at?
–from his face and contemptuous stare.
Is- is that the shooter?
“Gun?” Alina asked with a peep.
What did she say?
“Gun,” she said louder.
Does she see it? I don’t-
The man, discovered, reached into his jacket.
She heard us! She heard us!
“Gun!” Alina screamed louder, seeing the weapon in hand.
The equipment isn’t responding!
Others saw it. The people. The uniforms.
Shut it down! Shut it down!
The people swarmed. The uniforms swarmed.
It’s changed! We changed it! She heard us and it changed!
In that moment, the gun was ripped away as the would-be shooter fell under the weight of those who refused to let the peace go, suddenly unified to a cause of passion. Alina watched on before uniforms swept her to safety and her family. She never saw the gunman again and the people cheered as the uniforms rushed the man away, perhaps to never be seen again by anyone. The limo continued on, unabated.
Oh my God! What’s happening to us?
The song now changed, not just in tone or melody or mood or speed. Everything. The echoes pierced with wild emotion, even as their volume faded. Alina’s head spun.
Readings are flatlined! We’ve lost everything!
Alina heard a man crying, growing even more distant.
What did you create, Haden? You’ve killed us!
Somewhere a scientist watched this moment of resonance even as her own world fell apart into the nothingness of non-existence. A single moment changed so much. There would always be war but not this war. With this one small change, millions wouldn’t meet the worst imaginable end and the reality that followed the moment the Red Orphan died would be gone, replaced by something better. Those people in Deena’s timeline would not die, rather they simply would not exist. Perhaps, they would exist in some other iteration but in a form altogether different.
The senator, for whom Deena felt the highest resonance, the loudest song, the greatest hum she ever experienced, was born from the echo in pigtails, a product of warmongering and paranoia. Deena heard his song, a violent, discordant anti-symphony, well before the project was complete. The billions fated to the ultimate end by his song would not die, rather they simply would not exist. The world would not end by his hand for it would not be there to destroy it.
There would always be something to replace what was lost except in that single discordant echo. Deena enjoyed her final song, one far greater than the one she always knew and the one she would ultimately know.
Alina hugged her mother close, trying to make sense of her own song and its infinitely new patterns of resonance. The world changed in a moment, all because of an echo.
Kyle says of himself: “I am a Texas born and raised writer of prose, poetry and plays. I’ve been previously published with short stories at El Portal Literary Journal, Mirror Dance, Fiction on the Web, and Asymmetry. Soft Cartel and Backchannels have published non-fiction pieces while The Cabinet of Heed and Door is a Jar have put out some of my poetry.”