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"Jackpot" by Randall Andrews

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I found the box in the pocket of my winter coat, tucked beneath my stocking hat. It was the size of an Altoids tin and wrapped in recycled newspaper comics, which was just the sort of thing Jenny, my graduate assistant, would think of. And sure enough, when I flipped over the little tag, it read: For Dr. Green, From your faithful lab rat.

As I stepped out onto the roof of the university science building, I slipped the box back into my pocket unopened. I was minutes away from the culmination of fifteen years of work and one of the greatest scientific achievements in human history. I could wait an hour to satisfy my curiosity.

Even without knowing the box’s contents, I felt my spirits lift. The gift was exactly the sort of gesture I’d come to expect from Jenny, whose heart was as big as her intellect. She was tough, too . . . in her way. Although she was built like a test tube and allergic to everything: pollen, perfume, peanuts, tree nuts, and anything that stings, she was also a tireless worker and, rarer still, an eternal optimist. There was no other person, staff or student, that I trusted as much.

It was bitterly cold out, which was hardly a surprise. It was the university’s spring break week, which is in March, and March, in Michigan, is not spring.

As I folded away the tarp from over the particle collector, I thought through the sequence for the next twenty-four hours one last time. Although it wasn’t visible with the sun out, the Silverman Comet was already up there, streaking by high overhead, showering the earth with trillions of very special particles of radiation. In ten minutes, our position in southern Michigan would lie directly between the comet and the earth’s gravitational center, at which point the collector could harness a precisely controlled stream of those particles and use them to poke a hole through the infinitely sprawling surface of space-time.

I’d thought long and hard about what message I wanted to send through that hole. It would have to be brief, but of worthy significance. I’d decided on the winning numbers for Michigan’s lottery.

And Ohio’s.

Unfortunately, the hole could only be punched through another weakened point in space-time, and the only place chronologically near enough was the very next morning, when the comet passed over again. By the morning after that, the alignment would be too far off. If I couldn’t make it work in this window, then I’d be forced to wait fifteen years for Silverman to return.

So there I was, on Friday morning, expecting to receive a message—from myself—from the following day. The lottery numbers were always drawn Friday night. By the time the comet passed overhead Saturday morning, I’d be ready to send those numbers back twenty-four hours and set myself up to become a double jackpot winner.

Of course no one would believe it was luck. They’d know I’d cheated, and that was fine. That was the point. A single winning ticket would have sufficed if it was money I was after, but what I wanted was proof. And a Nobel Prize.

I triple-checked the time on my phone and both the watches I was wearing and then dialed Jenny’s number. She answered immediately.

“Alright, I’m putting you on speaker phone,” she said by way of greeting.

“I’m doing the same,” I answered, pleased by her all business attitude. I’d need both my hands free to manually adjust the diaphragm in the collector. Only the most precise intake of particles would allow the transmission/reception machine down in the lab to function properly, and I expected the output from the comet to fluctuate significantly. Controlling the flow of particles moving through the collector was likely to be the trickiest part of the whole operation, which is why I was on the roof.

“We’re all green lights down here,” Jenny said. Then we waited.

A small speaker I’d wired into the collector clicked in an uneven rhythm, counting fifty particles with every tone. Suddenly the cadence jumped, upshifting from a woodpecker’s pace to a machine gun’s. My pulse raced as if trying to keep time with the clicks, and despite the cold, I was sweating inside my coat. I hadn’t been so nervous since walking into the cadaver lab of my first, and last, semester of medical school three decades earlier. My desire to heal people, it turned out, did not equal my aversion to blood and bodies. Physics was a much cleaner field of study.

When the digital display on the collector neared one hundred thirty particles per second, I slipped off my gloves and grasped the joystick control for the diaphragm. I adjusted and then readjusted my grip, found a good hold, and took a deep breath.

“We just hit the critical range,” I heard myself say when the readout showed one fifty.

“Understood,” Jenny answered.

As the particles continued to stream in with increasingly frequency, I struggled to keep the intake close to one fifty, forced to constantly tweak the diaphragm. It felt like a couple minutes had passed already. If there was a message coming back, we should have had it.

“Transmission’s coming through.” Jenny’s voice sounded impossibly calm as she spoke those monumental words. We’d just become the first people to reach across time!

I felt a smile stretch across my face. I may have giggled.

Almost immediately then, the particle rate dipped precipitously. I fought the joystick for a few more seconds, but it was too late. Our window had closed.

“We’ve got it?” I asked.

Following an alarming hesitation, Jenny answered, “We’ve got . . . something.”

My heart, which had just begun to settle from its own critical range, revved again. I picked up the phone and hurried back inside.

 

As I burst back into the lab, I crashed forehead first into the aluminum chimes Jenny had hung from the ceiling fan—her attempt to Zen up our workspace. For me, at six feet tall, they weren’t working.

I swatted at the chimes like they were a swarm of angry hornets and hurried to where Jenny sat, still hunched over her work station. Her eyes were glued to the illuminated screen of the laptop I’d linked to the trans/rec machine. There were no numbers written on it. Instead, there were three words, typed in a string with no spaces between them.

penknifewind                

“What happened?” Jenny whispered.

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t.

 

We spent the next several hours moving back and forth between the lab and the roof, checking everything we could think to check. As far as I could tell, the instruments had worked correctly and the comet had acted as predicted, which wasn’t surprising. That any sort of message had made it through suggested the problem wasn’t mechanical.

Jenny and I barely spoke as we worked. The question—the only question—dangled from the tip of my tongue. The next day, while I was on the roof, she was supposed to feed the lottery numbers into the trans/rec machine, but what had come back instead were three random words. Why?

When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I turned to Jenny and started to say, “Why would you—”

I bit back the rest of the question when I saw she was crying.

“It’s my fault,” she whimpered. “It has to be. I’d never do anything to jeopardize our work, but . . . I can’t explain it. I’m so sorry. I’ll recheck every circuit. I’ll reanalyze every readout. I’ll—”

“No, no,” I stopped her, laying my hands on her quaking shoulders. “We’ve checked everything worth checking. Go home. Be back in the morning. Obviously, I can’t buy the winning lottery tickets this afternoon, but I’ll get the numbers tonight after they draw. I’ll bring them in the morning, and when it’s time, you’ll send them through the machine. I don’t know what happened this morning, but tomorrow we’ll get it right.”

She didn’t ask if that was possible. Was it within our power to change what would happen, or was it simply that we knew already what was going to happen? Could changing the future change the past? I didn’t know. No one did. Until then, questions like those had only ever been speculative, not practical. We’d find out.

 

Jenny pulled into the lot just ahead of me the next morning, and we parked side by side. She looked like a zombie lurching out of the car, eyelids dark and drooping, and in place of her usual bottle of vitamin water she had a foam cup from the gas station the size of a fire extinguisher.

“No purse today?” I asked.

“Forgot it. It’s sitting in my apartment, along with my wallet, license, everything. I was lucky I had enough change in the car for this coffee and a couple power bars. Here, I brought you one.”

“Thanks,” I said, forcing a smile to my face. “Well, let’s go make this a good day. And yesterday, too.”

 

The morning seemed to race by, almost as if time was hurrying, perhaps conspiring against us in repayment for our tampering. Before I knew it, I was due on the roof again.

As I climbed the stairs, I slipped back into my coat. In the left pocket, beneath my hat, I found the little box, my mystery gift. I started to replace it, thinking again I had no time to dally, but then I hesitated. Jenny had been so thoughtful, and then I hadn’t even thought to mention it—hadn’t thought of it at all. Prodded by guilt, I tore it open. It looked like the kind of box jewelry comes in, which struck me as odd, but what I found inside instead was a small, silvery folding knife engraved with the words The Cutting Edge.

It was one of my catch phrases, something I repeated so often it had become a joke among my students. I rolled the knife back and forth across my palm and decided I loved it, maybe more than any other thing I owned. It wasn’t a Rolex, but it might as well have been for all the money Jenny had to spare, which was none. In that regard, she was like all grad students. In every other way, she was special. She was the best kid I’d ever taught.

I was so engrossed in the knife that I forgot, just for a moment, the monumentally important task I was in the middle of. When the door opened the next floor up and someone stepped out to join me in the stairwell, I thought nothing of it.

“Good morning, Dr. Green.”

I looked up and found Tommy Brand, the building’s custodian, smiling down at me.

“I thought all you professors were spending the week on a beach somewhere,” he said. “Hey, nice penknife.”

I was about to excuse myself, but the words stuck in my throat.

“What was that?” I asked. “Nice what?”

“Penknife. Back in the day, they used little knives like that to trim the point of quill pens. Can you imagine—”

“I’ve got to go, Tommy. I’ll talk to you later.”

I pushed past him and hurried on up the stairs. I heard him mumble something behind me, part of which may have been jerk, but I didn’t look back. My mind was reeling. Not a pen and a knife, but a penknife? A penknife and wind? It still made no obvious sense, but what were the odds it didn’t mean something? It had to.

Sixty seconds later, I was on the roof and out of time to think about it.

 

I uncovered the collector, powered up the gear, and then called Jenny. Considering my delayed ascent to the roof, I was surprised she hadn’t already called me.

“Everything ready to go?” I asked as soon as I heard her pick up. “The collector’s already getting close to a hundred particles per second. It won’t be long.”

I waited a moment for Jenny to reply, and then pulled the phone away from my ear when she coughed hard into the other end.

“Are you alright? What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” she answered finally. “Just a tickle in my throat. Everything . . . looks fine . . . down here.”

I vaguely noted the strangeness in her voice, but had no time to consider it. The intake rate quickly climbed to one fifty, forcing me to focus all my attention on the diaphragm controls. “We’re there. Input the numbers now.”

I leaned toward the phone, expecting to hear Jenny tapping away at the keyboard. What I heard instead was a painful wheezing that nearly stopped my heart.

“Jenny! Jenny, can you hear me? What’s wrong? Jenny!”

I looked away from the collector’s readout, glancing at the phone, and immediately the speaker’s clicks spiked in frequency. I swore and returned my attention to the joystick, struggling to find the diaphragm’s sweet spot again. A flame of panic ignited in my chest, throwing me into a cold sweat.

When I heard the sound of Jenny’s chair tipping over, I jumped up and took two quick steps toward the door to the stairwell. I froze there, glancing back at the gauge, which already read two twenty. The clicks from the speaker had become indistinguishable. The steady tone emanating from it reminded me of a heart monitor gone flatline.

I stumbled over the first stair and nearly took the rest head over heels. As I flailed my arms to regain my balance, the power bar flew from my pocket. There wasn’t time to read the ingredient list on its wrapper, but I was ninety percent sure it would include something about nuts.

“Damn it, Jenny,” I cursed as I flew down, taking two stairs at a time. She was always so careful about her allergies, about everything, but even careful people make mistakes when they’re stressed or exhausted, and she was both. The fact that she’d forgotten her purse—with her EpiPen in it—proved it. The fact that I wasn’t calling for an ambulance right then because my phone was still on the roof proved I was in no better shape.

I could see her as soon as I pushed my way into the lab, lying on the floor beside her toppled chair. I couldn’t see her face, but her stillness terrified me. It would have been better, I knew, if she’d been thrashing about, screaming, sputtering, anything.

I gasped when I rolled her over, shocked by the sight of her swollen features. I lowered my ear to her blue-tinted lips, praying to hear air, which I did. She was still getting oxygen, but not nearly enough.

I picked up her phone, and then I set it back down. She didn’t need fast help; she needed immediate help. Either I would save her in the next minute, or there would be no saving her. My mind skipped back thirty years, to that single semester of medical school I’d never put to use. I never had, but I would now, or else I’d never forgive myself for failing to. But how? A tracheotomy was tricky even under the best circumstances, with the right tools. I needed a plan!

And that’s when it hit me. A plan. I already had one!

penknifewind

I plucked the box from my coat pocket, fumbled it once from my trembling fingers, but then managed to retrieve the knife from inside on the second try. I opened the small blade and ran it over the pad of my thumb. It was razor sharp.

I jumped up then, reaching over my head not for wind, but for a windchime. I plucked one slender aluminum cylinder, and holding it up to my eye, stared down its hollow length. It was perfect.

The next twenty seconds were the most frightening of my life. My heart felt like it was going to explode in my chest, my hands shook in the most unsurgeonly manner imaginable, and I nearly passed out at the sight of Jenny’s blood, but it worked. The first breath of air that whistled through that tiny metal tube was beautiful beyond description.

When it was done, I took a deep breath, reached for Jenny’s phone, but then set it down again. The readout on the trans/rec machine was staring straight at me, showing the collector’s intake rate at one eighty, and then one seventy, and then one sixty. We were almost back down to the critical range. There was still a chance to send something back. Of course there was.

I hurried into position before the machine, still-shaking fingers poised over the keyboard. I couldn’t help but notice the notecard propped against the screen with the familiar numbers written across its middle. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if I sent them back instead? Could changing the past alter the present? Would I be risking Jenny’s life for the sake of my life’s work? Could I take that chance? Of course not.

As quickly as I could type wasn’t quite quick enough. I was trying for penknifewindchime, but the last part didn’t get through in time. No surprise there.

After finally dialing nine one one, I held Jenny’s hand while we waited for the paramedics to arrive. She regained consciousness at some point, her eyes filling with panic after fluttering open. I did my best to reassure her, promising her we wouldn’t have long to wait, five minutes at the most.

And then another fifteen years.

In the meantime, I could feel satisfied that the machine had not only worked, but been put to wonderful use. I didn’t have my proof to show the world, but I had Jenny. Against all odds, I’d saved her life. I’d hit the jackpot.

About the author

Randall Andrews is a science fiction and fantasy writer from Brooklyn, Michigan. He is the self-published author of two books, The Last Guardian of Magic, which won The National Indie Excellence Award in 2010, and Finding Hour Way, a collection of three novellas about tampering with time. He attended Jackson Community College on a talent scholarship for competitive speech, and then went on to earn his bachelor’s degree at Central Michigan University, majoring in biology. When not at work on his next tall tale, he can often be found wearing the soles off a pair of running shoes, listening to one of his favorite John Williams soundtracks, or hand-feeding his loyal flock of black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, and white-breasted nuthatches.

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