Todd Burnett writes “The Key * * * a short story by Todd A. Burnett: The dark of night cloaks the earth in deepest midnight blue. A million stars peer down–pinpricks of light scattered across heaven.” Read More for the whole story.
* * *
a short story by
Todd A. Burnett
The dark of night cloaks the earth in deepest midnight blue. A million stars peer down–pinpricks of light scattered across heaven. Here and there the hunter, the bears, the assorted heroes and villains of old. As the waning moon sets beyond the western hills, a glimmering spark cascades brightly across the night sky.
Somewhere in England, the falling star is watched.
“You see that, Adam? A meteorite. A piece of debris crossing through our outer atmosphere, burning away from the friction. People make wishes on them.”
“Wishes. Haven’t you ever wanted something that you think you’ll never have?”
“Er . . . well, sure. But what’s that got to do with where you’re taking us?”
“. . . Wishes . . . . Ever wished to have loads of money, Adam? Ever wanted to win the lottery, or know exactly who’s going to win the World Cup before anyone’s even kicked a ball?”
“Yeah, who hasn’t?”
“Well, what would you say if I told you I found a way to do it?”
“Er . . . just what are you on about, Mike?”
“I’ll explain more when we get to the workshop. Just think about it.”
This is Michael Weston; a Cambridge scholar, engineering and astrophysics, working in research and development for a Japanese automobile and robotics firm in Peterborough. His long-time neighbour, Adam Ridgeley, always thought of him as a bit of an eccentric–a guy who drinks cocktails instead of pints and doesn’t support Manchester United. Michael always carries a large, silver-coloured briefcase.
A low mist spirals quickly away as their car pulls into the gate at Tagotech. The window slides down to the sound of an electric motor, echoing loudly in the still night. A hand reaches out. The card in it, reflecting off the streetlight, flashes the Tagotech Industries logo with a picture of Michael Weston underneath. Michael pushes it into the slot in a box by the gate and taps in his code. As the gates click open the card ejects into Michael’s hand, and he drives on.
“I’ve never been here before, Mike. Are you sure I’m allowed to be here?”
“Yes, I have clearance for myself and one visitor. You’re perfectly fine as long as you’re with me. Besides, practically no one but the security staff is here at this time of night.”
The car slides into a parking space outside a small building adjacent to the main one. As the men exit the vehicle, Michael removes his briefcase from the back, and they walk to the doors. Again, a box is fed Michael’s card, and the door opens.
“Bob, how are you doing tonight?”
“Just fine Mr. Weston. Could I get you to sign in your visitor please?”
Adam stands fidgeting at the security desk as Michael fills out the log. “No cameras, video recorders, or other recording equipment beyond this point,” a sign on the wall firmly demands. A few more details, a signature, a visitor’s card attached to Adam’s jacket and, finally, through the security checkpoint. Michael leads Adam down the maze of corridors. Infrared motion detectors shine little red and green lights as they pass. An occasional security camera sways back and forth incessantly.
Arriving at an unmarked door, Michael places his card into a slot in a wall panel.
Adam nervously eyes the big steel door. “Good Lord, Mike! This place is wrapped up like Fort Knox! What have you got in there–a million gold bars?”
Michael pauses entering his code and looks intently at Adam. “Something even better.” The last digit chimes and the door clicks open to the black recesses beyond.
A big table with some hideous thing covered in a white sheet. A huge machine with giant sparks arcing up two metal rods. An attendant with a limp and a lisp wringing his hands waiting to throw the big master switch. A large window in the ceiling with a mighty electrical storm crashing away outside.
None of these things appear to Adam as Michael turns on the lights. Instead, he notes, perhaps with a hint of disappointment, a small brown desk in the corner of what looks like a large off-white garage. Tools arranged neatly in another corner. Boxes and cabinets in another. Drawings and scribblings adorn a white dry-wipe board on most of the walls.
Michael places his briefcase onto the desk and opens it with a key from the drawer. Within the case are folders, papers, and a few assorted writing and drawing tools. Adam’s discontentment escapes from him audibly.
“Did you just sigh? What’s wrong?”
“Hmm? Oh, it’s all right, Mike. Just didn’t expect that sort of stuff in your briefcase.”
“Ah. See, this briefcase is on loan from the company. It’s a kind of titanium alloy. Extra tough. Fireproof, waterproof, bulletproof, coffeeproof . . . . It’s a prototype of a line of briefcases that the company never sold. The unit cost is still far too high, so I’ve ended up borrowing it.”
“I suppose I was expecting glowing jars and folders stamped ‘Top Secret’ and stuff in it.”
“Well . . . some of the paperwork is secret, but that’s not why I brought you here. What I needed was this key.” Michael opens his hand to reveal a small silver ball.
“It looks like a pinball.”
“Trust me. The bells and blinking lights that this should cause will make your ordinary pinball machine look like naughts and crosses drawn in crayon.”
“It still looks like a pinball.”
“Okay, so it looks like a pinball, but I’m telling you it’s a key. A very, very special key.” Michael walks over to one of the cabinets and opens it. Inside, various electronic components are stacked tightly from top to bottom.
“This, Adam, is the control mechanism.” Michael pushes a button. A little door slides open and a small drawer slides out. Michael places the silver ball into a cup in the drawer, and it closes back again behind its door. As various lights and sounds emit from the instruments, Michael types a few numbers into another panel.
“It’s taken me a long time to get this worked out right, but all of the calculations are correct. The ‘pinball’, as you call it, is the key. There’s a whole lot of micro-circuitry mounted on gyroscopic . . . well, I won’t bore you with the details. Just understand that the silver ball is the key to the whole thing.”
“What whole thing?”
“Eh? Oh. Here, have a look at this.” Michael produces a slip of paper from his pocket.
“Okay. You have a lottery ticket.”
“Ah, but this isn’t just any lottery ticket. Last Saturday’s lottery was won by one ticket and the claimant hasn’t come forward yet to take the money.”
“Well, the ticket stub I have here I filled in with the winning numbers.”
“So you’re saying you won the lottery.”
“No, this is just the stub you hand in to get a ticket. I haven’t got the actual ticket . . . not yet anyway. What I have here Adam, is the answer to who will get the money.”
“I’m not sure I understand, Mike.”
“With this stub, I’m going to win last Saturday’s lottery. Then, tomorrow or the day after, I’m going to claim it. It’s all due to this, ” Michael indicating the electronic cabinet. “With this I can chronologically displace anything or anyone. It’s my time machine.”
“Time machine . . . . So why did you bring me here?”
“This equipment you see behind me I’ve spent years in researching and building. Now that it’s complete, I needed someone outside of Tagotech for a witness. I don’t want Tagotech to be the only one with knowledge of this. I don’t want my invention to be used for ill purposes.”
“Okay . . . . Can I go home now?”
“Look, Adam. I’m serious. I have set this device to send me three days into the past where I will use this ticket to win last Saturday’s lottery. I’ll give the money to you, because I won’t need it.
“You’ll give me millions?”
“You remember what I said on the way here about wishes? Well, this is it. This is wish fulfilment. This is me going into the past to witness history or into the future to see . . . well, everything. With this, every wish I ever had can come true.”
“But you’ll give me the lottery win?”
“Okay. Go on then. What do you do need me to do?”
The time machine drawer opens. Michael removes the silver ball and hands it to Adam.
“Like I said, this is the key. I’ve set it to take me back seventy-two hours which will be plenty of time for me to get the lottery ticket. Once I have the money it will prove I’ve done it.” Michael opens a second cabinet. It is empty inside. “This is the displacement unit. After I have entered and closed the door, a slot will open for you to place the key. All you do is drop the key into the space, and then it’s show time.”
Placing the lottery stub into his briefcase, Michael closes it, picks it up, enters the cabinet and closes the door. A couple of clicks and clunks are heard from within. A slot opens on the cabinet and a little tray slides out. Into a small cup on the tray, Adam places the key. The tray retreats into the cabinet and the slot closes.
For a few seconds, nothing happens.
A handful of yellow and red lights blink quietly at Adam. And then a few more. And then lots more.
Patterns of light begin to ripple along the body of the cabinet. Faster and faster the illuminations pass, changing from reds and yellows to greens and blues as they get brighter.
All the lights turn white. Unbearably white.
Then, in unison, all are dark. Unbearably dark.
Adam’s eyes readjust. The room is as it was when he first walked in. As Adam opens the cabinet, a slot opens and a tray ejects to reveal a small silver ball. Checking within, Michael, and his briefcase, are gone. As the cabinet door is closed again with a bit of a bump, Adam doesn’t notice the key drop onto the floor and roll away.
After a few minutes, Adam leaves the building and returns home, pondering the fortune he will shortly be receiving.
At exactly this location, Michael Weston arrived from a little less than three days in the future. He died suddenly.
His body tried to explode from the sudden and total lack of air pressure, but he froze instantaneously in the chilling cold of space. What remained of Michael Weston–his soul, his spirit, his inner being–looked down upon the Earth . . . exactly where it was a little less than three days ago.
His briefcase, a titanium alloy, was never intended to be re-entry proof. It will become a glimmering spark cascading brightly across the night sky.
Somewhere over England.
In a little less than three days time.”