By Ian Hobson
Tim was unable to sleep. Naked, apart from a pair of boxer shorts, he rolled out of bed, padded into the kitchen, half filled his electric kettle and switched it on. He had been alone for almost three weeks now and the loneliness had played havoc with his sleep patterns. He walked through into the spare bedroom and on impulse, switched on his desk lamp and then his computer. The computer buzzed and the hard drive began to sputter. Tim returned to the kitchen to make a mug of tea.
The computer went through its boot-up routine, and within a few seconds the screen was half filled with icons over an image of Tim and his girlfriend, Miranda. Tim returned from the kitchen, mug of tea in hand, and sat down at the computer. He sipped his tea and stared at the image behind the icons; a photograph taken when he and Miranda were on holiday in Greece. He missed her terribly.
Tim set his tea down on the stained drinks mat beside the keyboard, rubbed his eyes with the fingers of his left hand, then, deciding to ‘surf’ the net, he took hold of the mouse, clicked the Google icon and then the connect button. The speakers chirped and wined as the connection was made, and the Google homepage filled the screen. Tim yawned, wondering where to start his surfing. Miranda’s image came back into his mind and without really thinking about it he typed her name into the search field and hit the return key.
Several options came up, one of which was “ixatemit.com.” The text beneath the title read “…let Miranda be your guide…” Intrigued, Tim clicked the title and again the hard drive sputtered as the web-site began to download, but slowly. Tim watched the blue bar at the bottom of the screen creep from left to right, thinking that perhaps it was time he invested in a broadband connection. After almost a minute he had decided to abort and was about to double click the search field and type in something else. But as he moved the mouse a young female voice said, “Please be patient, the download is almost complete.”
This surprised Tim. He knew that many web-sites used music, and that a few used voices, but a voice, or even music, during the download, he had never experienced. Suddenly the download was completed and a spectacular aerial view of a very futuristic city filled the screen. “Welcome,” said the female voice. “Please wait while we overcome compatibility problems.” The computer’s hard drive sputtered briefly then hummed softly, and to Tim’s surprise, the image of the city began to change, panning from right to left and zooming in on an impossibly tall building which was being demolished, piece by piece from the top.
Tim realised that he was watching a film, speeded up and played in reverse. And as the process accelerated he saw the building devoured and carried away by a multitude of vehicles, until there was nothing left but a hole in the ground, which was just as speedily filled. The camera panned again and Tim watched, as more buildings were un-built. And as the process continued to accelerate, Tim was reminded of an old film he had seen about a man who had built a time machine.
Finally there were no buildings left and the city had become a wind-blown desert. The hard drive stopped humming.
“You have a microphone connected. Please speak once for level.” It was the female voice again. Tim thought her accent seemed slightly American, and slightly familiar. “Err… hello,” said Tim.
“Please confirm your date as July, fourteen, two-thousand and three, and your time as zero two, zero eight.”
Tim instinctively looked for the digital clock at the bottom right-hand corner of his monitor, only then realising that the desert scene was filling the whole of the screen. But as he looked, both the date and the time appeared: 14 July 2003 02:08. Tim reached for the mouse, wondering how he was supposed to give the confirmation.
“A “yes” or a “no” will suffice,” said the voice. “Your keyboard and mouse will no longer be required.”
“Err, yes,” said Tim, now in awe of this amazing web-site. He watched as the desert scene dissolved and as, once again, the city scene was revealed. But almost immediately, this too dissolved and was replaced by footage of a very attractive young woman, who, Tim thought, seemed to be looking straight into his eyes as though she could actually see him. The woman was tanned and healthy looking with short blond hair. Her gaze moved down Tim’s face, onto his naked chest, and back to his eyes again.
“Hello,” she said, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. “My name is Miranda. I am your guide. May I ask your name?”
Tim’s jaw dropped as he realised that he was in some kind of video linkup with the young woman. “Tim,” he said “Tim Andrews. How are you doing this? I don’t have a camera.”
“You do now. I installed one for you.”
Tim’s jaw dropped again. “But…”
“Well, Mister Tim Andrews. First let me congratulate you. You are in a way our first customer. You are certainly my earliest, to date. How did you find us?”
“Err, I just… surfed on in.”
“Ah, I thought you weren’t dressed for travelling,” said Miranda. “But then if you just stumbled across us, you wouldn’t be expecting to travel.”
“Travel?” said Tim, puzzled. “Travel where?”
“Forward in time. And then back again, of course. We’re not allowed to leave clients permanently displaced.”
“Sorry, Tim, I can see this is a lot for you to absorb at short notice. Let me explain. Ixatemit, or Time-Taxi, as it is also called, is the invention of Professor Michael Standish. I was one of his students at the Standish Institute in New York, but now I work for Ixatemit. Much of our business is with clients from our time, who wish to travel back in time.”
“Your time?” exclaimed Tim. “You expect me to believe that you’re from the future?”
“That’s not quite correct,” replied Miranda. “I’m not from the future. I”m in the future, your future, anyway. The year 2094.”
Tim began to shake his head. “This web site of yours is truly amazing but… time travel? You have to be joking.”
“Yes, I know it’s hard for you to believe. May I ask your age?”
“I’m twenty-four. Why?”
“And you are in good health?”
“Very good, but why…”
‘Just hold for a moment and don’t worry about your clothes. I’ll fix you up with some.”
“My clothes? But… hey…”
Suddenly Miranda’s image dissolved and Tim was looking at his own reflection; his computer screen having become a perfect mirror. But Tim saw that his reflection was not quite right. He quickly looked down at his naked chest and thighs and then back at his reflection, which was fully clothed in a light grey one-piece suit made from some kind of silky material.
The computer’s hard drive was humming again, and Tim found himself being physically drawn towards his own increasingly worried looking mirror image. He placed his hands against the desk, trying to resist the unseen force.
“There’s no need to be afraid.” Miranda’s voice again. “Just relax.”
Tim became instantly drowsy and his eyelids became heavy, and just before his eyes closed he saw that his image had been replaced by a brightly lit tunnel; not an image, but a real tunnel reaching deep into his computer screen and seemingly on into infinity.
Tim felt himself floating and he could feel the passage of cool air over his body, and then abruptly he was sitting on a soft leathery sofa in what looked to be someone’s office. Across the room there was a large uncluttered hardwood desk, behind which was a high-backed office chair. Sunshine was streaming in through the widows, and there was a smell of coffee and perfume. Tim sensed a presence behind him and, as he turned, he saw Miranda standing and smiling down at him. She wore a suit similar to the grey one that Tim was wearing, except that hers was more of a silvery grey and slightly tighter fitting.
“Welcome,” said Miranda. “Welcome to 2094. It’s Wednesday, October 14, and the time is 10.07.”
Tim jumped to his feet, still turning towards Miranda, but he immediately lost his balance and fell through a glass-topped coffee table. He lay on the floor, under the table, feeling very strange, as though his body was not his own, and as though gravity was too strong. He stared at the coffee table, wondering how he could have fallen through it without breaking it, before looking up at Miranda.
“Where am I, and why do I feel so… odd?” he asked.
“Don’t worry,” said Miranda. “Bi-droids take a little getting used to. You see, you are not really here, at least not in person. And your host body is… well the closest thing in your time would be a hologram. Bi-droids are much more solid though. Except when it’s safer for them not to be. Try standing again but take it slowly this time.”
Tim moved, crablike, away from the coffee table and slowly got to his feet, too stunned to say anything more.
“Now try walking,” said Miranda, as she moved closer to Tim and took his hand. Tim was having the weirdest and scariest experience of his life, but he was still, at least mentally, a man and therefore very aware of Miranda’s warm hand and her perfume and the way her suit accentuated the curves of her body. She smiled at him and he tried to smile back as he hesitantly walked hand in hand with her towards the windows.
“How did I get here?” Tim asked, finding his voice again.
“Through what you call the Internet,” Miranda replied.
“What do you call it?”
“Mostly just the Grid, or the Net. Are you feeling okay now?”
“Yes, I think so… But, you mean… I travelled through time, to here, wherever we are, through the Internet?”
“That’s right,” replied Miranda.
They had reached the window, and as Tim looked out he realised that they were high up in a very tall building surrounded by other tall buildings. He leaned forward, wondering if the window really was a window or if it might be a force field, like the one in a Star Trek film he had seen. But when his forehead touched the cool glass, stopping him from seeing down into the streets, he dismissed the idea. But then he had another thought. He turned and looked at Miranda again.
“Is this virtual reality?” he asked.
“No, it’s not V.R.” Miranda replied. “What makes you ask that?”
“Well, you say I’m not really here but… well, are you here, and is everything else… real?”
Miranda laughed, and as she did so, Tim was reminded of his Miranda. “Yes, everything you see is real. Would you like some coffee?”
“Yeah, I’d… but… can this…” Tim looked down at his grey suited body or whatever it was. “I mean, can I? Won’t it just make a mess on the carpet.”
Miranda laughed again and then walked over to a cabinet in the corner of the room. “Bi-droids need energy, just like human bodies,” she said, as she poured coffee from a percolator into two cups. “Though fewer people are drinking real coffee these days. I got hooked on it when I worked with Professor Standish. Cream and sugar?”
“Yes please.” Tim was looking out of the window again. He could see people in the building across the street. “Where are we?”
“Bradbury, Nevada. It’s America’s newest city, named after Senator John Bradbury. You won’t have heard of him. This building is the Bradbury Tower.” Miranda was beside him again, handing him his coffee. “You’re from a big city, aren’t you?”
“Thanks,” said Tim, as he accepted the coffee. But he had to think for a moment. There was so much going on inside his head, or his Bi-droid’s head, that he hardly new his own name, let alone where he was from. “Yes, I’m from England. I live in a city called Sheffield… Where’s my real body?”
“In Sheffield, England, just where you left it. Remember, you have travelled through time. When you return it will be as if you were never away.”
Tim sipped his coffee. It was the best he had ever tasted. He glanced down at the floor.
“See, no leaks,” said Miranda, with a giggle.
Tim laughed, but he was now examining his footwear; the trendiest pair of trainers he had ever seen. Miranda’s were of a similar design, he noticed. He raised his head and looked into Miranda’s blue eyes, thinking that somehow they looked vaguely familiar. He mentally comparing them to his Miranda’s brown ones.
Miranda set her coffee cup down on the narrow window ledge, put her hands on Tim’s shoulders, close to his neck, and then kissed him full on the lips. Tim was so surprised he almost did spill his coffee on the carpet.
“Do all of your… clients, did you call them, get this treatment?”
“No,” Miranda replied, “but I know how lonely you are.”
“But you don’t know me,” exclaimed Tim.
“Yes I do. We have to vet potential clients. Do you remember the party you went to, in your time, two days ago?”
“Yes,” replied Tim, looking very puzzled. He remembered the party at his friend, Dave’s, house. He had gone there to get drunk and done just that.
“Do you remember the girl you met in the garden? You told her your life-story. You were very intoxicated at the time.”
Tim thought for a moment. “There was a girl, a blond girl. We sat under a tree at the bottom of… That was you?”
This was too much for Tim to take in. He turned away from Miranda but then suddenly turned back towards her as he remembered something. “Did you come back to my flat?” he asked.
Tim tried to remember what had happened next. “You and I… did we?”
“No, you fell asleep,” replied Miranda. “I never have sex on a first date, anyway.”
“Wait a minute. How could you have been at…” Realisation showed itself on Tim’s face. “You were able to travel back in time and then back here whilst…”
“While you were still sitting at your computer.” Miranda finished Tim’s sentence for him.
“This is all just too incredible,” said Tim, shaking his head and walking away from the window. He put his coffee cup down on the coffee table and looked around the room. “Where is your computer?” he asked.
“I don’t actually have one. But to keep it simple; this office is my computer. In fact the whole building is a computer, as are many other buildings.”
“You mean they are controlled by computers?”
“No, that’s not quite the same thing. You see, everything, the walls, the floor, the furniture, they all have more than one use. They all combine to supply the necessary energy, solar energy that is, and the processing power to… Let me demonstrate.” Miranda thought for a moment and then spoke to someone or something, but Tim could not work out who or what. “Short-term visit mode. Barbados, Holetown, the beach. Tim and Miranda. Clothing: swimwear.”
Without warning, Tim felt himself floating again and then suddenly he was standing on a beach with hot sunshine beating down on him. He blinked at Miranda who was wearing an olive green bikini, then looked down to see that he was wearing navy blue swimming trunks. Waves were lapping onto the pristine sands and nearby there were people sunbathing and strolling along the beach, and out at sea, there were many small sailing vessels.
“Come on,” said Miranda, “we have about ten minutes.” She raced off into the sea and before the water was waist deep, she dived beneath an incoming wave and then surfaced and swam on towards a raft that was tethered about a hundred meters offshore. Tim looked around at the beach and the palm trees and the plush hotels before grinning widely and turning and following Miranda. The water felt cool and refreshing, and Tim raced after Miranda who was halfway to the raft. And by the time Tim caught up with her, she was lying on her side in the centre of the raft, wet and glistening and smiling at Tim as he climbed aboard.
“This is incredible,” said Tim, breathlessly, as he pushed his wet hair back from his forehead and then lay down beside Miranda, closing his eyes against the strong sunlight.
“I know,” replied Miranda, “but there are no computers here to sustain us, so…”
Tim felt the raft move as a wave lifted it, but then he was floating in air again and when he opened his eyes, he was back in Miranda’s office, standing near the sofa, and wearing the grey suit again. He sat down. His head was beginning to ache. “If this isn’t my body, why does my head hurt?” he asked.
Miranda, dressed as before in her silvery suit, retrieved her coffee and walked over and sat beside Tim. “Bi-droids respond to your mental state, just like a real body.”
“And the year is 2094, did you say?” asked Tim.
“And this computer… this office, brought me here through the Internet and then transported us to that beach? Where was that?”
“Barbados. I had lots of vacations there, as a child. And yes, this computer, as you call it, with the aid of the Grid, took us there.”
Tim was silent for a moment. “So what’s the deal? Why have you brought me here?”
“Because we need agents; people based permanently in the past, who can help us. We would send our own people, but bi-droids are not supportable for more than a few hours. Backward time travel is still quite new, but there is a tremendous amount of interest in it.”
“You mean this is a job interview?”
“Well, yes,” Miranda replied.
“But what if I don’t want to work for you, or your ixat… time taxi… what ever you call it?”
“Ixatemit… Then you don’t have to. But think about it. The remuneration is very good and the fringe benefits can be truly amazing.”
“Fringe benefits?” exclaimed Tim. “Isn’t this sort of thing dangerous? Won’t it upset history or the… the space time continuum, or whatever they call it?”
Miranda laughed and her face seemed to shine as she said “Perhaps a further demonstration of our abilities and our sincerity will convince you. Disengage bi-droid and return subject. Goodbye, Tim. I hope we meet again.”
“What… no, wait…’ But Tim was floating again and feeling cool air pass over his body, and then, as though awaking from a dream, he was sitting at his computer, looking at the Google page.
He shook his head and rubbed his eyes, not knowing what was real and what was not. The word “Miranda” was still in the Google search field, but as Tim scrolled the page and looked through the search results he saw that none of the web-sites listed included ixatemit.com. He clicked the search button to refresh the page, but there was still no sign of Ixatemit.
“Did I dream all that,” Tim asked himself, out loud. “Am I going crazy?” With a shaky hand he closed down the Google page and looked again at his and Miranda’s image, comparing his Miranda with the one he thought he had just met, and trying to remember the blond he had met at Dave’s party. He wondered if the death of his Miranda had affected him more than he knew.
“If only she hadn’t driven herself to work that day,” he thought. “She would still be alive, and I wouldn’t be alone and having weird hallucinations.” He shut down his computer, switched it off and returned to the bedroom, for once feeling tired and ready for sleep. But as he walked through the doorway he stopped dead in his tracks.
“What time is it, Tim?” Miranda asked, as she rolled over in bed and pushed her long dark hair out of her eyes. “Can’t you sleep?”