The cigarette almost fell from Joe’s open mouth. “You’re insane.”
The night was muggy. A summer rain had come and gone, leaving the air sticky and thick. Away from the office’s air-conditioned splendor, Joe’s back and armpits quickly slicked with sweat.
Nick exhaled a cloud of smoke in Joe’s face. “What do you mean, ‘insane’? Haven’t you been listening?”
“Yes, I’ve been listening. I don’t have much choice because you never stop talking. And that’s why I think you’re insane.”
“Then why don’t you listen?” Nick leaned forward and pressed his fingers against his temple.
“You’re ears are down there.”
“Who cares about my ears?! Never mind my ears! First my nose, and now you’re talking about my ears! What’s with you?!”
“I’m more worried about your brain, to be honest” said Joe. He dropped his cigarette and ground it under his heel. “I think, if you really want a second chance or whatever, you should quit working here, go work at the pizza place and forget this other stuff.”
“Go back to Lowell?” Nick waved a hand. “Forget it. I’m not talking about second chances. I’m talking about a do-over.”
“Which sounds like a second chance to me. But forget it, Nick. There’s no such thing.” Joe looked at his watch and groaned. “Let’s just get back to work. I, for one, don’t feel like losing my job. I’ve got bills to pay, after all.”
“Yeah, yours and Sandra’s.”
“That’s a low-blow,” said Joe.
“Maybe. But it’s true and you know it.” Nick took one last puff of his cigarette and put it out on the side of the building. “Come to the basement with me. Come on!”
“We’re not supposed to be down there, Nick! It’s maximum security. Top secret! And I sure as hell don’t have clearance.”
“Where are the guards?” asked Nick, hands in the air. “Where’s the security? Where are the guys with the guns?”
“It’s locked with a keycard!”
Nick pulled something from his pants pocket and waved it under Joe’s nose. “You mean this keycard?”
Annoyed, Joe waved Nick’s hand away. “What the hell?! When’d you become a thief?”
“Not a thief, Joe. I’m the ‘tech lawyer,’ remember? I work with those dudes a lot. Sanjay gave me a tour of The Machine so I’d understand it more when I review the contract. Plus, I’m actually interested in this kind of stuff.” Nick shrugged. “I guess he forgot to take his keycard back.”
“Right,” said Joe. He had to smile. Whoever had said that age mellows a man had never met Nick. “Forgot.”
“And I think you should see The Machine too so you know what the hell it is you’re reading about.”
“I know what I’m reading about.”
“Okay, smart guy,” said Nick. “What does The Machine do? That’s right–you don’t have a clue.”
“You didn’t give me a chance to answer,” said Joe, but his heart wasn’t in the protest.
“And I’m sure it would have been a brilliant answer, really dazzling, A-plus stuff. But we don’t have all night. Come on, let’s go. I’m telling you, you’ll thank me. I promise.”
“I doubt it,” said Joe. But he went.
* * *
“It’s just this feeling, you know?” said Nick. “This burning in my gut . . . it eats and eats and eats until it’s the only thing I can think about.”
Nick flipped on the basement lights and led Joe through the obstacle course of work benches and fantastical equipment to the locked metal doors at the rear of the laboratory.
“And I can’t shake it. I’ve tried everything but I just can’t shake it. It’s driving me nuts, you know?”
“I know,” Joe said quietly. Joking aside, really did feel for his friend. They were both unhappy and dealt with it in their own ways, Joe through self-pity while Nick preferred women and self-medication; he loved to brag about it but it never seemed to fill whatever hole he had inside.
“You’ve got something, at least,” said Nick. “Like a goal, right? Get your wife back and be with your kid twenty-four-seven and all of that? And I mean, good luck, but there it is.” Nick inserted the keycard into the waiting slot. The lights flashed from red to green before the card was ejected with a satisfying click and the doors slid open.
Nick took the keycard back, tapping it nervously against the wall. “Me? It’s been bad choices and poor decisions from day one. Regret. Life has been nothing but regret and broken dreams. It’s like I’m eating fire or something.” He stopped and shook his head. “Whatever that even means.”
Joe knew what he meant. “It’ll be alright.”
Nick hung his head, leaning with his long arms on the sides of the door. “You don’t know that.”
“I know you’ve been going through something, Nick. I don’t know the whole story, and you don’t have to tell me, but you’ve got to deal with that. You can’t change the past. Now show me what you want to show me and then let’s get back to work, alright?”
Slowly, Nick pushed himself upright and turned towards Joe. He wore a sly smile and the glint was back in his eyes. “You know the company we work for is called ChronoCorp, right?”
“Wait, you mean it’s not Microsoft?”
“You’re a comedian, you know that?” said Nick, “A real hoot. Leave the jokes to the professionals and listen. You don’t need to be Greek to know what ‘chrono’ means, do you?”
Joe fought, and failed, to keep the irritation out of his voice. “‘Time.’”
“What do you think we do here?”
“Timekeeping, alright?! I’m not a total idiot! Watches and clocks and stuff. Synchronizing things. Lots of military applications and nothing more.” He let those words linger in the air, more than anything so that he might start to believe them himself. “I do pay attention.” He made a shooing gesture at Nick. “Just show me what you want to show me and let’s get out of here.”
“I used to think you couldn’t change the past until I saw this.”
Joe heard a beep. “Nick, watch out.”
Nick flinched, backing away in time to avoid the doors sliding shut on his fingers. “Impatient thing,” he said, reinserting the keycard.
“They’ve made amazing strides in artificial intelligence, you know, said Joe, “even the machines think you talk too much.” He looked over his shoulder, expecting someone to come downstairs and arrest them for trespassing. “Maybe it’s a sign. As in, let’s go upstairs.
“What do you mean, ‘a sign’? The only thing it’s a sign of is that you’re a pussy. I haven’t even shown you what I’m talking about yet.”
“I’m not sure I want to see it,” said Joe as he followed Nick into the darkness.
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