In “Old Dead Futures,” a young boy’s ability to change the future makes him valuable to the government. But that same ability keeps him trapped in a wheelchair and at the mercy of those who would use him. When our present is fixed, how can we see a different future?
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Melissa Frain.
There are two things I love, and one is the tiny grey owl outside my window. He is not afraid of me. He hoots and hops to my windowsill so I can stroke his downy head and feed him worms I’ve saved in my pocket.
It is hard to get the worms from my pocket, the way my left arm jerks up behind me and my right hand shakes. Often fat mister owl gets a half a worm, but he doesn’t mind. Mother minds picking the half-worms from my pockets, but I see how she looks at me when I calm my tremoring hand long enough to pat mister owl; I see how she loves me then.
I feel the red come over me and Mr. Henry is not here with his machine to take it away, so I wheel back from mister owl and flap my shaking hand so he leaves. My legs coil in my chair with hot fire and I wheel from my room, wheel to the main room where Mother is setting out breakfast. One hand in the eggs, I kick hard against the legs of the table, kick hard to drive the red away, kick hard and pretend I don’t know I’m doing it.
Mother says, “Try the fork, John.” She smiles at me but I’m still full of red so I grab the fork and pound the tines into the wood again and again while my kicking shakes the milk and rattles the plates. I hope she doesn’t touch me, because then I might try to drive the red into her. I did that once in the park to a little mouse, but she never knew. Only I know, and so I scream when she raises a hand like she might try to calm me.
She doesn’t. She wipes milk away instead. Maybe deep inside she already knows what I am.
But the table-gouging works, slowly, and at last I can open my mouth of too many teeth, of jerking tongue, and say “Tooossss.” Mother jumps up to get it for me, butters it. She pats my head like I’m a fat little owl and for five seconds it’s like we’re normal. Like we’re in one of those futures that didn’t happen, where I’m a normal boy, where they didn’t tear me from Mother spasming and wild-eyed and full of red.
But it’s not. And Mother won’t sit with me. After she brings my toast, she paces. Which means Mr. Henry is coming today, and she is afraid of Mr. Henry, though she doesn’t know all the reasons she should be.
Each time Mr. Henry and his friends come they want to take me away with them. Mother always refuses, which is how I know she can’t admit what I am.
Mr. Henry and friends bring their fleshy machine with the wires and the waves and set it up in the main room and make big pronouncements to Mother about how it’s for the good of the country. How my work will destroy terrorist clusters. Will reinstate education for the poor. Will reduce the daily school shootings. All kinds of patriot promises before they push her out of the apartment and lock the door with a lock they bring.
It’s the tall bearded one who locks the door and sets things up. Mr. Henry stays in his wheelchair and grips the arms when his leg spasms. I am sure the red rides up in him too then, because the way he grips the arms is the way I gouge and kick. I have tried to grip instead of kicking, but it makes the red last longer and come back sooner, and that is worse for Mother than broken walls and glasses.
They roll the machine up to Mr. Henry’s wheelchair and fasten one metal-and-skin funnel to enclose his face. This is so he won’t jerk away when the red comes. Then they do me.
Though they are tense, nervous for their jobs, nervous that things should go well—they are nice at this point. They are always nice as far as they know. The tall bearded man smiles and is careful with the rubber bands, and he never knows why sometimes I kick him without being red at all.
“Ready?” says the tall bearded man, and Mr. Henry pushes a button for yes and the moist funnel sucks my mind in, dumps me out in a place that only Mr. Henry and I can see.
The machine was built when Mr. Henry was little, by a man who studied him. With it, Mr. Henry and I can see the future. The current future line stretches before us like a long lit bridge, and the other possible futures fall away, dimmer and dimmer on either side. And sometimes, both Mr. Henry and I can make ourselves dive into that blackening abyss, fish out a certain future, yank it into place on the long lit bridge.
But that is hard. It is hard like the red is hard. It is something I can’t control, can’t choose to make it come and work like they want. It has to be provoked.
Mr. Henry meets me on the bridge and tells me what future they want me to grab. It is always something I don’t see the point of, like the one where a certain stock goes up or a certain man gets sick and dies. I look down at all the shimmering futures falling away, and I can’t see which one to grab or how to grab it, even though I know what is coming next and I know how desperately I need to.
I stand there miserable until Mr. Henry takes my arm (we mostly don’t shake, here on the bridge), and inches me along the white-lit trunk to see what will happen next in our current future. If I do not grab the future they want, then this will happen:
Mr. Henry will push a button on the outside. They free us from our metal-skin cones. “He failed,” he says through his speech machine.
The men look over their charts and are dismayed, for I have gotten it right so many times. The fuel for the machine is expensive and long to make; it includes cultured bits of Mr. Henry. The men fall sick with fear at our failure. And then Mr. Henry tells them how to make me focus. I cannot call the red, but they can help me.
And so the tall bearded man unlocks the door and takes Mother from her huddled waiting on the doormat, and they do things to her. They do them slowly and sadly, because they are not used to their own dirty work, though Mr. Henry tells them with boxy words that their work will disappear like it never happened.
They do what they do until the red floods me and they funnel me back to the bridge, contorted and screaming, and I dive down into the blackness of futures until I find the future they want.
All this will happen if I do not change the future, right now. Mr. Henry has shown me. Now that I can see this I am full of red, full of hatred for Mr. Henry and the tall bearded man, full of everything I need to dive now, before that future happens.
So I do.
It is hard to pick out a future by the price of stock. I can better sense things that will shortly happen to me. So I dive until I find a future where Mr. Henry pushes the button for the men to free us, and I am rewarded with smiles and lollipops which grate against my teeth. The one where they leave happy, and Mother is worried, but no worse.
The futures are sticky clammy things. I think they are brainless, but they leech onto me as if hoping to be promoted to that white-lit bridge. Their coiling chokes me; their many dividing tendrils tangle my limbs, but I think that suffocation and tangling is only in my mind. I think if Mr. Henry pushed the button I would be back in my chair, spasming in the main room with the worn blue carpet. I do not know.
I see a future with the lollipops, simple and coiled, almost shy, and I grab it with my teeth and swim to the bridge, where Mr. Henry pulls me up and helps me shake the future into place. Its future tendrils slowly untangle and drift down the sides; by the time we come next they will have replaced the old dead futures.
Mr. Henry peers down the trunk of this one for a while, traces its lit path, wondering. Then he says to me, “Your mother is pregnant.”
My tongue seizes up before I remember I can talk here. I say, “Is it normal?”
But for answer he takes my hand and leads me down the lit path, and for once the hard lines of his face downturn with some past misery. We look into my future, past the lollipops, past the men leaving, past several months of peaceful time when the men don’t come and the red comes less and Mother and I are almost happy. She smiles more and so she meets someone, and they are careful, but not careful enough. When the man meets me he leaves her, and Mother tries not to cry and I try to pat her hair with a jerking arm and then I have the worst red yet.
There is a small funeral, to which Mother goes in a wheelchair like mine. She will not look at me. She knows not to love me anymore. She knows what I am.
When the men come back they make me find a future, and I fail. They bring in Mother in her chair and the tall bearded man does the things he always does, the things he didn’t know it was in him to do, but I stay on the bridge. I cannot make myself go in; I cannot find a future, and Mother’s crying causes no red.
Eventually they give up and they take us both away, because they cannot leave her like that.
All that is on this pretty white line.
I shake my head wildly at Mr. Henry and he says, “We are what we are. It is bound to happen in all the futures, eventually.” I wonder what he did when he was my age, before he was taken away. Before he got too old and worn out to dive, before he found me to torture. He moves his hand, like his real one is going for the button—
And I kick the shining future away. Jump after it, into the abyss.
There are so many futures that there are many that will do what the men want. Many futures, all with tiny differences. I need a future where Mother will let the men take me away from her for good, and very soon. Mr. Henry is right, that we are what we are, and so every lollipop future I find leads eventually to the moment when I go red and Mother is too near. She is not always pregnant, it is not always soon, but it always happens. And next Mother is lying on worn blue carpet, and I have been unable to save her, because I know how bad I am and to save someone, you have to be convinced that you deserve to have them living.
I am tired and my focus is weakening before I see it stretched below me. It is a slick future, white and seething, but I know it is one that will work. I feel along its first few feet to be sure—and recoil. Push away. Surely in all this muck, in all these millions of future lines there is another one that will work.
I rest, panting. How much longer can I swim and still make it back? Still make it back before Mr. Henry pushes a button, a real button and then the Mother on the blue carpet starts in this real timeline and is never forgotten?
Not for the first time, I wish it were the past I could change, that hard stiff past. Somewhere in the past Mr. Henry could have happened to choose a future where I was normal—but no! Not happened. He must have deliberately chosen a future with a successor… All this I suddenly think, when Mr. Henry swims into view.
Down here in the muck, he is laboring. His arms shake like he is outside and I wonder what he has shown himself to force his frail body off the bridge.
“You chose me,” I say.
“Of course.” And he shrugs with spasming elbows and grabs a nice pink lollipop future near my head, one of the many horrible ones that leads to blue carpet, and tries to swim. But the futures are agitated with two swimmers in them. They tangle around his legs, and the tendrils swim in his ears and nose. He is weak and he tries feebly to tug, but now I see I have always been stronger. “Help me,” he says, but I laugh (I am what I am) and grab the white pulsating future in my teeth and swim for the bridge.
It is hard, pulling it in place without Mr. Henry’s help. But I do. I am so tired now my legs will not hold me, but as long as the men do not release me I will dive again, look for some better future than the one I found, some better way to save Mother.
But as I dive, the metal-skin funnel comes off and I am back in the living room.
Mr. Henry is thrashing in his wheelchair. His eyelids are peeled back and his lips are blue. One of the men is trying to help him breathe, but Mr. Henry’s arms are so wild that the man is punched in the face. They all grab him, but then Mr. Henry’s thrashing stops and he falls forward, against the restraints of his chair.
I am the only one of us left. Mr. Henry will never again be able to tell them the secret of how to make me call the red.
I sag with relief. There must be happiness in the white future, then—another part of the trunk, a hidden tendril. I do not have to do what I saw I must do. But how did I miss that?
They swear sharp and loud and back away from Mr. Henry, clustering their worry. A man brings me water and it shakes against my lips, dribbles my chin and shirt. “Did you make the change?” he said.
“Yeeeesss,” I say. The good thing about changing the future is it uses up all my red for awhile. I feel lovely calm. “I chaaaan.”
The tall bearded man groans. His forehead is drenched in fear. “But how do we know? Without Henry to check up on him, we have no idea.”
“He’s always done it correctly before,” says the man holding my water. He pats my head. “Seems a sight nicer than Henry. We should take him. That’ll calm the bosses down.”
“His mother has to sign the consent form,” says another.
“And what will we do if the boy can’t do it, or refuses? Or fails?” says the tall bearded man. His hands stiffen, flat punishing planes.
The man checking Henry’s pulse turns. “But you must know,” he says, surprise in his tongue. “He told me once that if the boy ever fails, then ask Roger what to do.”
The tall bearded man furrows his eyebrows. “How would I know?”
And cold fills my draining limbs as the other man says, “The future was Henry’s specialty. He must have known you’d figure it out when the time comes.”
They take the wires off and wheel everything away, machine, Mr. Henry, intangible white-lit bridge. Poor Mother runs in to comfort me and see if I’ll let her touch me, stroke my hair.
But I chose the white future; I know it will work and the result is what I want. And so I start down it, smacking her face with no red in me at all. It is more surprising than painful, I think, and mostly it makes the kind water-giving man turn around and say, “It’s no shame if you let us take care of him for you. We have medicine that Henry was trying. We can make him more comfortable.”
“Is he… is he in pain?” says Mother. She looks at me with new eyes.
The man nods, his eyes kind. “Henry was, all the time. It’s what made him be violent and hurt people. It was good for him to be with us.”
I don’t think all the time is true, it is mostly only the red that makes pain, but I hold my arm curled and funny, like a frozen spasm, scrunch my face till the lines go white, and shriek at my mother. It is strange, because if there is one moment I am almost normal, it is right now, after using up all the red. I thought Mother knew this, but maybe she doesn’t, because she seems to believe my rage.
The men go and I want to touch Mother one last time but I don’t dare, now that she’s teetering on the edge of letting me go. I have to go.
And so I wheel to my bedroom for the last time. The window is still open and mister owl is poking his head through, wondering if I have brought him half-worms or bits of bread.
Him I can pet one last time, and so I do. I pet and then I catch my owl, my soft downy owl. The stupid thing came too near. I don’t want to pound it. I want to let him go. But Mother’s foot is on the sill and I know what to do for her so I pound my fat fucking owl against the wheel, again, and again, as it hoots downy cries and mother sees me. Soft mother, all in grey, and then she knows she’s not supposed to love me.
What she only knew deep locked away, now she knows straight and sure. She puffs sharp cries and then she locks me in and if there is one good thing, it is maybe that I deserve to have her living, since I can save her.
I am there with my owl until the men take me away.
“Old Dead Futures” copyright © 2013 by Tina Connolly
Art copyright © 2013 by Wesley Allsbrook