The chronovator slid to a halt, and opened — between floors. Between years.
Gerald had no chance to react before he was sucked forward, slammed against the barrier. The breath whooshed out of him. His hands scrabbled for purchase on the smooth tile floor of 2087. His feet were ripped through the lower part of the door, into 2086.
“Vortex!” somebody above shouted. Gerald didn’t know who. He was too busy failing to hang on. Hands grabbed his wrists and he looked up to see Nash, feet braced against the frame of the portal, attempting to pull him to safety despite the risk from the vortex. Gratitude leapt in Gerald, and he started to inch his way up against Nash’s weight.
Then it occurred to him. Why go up?
Nothing awaited him in the year above. But in the year below, which he could now access twelve months ago to the day…Molly and Emily were still alive.
Gerald flailed his feet, trying to find a hold on the ceiling below. Hook his feet on anything. Tense his calves. Bend his knees. Rub his stomach against the lip of the portal. Help the vortex a bit. It shouldn’t take much. Then he could be with them again.
“Hang on, buddy!”
Hang on? No. Gerald had hung on for the past eleven months. Time to let go.
His boots found the small overhang three feet from the chronovator door. He looked up at Nash.
And he pulled himself downward.
Nash grunted in surprise as he almost lost his grip on Gerald’s coveralls. He redoubled his efforts, but he was just one man and his opponent had better leverage. Gerald looked up at the fear and confusion in Nash’s eyes, at the sweat leaping into beads on his brow, and smiled in pity. Let me go, old friend. It’ll be better for both of us.
“Hey, anybody down there!” Nash yelled, fighting to be heard over the vortex. “Can anyone help?”
And an answer came.
“Yeah, I’m here! One second!”
Gerald felt his feet ripped from the overhang, pushed back toward the chronovator. One of the hands patted his boot quickly, as if to say, Don’t worry, you’re safe.
Nash could pull more easily now with help from below. And more help arrived in moments. Otsuka, Enzi, Trainor. Too many to fight. Gerald found himself yanked unwillingly back into his time. Mechanics, just arrived, closed the door manually and began to adjust the settings in the shaft. The men who had saved Gerald crowded around his prostrate body, asking him if he was alright, how he felt.
He told them he wished he could die. Nash’s eyes widened in understanding.
And then, as the time dilation effects caught up with him and his memories were altered, Gerald realized what had happened, and curled up, and cried in agony.
He received a hazard pay bonus, and a personal audience with the director of the Time Management Bureau, and a promotion. “Got to get you to a safer place, Starling,” the director said, grinning at him. “No man should have to face an — accident like that twice.” It was a false grin, though. Gerald returned a similar one. They both knew why he was moving into the ranks of middle management. Suits never went near the chronovator. And he could no longer be trusted as an engineer. He might not be as retrievable in the event of another — accident.
Gerald spent every night for weeks under suicide watch at his new apartment. His pillow became soaked with Molly’s old perfume and his tears. He spent weekends arranging and rearranging Emily’s old toys throughout the place. And every so often, he would curse the man who had cost him a second chance with his wife and daughter.
For he knew very well whose hands those had been.
He had no one to blame but himself.
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