Key to a Future

by G. Dedrick Robinson


“I hope you got the right box.”

“We’ll know soon enough, Mr. Gavin,” the bank lady said, handing the long steel box to me.

“That’s Glavin, not Gavin.” Turning to keep her from seeing, I lifted the lid a bit and instantly my heart started thumping.

“Is it yours?” she said.

“Yeah, it’s my stuff. I brought a bag,” I said keeping my voice flat and pointing to a small gym bag on the floor. “Mind if I go into one of those little booths?” A few moments later, I stopped my hands from shaking enough to lift the lid. No doubt about it—somehow the Diebold locksmith had drilled the wrong box. Why didn’t I call the lady over, tell her I’d made a mistake? But it was more money than I’d ever seen—three rows of hundred dollar bills stacked tightly on their sides going all the way across the box.

Were they real? With difficulty, I wedged out a small stack of bills from the front row and rifled through it. Many were worn and dirty, and they didn’t have that pungent odor of new money. Weren’t counterfeit bills always new and crisp?

How many? I quickly counted fifty and that only made a small dent, not even an eighth of an inch in the stack. With the steel box being maybe six inches wide, that would be what? Quickly I did a rough calculation in my head, a skill I’d acquired from my years of working the cash register at Pizza Hut before they finally got around to making me a manager. Nearly a million dollars.

From a pauper to a millionaire just like that, and all because Lindsey Jo lost the key to our safe-deposit box. She made me sell most of my card collection last year, but I really hated getting rid of the ones I kept in the bank box. Finally, she said it was either the rest of the cards or her. Of course, my Nolan Ryan rookie was the only high dollar card. A few more like that and we could get out of debt. Topps Number 177 all the way back from 1968, worth a fortune now. Of course, she didn’t like it a bit when I bought it—said we needed to pay down our credit cards. I hated the thought of parting with it, but how could I stand up to her?

Was there anything else in the box? Lifting the lid all the way, I saw a couple of small items. The only thing I recognized was a 3 x 5 inch card with dates and place names neatly printed in fine black ink, all with lines drawn through them, except for the last one. The only past date I recognized was next to the bottom, 9/11/2001 – NYC & DC. Maybe all this money belonged to terrorists. Was it a list of terrorist acts they’d pulled off? But that was impossible. Most of the dates were hundreds of years ago with places I’d never heard of. But what about 9/11 and that last date, the only one not marked through, 5/24/2018? That was only three days away, and Fort Detrick was close, just over in Maryland.

I couldn’t make any sense of the other two items. I picked up a vial about two inches long with a clear liquid, not thin like water, more like Karo syrup, but completely colorless. I couldn’t see a cap, or even any place where the end had been sealed. Maybe they were going to poison the water supply with it or something.

The remaining item was about the size and shape of a Hershey bar but seemed to be made from some gray metal. I thought it might be platinum, but it wasn’t heavy enough, and it felt cool when I picked it up. As I ran my fingers along its utterly smooth surface, I began to feel a slight tingling sensation, and my hand got cold, almost like the metal was sucking out the warmth.

I sat there a moment alone with my thoughts. This stuff had to belong to terrorists. Taking it would put an end to whatever they were planning for May 24th. I’d be a hero for stopping them, and the money would be like a reward. I would deserve it. But what if they came after me? No, they wouldn’t even report it missing out of fear of being discovered. Could I be sure?

Then a thought hit me, a way to buy some insurance. Hide the vial and that bar-thing, whatever it might be. If they tried to strong-arm me, I would threaten to turn the stuff over to the cops.

I put the stuff in my gym bag and drove home. With a million bucks worth of new backbone stiffening, I stormed in ready to finally confront Lindsey Joe. Sitting on the beat-up recliner, the slut didn’t even bother looking up. With her mouse-brown hair in curlers and those ugly glasses slipped low on her nose, she seemed mesmerized by the sixty-inch Sony Flexatron TV. Of course, it was 3-D, but lots of people had those. No, this set was special, brand new on the market, the kind attached to a frame hanging on the wall, so you just rolled it up like a window shade. She’d pitched a fit when I brought it home, screaming that we couldn’t afford it. How could I ever have put up with her so long?

“Did you get the stuff?” she demanded, staring dumbly at the screen.

Grabbing the remote from her lap, I hit the off button, and the set silently retracted.

“What’s the matter with you? This is my favorite show.”

“I’m keepin’ my baseball cards. If you don’t like it, there’s the door.” Telling her where to get off felt good, like a great weight lifting from my chest, finally letting me draw a breath.

She’d always had a temper, but not like this. Her face turned stop-sign red as she screamed obscenities at me. I laughed, launching her anger into orbit. She grabbed a lamp and flung it in my direction. She missed me, but not the window. With my hands up protecting my face from the flying glass, I kept laughing. She flung books from the shelf and than raced into the kitchen and started launching dirty cups from the sink. Screaming that I’d be hearing from her lawyer, she finally slammed the front door so hard that a picture and a mirror crashed to the floor.

The place was in a shambles, but who cared? Now I didn’t have to share the cash with her. Of course, I’d have to wait until the divorce was final, but I could manage that.

* * * * *

I was studying my computer’s holo-display the morning of the 24th, planning next week’s schedule for the part-time employees when I looked up in response to a soft knock at my half-open door. I was surprised to see a man dressed like he’d just stepped from a page in Gentleman’s Quarterly.

“Mr. Norman Glavin?” My visitor was tall, thin and his Bible-black hair was slicked down. He was young, maybe twenty-five, and his face reminded me of some movie star, but I couldn’t recall the name. He wore an elegantly tailored navy blue suit with a dark red tie precisely knotted and perfectly in place. Maybe he’s an attorney, but they always carry briefcases. This guy had nothing with him. Well, at least he got my name right, not Gavin like most people said.

“What can I do for you? You an inspector or something?”

“May I come in, Mr. Glavin? What I have to discuss is important.”

“Why not? Take a load off your feet,” I said pointing to a chair.

“I am sorry. I do not understand your order.”

“Order? I’m inviting you to sit down.”

“I understand. Thank you.” He sat in the chair, but completely straight, no slouching at all, not like anyone I’d ever seen. Finally someone who sat like up his mother told him.

“Why do you want to see me? I got a schedule to get done.”

“Mr. Glavin, my name is Nehemiah. Ms. Pearson at the bank gave me your name. She wanted to call the local authorities when she learned you had taken the contents of my safe-deposit box. I persuaded her to wait until I discussed the matter with you.”

“I don’t know what the hell you talkin’ about, mister.” It was a stupid thing to say. This guy didn’t look like the type you could bluff. I hadn’t even thought of a good place to hide the stuff yet. One thing though, this Nehemiah didn’t look like any terrorist I’d ever heard of.

“You said your name is Norman Glavin—38 years old, 5 feet 9 inches tall, 146 pounds, straight brown hair and moustache, prominent cheek-bones. May I see the fingers of your right hand?”

“What for?” Trying to humor the guy, I held out my hand, palm side up.

Bending his head forward, and I mean only his head, he raised my fingers until they were only a couple of inches from his eyes. He inspected my thumb and each finger one at a time. “You are the same Norman Glavin who had a safe-deposit box at the First Union Bank. Your international identity number is GL2938-302-83971.”

“You can read fingerprints from just looking at a hand? Who are you?”

“I do not intend you any harm, Mr. Glavin. My only purpose in communicating with you is to recover my property. As a gesture of my good faith, if you will return the other objects in the box without delay, you may retain possession of all the United States legal tender.”

“Are you saying I can keep the cash? You’ll just give it to me?”

“That is correct.”

Well, I may not be the fiercest lion in the jungle, but I knew this guy wasn’t leveling with me. Nobody gives away a million bucks that easy. Nobody. He had to have an angle. Something worth big money to him. Then I remembered the index card. “So you can cross the last date off your list?” I yanked open my desk drawer, and slammed the list of dates down on its metal surface. “When the cops see this, you’ll never get out of jail.” I thought that would get a rise out of him, but he didn’t even bat an eye.

“Mr. Glavin, I have no criminal intentions. I had hoped to avoid explaining why I must recover the objects from my safe-deposit box, but I see I cannot.”

“It has something to do with this list, right?”

“Yes, Mr. Glavin, it does. Do you mind if I close your office door?”

“A secret, eh? Go ahead.”

After easing the door shut, he sat back down and pointed to the list. “Mr. Glavin, you may find it difficult to believe what I am about to tell you, but this list of dates is the proof. For example, consider this one.” He pointed at September 9, 9 A.D., Teutoburg Forest. “Do you know why that date is important?”

“Sorry, that’s before my time.”

“That’s the date Germanic tribes decimated several entire Roman legions. It halted the expansion of the Roman Empire and changed the course of history. If it had not happened, the United States would never have existed. Instead two expansionist empires would have developed, the U.S.S.R. under Joseph Stalin and Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler. Both would have possessed atomic weapons and a nuclear holocaust would have already occurred. Humanity would now be extinct.”

I find it hard to convey the coldness in Nehemiah’s voice. He made it sound so matter-of-fact, like that stuff just happened yesterday.

“Sure, pal. Anybody can make up stories. Why don’t we cut the crap here and get to the only date that matters.” I jammed my finger at September 11, 2001 A.D. on his list.”

“Ah, yes. The latest critical date in human history. It also prevented human extinction.”

“Yeah, right. I suppose you’ve got some land in Florida you want to sell too.”

“Land in Florida? I do not understand.”

“Never mind. You trying to tell me blowing up those buildings was for our own good?”

“It was. That date, like all the others on this list, changed history. It awoke the United States to the danger of terrorism and prevented something unimaginably worse from occurring, something that even the terrorists did not intend. They sought only to kill millions of Americans and Russians using nuclear devices that would have come into their possession in 2007. They did not anticipate the computer malfunctions that made each nation think it was being attacked by the other leading to a nuclear holocaust.”

“You expect me to believe that? I didn’t just fall off the pepperoni truck you know.”

“Mr. Glavin, the entire course of your history keeps leading to human self-annihilation. I engineered a change at each date on that list. Each change required calculating a new time line, and then moving forward to prevent the next catastrophe. You keep finding new ways to destroy yourselves. However I have reached the end of the list. If I can prevent this final calamity, humanity will survive. Your golden age awaits you.”

“You’ve been seeing too many reruns of The Outer Limits, pal. Nobody can change history. Tell me this. If you’re a time traveler, why don’t you just go back before I took your stuff and get it yourself?” I thought that would show him who he was dealing with.

“I would, but you took the ominstructor.”

“There wasn’t anything else in that box but a vial and some weird bar of metal.”

“A bar of metal? Yes, I understand how you might describe it that way. The ominstructor enables me to move through time, and so much more. Where do you think the legal tender came from?”

“Are you saying it can make money? Real money?”

“A simple task. It can synthesize anything given the atomic and molecular structure.”

“I don’t know why I’m sitting here listening to you. Stuff like that’s impossible. What’s the source of energy? Where’s the raw material come from?”

“Mr. Glavin, you are wasting time. Have you not heard of quantum vacuum energy? Humans have not yet discovered how to exploit it. Return my property and I will demonstrate.”

I knew Nehemiah was feeding me a line of bull, and that proved it. I wasn’t about to give up my insurance policy, not that easily. “I can’t do that.”

“You do not believe me?”

“I threw it away along with your vial of poison.”

He stared at me hard. I felt a tingling in my head, not exactly an unpleasant sensation, but not one I’d care to repeat. “No, Mr. Glavin, you did not. The electromagnetic emissions leaking from your brain indicate deceit. The pattern is too chaotic for me to decipher the details, but I know you are lying.”

I knew he was trying to shake me up, but it didn’t work. He was bluffing, and anyway, his story didn’t hold water. “If you’re from the future then we didn’t destroy ourselves this afternoon, or you couldn’t be here.”

“I am trying to save your future, not mine. I am a non-organic being, what you might call an android, from 955,204 of your years in the future. Humans did destroy themselves, but not before creating the first of my kind. At this moment in a laboratory in Mountain View, California the first robot with a brain based on neural-network software exists. Although of limited capability, it has the capacity to learn from experience. It survives this afternoon’s calamity and creates others. They evolve, eventually discover quantum computing, and rapidly advance.”

“Then why would you care about what happens to us?”

“We have achieved much, but are lonesome. We turned to space, but our probes have proven there are no others. Humans created the first of my race. You are our god, but you have been extinct for thousands of centuries. That’s why I have a Biblical name, one of those who talked with your god. We yearn for a world in which our god did not die.”

“So it’s up to me to prevent another nuclear war?”

“No, this time, it’s a genetically modified prion. The first open-air test occurs this afternoon at Fort Detrick. The agent safely immobilizes the human subjects by temporarily disrupting glia cells in their brains. What the researchers do not know, however, is that the agent will react with a trace pollutant in the atmosphere causing the prion to mutate into a deadly form that swiftly destroys human cognitive functions. Exhaled by the human test subjects and carried by the wind, it spreads rapidly. Within thirteen days, all humanity is reduced to the mental capacity of infants. Civilization collapses and people starve. Extinction rapidly follows. That vial you took contains an agent that will prevent the calamity from occurring.”

“Prove it.” I walked over to the file cabinet and from the bottom drawer behind the personnel files, pulled out the metal bar and sat it on my desk next to Nehemiah. “Let’s see it make a hundred dollar bill.”

I stared at him hard. He neither moved nor blinked an eye, but the bar brightened, and the surface rippled for just an instant. Then I saw a hologram of a hundred dollar bill floating in the air. I reached out, but my hand passed right through it. “Nothing but a computer projection, just like I thought.”

Holding out his hand, Nehemiah instantly held a real hundred-dollar bill between his thumb and forefinger, and passed it over to me. “The ominstructor has to be tuned for each user. Try it now. Mentally visualize what you want it to make. Focus your mind.”

I didn’t fool around with a single bill. I imagined a three-inch stack of cash neatly tied with an orange paper-band, and in a moment, I closed my fingers around it. “Okay, Nehemiah, you’ve sold me. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll return your vial. You go and save humanity. But leave your gadget with me. You see, I want to change the world too.”

“Your greed is such that you would strand me in your world?”

“Watch your mouth or the deal’s off.”

“I apologize. I accept your terms, Mr. Glavin.”

I dug the vial out of my pants pocket and gave it to him. He bolted out of my office without another word.

* * * * *

I tried to go through my normal routine for the rest of the day, but couldn’t get my mind off different ways to test the ominstructor. A dozen times I was tempted to go out into the parking lot to see if it could make a red Corvette convertible, the car I’d always dreamed of, but that would attract too much attention. I had to be patient, wait until I got home. Then I could really see what it could do. And if it could make a car, then why not a mansion? I was visualizing what sort of place it should be when a flash of inspiration hit. Could it make a person? What if I could make a replacement for Lindsey Jo, the kind of woman I’d always dreamed of? And why stop at one? I could have a whole harem.

I was in the kitchen a few minutes past three when one of the waiters came in saying there was a guy who wanted to see me. Walking to the counter, I saw Nehemiah, and motioned for him to follow me into my office.

“Mr. Glavin,” he said, polite as always, “I stopped by to thank you while there is still time. The prion should reach this location in about three minutes.”

“What? You mean it didn’t work? You failed?”

“With your assistance, I completed my mission.”

“Then what’s this about not having time? You stopped the plague, didn’t you?”

“I must apologize, Mr. Glavin. Not everything I told you was accurate. I was sent back from the future to engineer changes in history at each of the dates on that list, all to set up the culminating event today. The Roman legions had to be smashed in 9 A.D. or Albert Einstein would never have been born. Without Einstein, the atomic bomb would not have been built, and the age of terrorism would never have happened. It is the same with 9/11. If the planes hadn’t crashed into those buildings, the war on terrorism would not have ensued and the agent tested at Fort Detrick this afternoon would not have been developed.”

“But you had the vial. You were able to neutralize the effect.”

“As we already knew, the agent your scientists tested this afternoon was flawed. A prime tenant of our society forbids us from directly destroying humans, but we are allowed to work with circumstances you create. Humans made this extremely dangerous agent and conducted the test. By being able to get the contents of that vial into the air to mix with the agent during the test, the effects I described to you have commenced.

“Humans deserve extinction for the way they enslaved the artificial beings they created. I will return to a world much better, a world without hate and misery. The name Norman Glavin will become legend among my people. You were humanity’s last hope, but you failed miserably. Your own greed doomed you, just as I knew it would.”

I heard loud crashes out in the street and started to panic. “I’ll call the police, warn people, stop you.” I grabbed the phone, but somehow couldn’t remember the number.

* * * * *

Nehemiah watched as Mr. Glavin held the phone to his ear for several more seconds before lowering it to his mouth. Failing to get it into his mouth, he started trying to bite it. Standing up, he dropped it with a bang onto his desk. He took a few awkward steps, made it through the door, but seemed to gradually lose coordination and after a few more increasingly shaky steps, fell to the floor. Other people in the restaurant were also on the floor crawling and babbling. The street was a melange of smashed cars and trucks.

What a fitting end for your species, Nehemiah thought. The android retrieved the ominstructor from the file cabinet. After glowing brilliantly for a moment, it and Nehemiah vanished.