The sign was readily posted and clear for all to see. Psychometallic inks resisted corrosion or graffiti on all levels and broadcast the message directly to the cortex of the reader, branding the words directly into the perception.
One trip per person only. No Repeats!
Even this late at night, in the middle of a city-wide blackout I’d spent weeks arranging, I could hear the minor hum of electric current powering the genetic scanners on the door. Their battery backups would keep them running for nearly a week if necessary, but my blackout would only last another sixteen minutes at most. The quantum and electromagnetic locks had failed with the blackout and on most other buildings the door would simply fall open at a touch, but this building was no ordinary building.
I hefted an antique iron pry bar and wedged it into the space usually reserved for the EM field condenser. Even carrying a pry bar was an offense these days. There was no longer any legal use for one if you weren’t a janitorial droid.
The door heaved and cracked, splintering around the prybar. I wedged the bar in farther and threw my weight against the free end, noisily shattering the final lock. The door blasted outward. The synthsteel rang with the impact of blaster fire, sections of it turning instantly molten. I twisted away from the impact, wrenching a pair of hand-length cylinders from my belt and heaving them through the door. The magnetic flash grenades had cost me nearly every last coin I’d scraped together for the past three years, but hearing the linked sentry guns sputter and fail made every credit worth it.
I scented the air, smelling ionized radiation and burning circuitry. After another moment’s hesitation I rolled through the door and swung it closed behind me, feeling the genetic scanners sample my blood as I moved. There was no going back now. The blackout would prevent the scanners from transmitting my genetic code to the central web for analysis, but as soon as power returned every authority in the system would know I was here.
My pupils widened considerably, shifting shape to allow the extra rods and cones I’d installed to function, letting me see easily in the perfect darkness. Genetic splicing was illegal, expensive, and extremely handy.
The storefront itself was decorated in rich woods and deep velvets like something you’d find in a picture from Victorian England six centuries ago. I never really understood the connection, something about an old writer. Every surface was covered with dust. Apparently after the curator died last year no one had thought to turn on a maintenance droid.
I hadn’t known the curator, not more than the tidbits the vids were broadcasting at the time. So I hadn’t really mourned his death at the time it happened, but when his machine had been impounded by the government and stuck in the ensuing legal battles everyone on the planet had mourned him. Everyone like me, that is, who had not yet gotten our one trip. I’d been planning this heist since he died. There was one time machine in the world not controlled by one of the three main governments. I wasn’t going to lose it.
The center of the room was dominated by a large white pod. It was polished an ivory white and shone even in the dark. I ignored it. It was little more than a lunar-reach personal shuttle and mostly there to fool people. The real machine was in the back room.
I stepped to the ancient curtains hiding the secret door and paused, holding my breath. This was where my information stopped. Not a single one of my friends or contacts had managed to get passed this door. No matter how many coins I’d spread around maintenance crews and droid monitors, I knew nothing about this room.
It didn’t make sense. The door had no traps, no sensors, no scanners…it wasn’t even locked. It was a simple synth-stretch panel sporting an ancient brass knob, the kind you have to turn. I held the pry bar in a lose grip, somehow just the weight of it gave me comfort as my other hand slowly twisted the ancient knob.
The rear room was empty. I mean it was empty. I swore, staring at blank walls. The ceiling tiles had been ripped down, the floor covering was gone. There was nothing. A disposable safety lamp sat glowing in a corner. The bastards had even taken the computer fixtures. It was for nothing. All of this was for nothing. In less than ten minutes the electricity would be restored and every authority in the system would know my name and location. I’d be hunted across the face of both planets with nothing to show for it and nowhere to hide.
I swore again and again, rage, fear, and frustration, fueling my vehemence and creativity. The heavy iron bar slammed into the plascrete again and again, barely scratching the surface.
“Why are you upset?”
I spun in place, raising the bar to swing. The voice had been soft and feminine, but there was no one there.
“I have been expecting you.”
It was a simple enough statement, but it chilled me to the bone. My ears were empty. The words had appeared in my mind without preamble. Only the government was allowed telepaths.
The voice laughed, soft and joyous. “Do not be afraid. I’ve been expecting you.”
My mouth worked slowly, trying to force moisture back into my mouth. “Who are you?”
“You came here to find me.” She said. “I’m the time machine. You may call me Nancy.”
My heart leapt. “Where are you?”
The egg-shaped safety light pulsed slowly. “I am here.”
I stared down at the pulsing light, reaching with trembling hands to pick it up. “Why were you expecting me? How did you know I was here?”
That laughter again. “I’m a time machine.”
“I thought they’d taken you. How did you esca…” I shook my head, smiling. “Nevermind, you’re a time machine.” Something clicked in my mind and I stared at the glowing orb open-mouthed. “A sentient time machine.”
Nancy sounded pleased. “Yes.”
Outside in the city, lights were flickering back into life. The droids in the surrounding shops were stirring and my genetically engineered nose detected the crackling smell of wireless networks slowly pinging the surrounding air. I held the glowing egg in steady hands. “Take me somewhere, Nancy.”
My smile split my face. “Take me everywhere.”