“Why are you doing this?” she wailed. “You keep coming back and asking the same question!”
The man in the brown suit furrowed his brow. “Have you seen me before?” he asked.
“Of course I’ve seen you before,” Bonnie snapped. “You’ve been through here twice now, always after Mister Zota! It’s like you can’t remember!”
The man gave her a concerned look and then reached into his breast pocket.
“Oh no you don’t!” Bonnie shouted. He was reaching for the small metal disc with a green gemstone embedded in its center. She closed her eyes and ducked her head below the desk. “Put that away!” she shouted at the floor while she crouched as low as she could. “Don’t even turn it on!”
“Good citizen,” the man said. “I won’t touch the influencer. I’ll put my hands on the desk. Okay?”
Cautiously, Bonnie stood. She kept her eyes down and closed, only opening them enough to see that both the man’s hands were flat on the desk’s surface. Cautiously, she looked up at him.
He was not unhandsome. His face was nicely angled, his jaw square and slightly darkened by a five o’clock shadow. He tried to smile reassuringly at her.
“My name is Kai. What’s yours?”
“Bonnie.” She swallowed. “Bonnie Bauman.”
Kai nodded. “You’ve seen me before, Bonnie,” he said. It was not a question.
“Twice before, you say?”
She nodded again. This was the third time the man—Kai—had burst through the front door of the hotel and dashed up to the front desk demanding to know Saesor Zota’s room number.
Mister Zota was an older man with a round, balding head, large ears, and a mouthful of teeth that seemed too big for his lips. When he checked in, yesterday afternoon, he had spoken to her in a quiet voice about the need for discretion. He had surreptitiously passed her a packet of strawberry cream cookies and a peanut butter granola bar, like they were some sort of bribe. She’d opened the packet of cookies and eaten one, but it tasted stale so she threw the rest out. The granola bar lay unopened in her desk drawer.
Then came the madness of this strange man appearing and forgetting that he’d been there before. “Are you a friend of Mister Zota?” Bonnie had asked Kai each time.
He would nod and put on an unconvincing smile. “Yup. We’re supposed to meet up. What room is he in?”
Bonnie would then offer to call Zota’s room and let him know that he had a visitor.
“No,” Kai would say, “I want it to be a surprise. Just tell me his room number.”
Bonnie could not give out the room number. It was hotel policy. Kai would then reach into his breast pocket and take out the influencer, hold up the metal disc and shine the light in her eyes. She would feel disoriented, Kai would ask for the room number again, and Bonnie would feel compelled to say it. “Thank you, good citizen,” Kai would say, and dash towards the elevators.
It had happened exactly that way, twice, and now it was happening again. “You keep asking for Mister Zota’s room number, but I’m not supposed to give it out like that.”
Kai nodded. “It’s very important that I find Mister Zota. You see, Saesor Zota is—”
But he didn’t finish his explanation, because at that precise moment the hotel doors burst open and an identical brown-suited man named Kai burst into the lobby.
The second Kai dashed towards the front desk. The first Kai turned to look at himself. The second Kai froze when he saw his exact duplicate staring back at him from the front desk. “Uh-oh…” he said.
“This isn’t good,” the first Kai said in alarm.
“You didn’t travel back?” the second Kai asked.
Kai One shook his head. “I was just suspecting a time loop. Then you showed up.”
Kai Two blinked in thought. “Okay. Let me try backing out.” He turned and went out the main door. As soon as he cleared the door, he came through it again. To Bonnie it looked like he had turned around and come back in, but it happened so fast… faster than her eye could follow.
“That didn’t work,” Kai Two said.
“Obviously,” Kai One agreed. He turned to Bonnie. “When you saw me the first time, what did I do?”
Bonnie tried to remember. It seemed like such a long time ago now, though she knew it could only have been minutes since it happened. “You asked me what room Seasor Zota was in. But I’m not supposed to give out that information and I told you that. And you used that—” she pointed at Kai’s breast pocket “—that thing on me, and it made me tell you he was in room 213.”
Bonnie slapped a hand across her mouth. Oops.
Neither Kai seemed to notice her slip. “Then what did I do?” Kai One asked.
Her voice came out muffled. “You went into the elevator.”
He nodded. “Okay, let’s try that.”
The second Kai dashed to the elevator and pressed the button. The door opened and he stepped inside. As soon as he did so, the front door burst open and this time two Kai stepped through simultaneously.
“Okay,” said Kai One. “That didn’t work.”
“Uh-oh,” said the third Kai, staring in horror at the other two. “This isn’t good.”
“No, it isn’t!” Bonnie said, holding her head. She felt like she had slipped into some mad dream. “Why are you doing this?”
One of the Kai turned to her. “I’m not doing this, Bonnie. Someone else is. Zota is doing this somehow.” Kai One, she guessed, or how could he have known her name?
“How? How can he do…” She gestured at the three Kai in the lobby. As she did, a fourth Kai burst through the doors and stopped short when he saw the others. “…do this?”
Kai One shook his head. “That’s not important right now. What’s important that he’s trapped me here to allow himself time to get away again. I’ve got to get out of here.”
One of the other Kai dashed up to the front counter. “Is there a rear exit? A back door?”
Bonnie blinked. “Turn right just before the elevator.” She pointed. “There’s a long hallway. You’ll see an exit sign at the end.”
Kai Three smiled. “Thank you, good citizen.”
“Probably won’t work,” Kai One said.
“Gotta try,” Kai Three called back as he dashed around the corner.
A minute later two new Kai burst through the front doors. One stopped short, astounded by all the other versions of himself already in the lobby. “Uh-oh,” he said. “This isn’t good.”
Kai Three made his way to back to the front desk. “Okay. Back door doesn’t work either. Now what?”
Kai One shook his head. “Not sure. But we’ve got to do something or we’re gonna be hip deep in ourselves.”
“So, what is this?” Kai Two asked. “I’ve never seen a time trap like this.”
“I don’t know.” Kai One turned to Bonnie. “You said the first two times you saw me, I came in, talked to you, and then left?”
Bonnie nodded. “That’s right.”
“And there wasn’t an overlap?”
Bonnie shook her head. “I don’t know what you mean. You came in. You asked for Zota. You made me talk, using that… that thing. Then you went up in the elevator. Then you came in through the front entrance and did it all over again.”
“That sounds like a time loop,” Kai Two said, and grimaced. He looked into the lobby at the crowd of Kai duplicates milling around. As he did, another Kai burst through the front doors. “Uh-oh,” the newest Kai said. “This isn’t good.”
Bonnie felt panic rising in her. What was she going to do? How was she going to explain this to anyone? What if Mister Vox came in? How do you explain to your boss something like this? She needed to get a grip on the situation.
“What’s a time loop?” she asked.
“A time loop is a segment of time that repeats itself,” Kai Three said.
“Right,” she said, “I could have guessed that.”
Kai Two nodded. “It’s like a data gem that reads the same code segment over and over again.”
“What?” Bonnie asked, her momentary confidence stopped dead. “What’s a—”
“Never mind,” Kai One said. “Forget that. It’s like a kinoscope.” Bonnie shook her head. “Uh… magnetic tape? You know reel-to-reel tape?”
“Like… like a cassette tape?” Bonnie asked. Her older cousin had a cassette player. Bonnie remembered a summer spent mostly at the beach and that cassette player had played her cousin’s limited selection of cassettes over and over again.
Kai One nodded, smiling with relief. “Yes. Like a cassette tape. If you were to snip out a section and attach the end to the beginning, it would play the same bit over and over again in a constant loop. You can do the same thing with time. Take a segment, feed the endpoint back into the starting point, and you can trap someone in it.”
Bonnie stared at him. “You can do that?”
“No,” he said. “Nor would I, if I could. But Zota can. He’s done it before. I was once trapped in one of his time loops for six months.”
“That’s calculated time,” Kai Two added. “Not real or subjective time.”
“That’s right,” Kai One said—although Bonnie now thought she could tell this one apart from the others well enough to drop the digit. “Real time is not affected by the loop because the closed segment is localized. And subjectively, the person trapped only experiences the loop once and forgets that he’s done it over and over again and again.”
Bonnie shook her head. “But that can’t be happening here now, because each time is different.” She looked into the lobby and saw that two more had joined the ever growing throng.
Kai’s brows furrowed. “That’s true. If this is a time loop, then something has happened to snarl it up somehow.”
Kai Three nodded in agreement. “Time loops are usually closed and don’t change unless something from outside acts on it, and that’s usually enough to dissipate the loop. Why is this one behaving like this?”
Kai shook his head. “Something inside the loop has interfered with the sequence, enough to alter the outcome of the segment, but not enough to end it.”
“What could do that? Could it be an error in Zota’s code?”
Kai shrugged. “Maybe, but that’s unlikely. The code is usually self correcting. And besides, Zota is not that careless.”
“What could affect…” Kai Two trailed off as he stared at Bonnie. Kai looked puzzled for a second, then he turned and looked at Bonnie as well.
“You remembered the earlier time segments,” Kai Two and Three said in unison.
“How did you do that?” Kai finished.
Bonnie shook her head. “I don’t know. I just did.”
“You saw me enter and exit the lobby… twice before?”
“What was different about the third time?” Kai Three asked, appropriately.
“She told me she’d seen me twice before,” Kai answered. “That made me stop.”
“And you were going to use that light thingy on me,” Bonnie said, pointing to Kai’s breast pocket.
Kai nodded. “She knew about the influencer. That’s what made me realize that she was telling the truth.”
“Then she*’**s* the difference,” Kai Two said. “She’s the reason that the time loop has become snarled up.”
While they were talking, two more Kai had come through the front doors. The lobby was now a cacophony of Kai’s voice. One of them had set himself up near the front doors to intercept new arrivals—whether it was to try to stop new ones from entering or to explain to them what was going on when they did, Bonnie wasn’t sure.
“I’m sorry,” she said to the first and second Kai. “I didn’t mean to.”
Kai patted her hand reassuringly. “I know you didn’t. But why aren’t you affected by the time loop?”
Bonnie shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s…” She trailed off.
Bonnie felt embarrassed just saying it. “I’m not good at judging time. Unless I have a watch or can see a clock, I have no idea how much time has passed.”
Kai frowned. “Have you always been like this?”
She shook her head. “I was in a bad accident when I was seventeen. I had a head injury.” She hated telling anyone she was brain damaged, afraid they would make fun of her. “I’m sorry. It’s silly…”
“No,” Kai said, firmly. “You may be on to something. Where were you injured?”
Bonnie pointed to her skull, to the part where the injury happened. “Here,” she said, then moved her finger slowly along her skull. “To here. You can’t see it under my hair, but I’ve got a scar.” She dropped her hand. “I don’t like talking about it.”
Kai Two put a hand to his mouth in thought. “Injury to the right pre-frontal cortex,” he muttered, and Bonnie flinched. The phrase was one the doctors and specialists had used a lot.
Kai Three nodded, staring at her head. It made her uncomfortable, like he was trying to imagine what the scar looked like. It reminded her of looking at herself in the mirror after the accident, her ugly shaved head and the livid red scars making her look like Frankenstein’s monster.
He just kept staring and staring—for ages, it seemed. She dropped her eyes. “Don’t look,” she whispered.
“It creates a time dysperception.” Kai glanced at her wrists, frowning. “Why don’t you wear a watch? If…”
“I left it by the sink. I had to wash cups. Do you want me to get it?”
Kai shook his head. “It won’t help now, I don’t think. We’ve got to find a way to break this loop, or it’s going to get very crowded in here.”
“It may be worse than that,” Kai Two said with a grimace. “It’s becoming quantum packed.”
Bonnie saw fear on all three Kai’s faces. “What does that mean?” she asked, not sure she wanted to know the answer.
“Time loops require energy,” Kai explained. “Energy enters the loop and then goes out at the end of the sequence, but that energy is fed back into the beginning of the next sequence. It’s part of what keeps it going. The energy transfer usually isn’t perfect. Energy slowly bleeds out, just a little at a time, until the remaining energy cannot sustain the loop and the whole thing collapses. That was how I escaped the last one. But this…”
He gestured out into the lobby, now teeming with Kai. As he did so, another Kai burst through the door and was quickly intercepted by the others.
“The energy is feeding back on itself,” Kai Two continued. “It’s building up with each iteration. Every time I come through the front doors, I bring energy in with me. Because I can’t leave now, all that energy is building up on the quantum level.”
“And when that energy is released,” Kai Three added, “it could be catastrophic.”
Bonnie felt a chill. “How catastrophic?
“It depends on how much energy builds up before it releases,” Kai Two said. “It could just destroy the building.”
“Destroy the hotel?” Bonnie said, shocked.
“If we’re lucky,” Kai said. “If it builds up too much, it could destroy the entire block.”
“Or half the city,” Kai Three finished.
“And the longer this loop feeds back into itself, the worse it will be when the energy is finally released.” Another version of Kai burst through the doors. “We’ve got to do something.”
“What can we do?” Kai Two asked. “We’re stuck in the time loop!”
Kai pointed to Bonnie. “She’s not. She wasn’t affected by it. Maybe she can leave it.”
Leaving sounded good to Bonnie. Just walking out the front doors, walking away from this nightmare… she wanted to do just that.
But she needed this job. A woman with a temporally-perception-distorting brain injury doesn’t have a lot of options when it comes to employment. And Mister Vox said she was the best receptionist he’d ever had, always able to do an extra shift or a little overtime without notice (or, she sometimes suspected, without noticing).
Besides, even if she did leave, there was no guarantee that she could get far enough away before the explosion happened.
She wished she’d called in sick.
“Do you want me to go outside and stop you from coming in?” she asked.
“Would that do it?” Kai Two asked. “If we never enter the lobby, then this whole loop might collapse.”
Kai thought about it. “Maybe. Or it could create a paradox. That may just create more problems.”
“More problems than we have now?” Kai Three asked.
“It would be better if we shut down the loop. That would dissipate the built up energy safely. The loop would collapse without any paradoxes to complicate things.”
“But how do we shut down the loop? We don’t know how Zota created it in the first place.”
Kai turned to Bonnie. “Where is Zota now?”
Bonnie blinked. “I don’t know. He hasn’t checked out. I don’t remember seeing him tonight. He could be up in his room.”
“Good Citizen—Bonnie—listen to me. This is very important. You have to go up to his room. You have to get him to collapse the loop. Do you understand?”
Bonnie felt her stomach tighten in a knot. “I can’t do that.”
“Yes, you can. You have to. I, we, can’t leave. You know what’s at stake.”
“But how am I going to convince him to do that?”
Kai reached into his breast pocket. “Take the influencer,” he said, holding it out to her.
Bonnie shied away from the little metal disc.
“It’s okay,” Kai Two said. “It’s safe. Take it.”
Hesitantly, Bonnie took the device from Kai. It felt cold and was heavier than it looked. It hummed softly in her hand.
“There’s a switch at the back,” said Kai. “It will feel like a small indent.”
Bonnie touched the back lightly with her finger, until she found it. She nodded. “I feel it.”
“Don’t press it now,” Kai Two said. “But if you find Zota, point the green crystal lens towards him and then press the switch.”
“What do I say?”
“Just tell him to collapse the time loop,” Kai Three aid. “Order him to collapse it immediately. Can you do that?”
Bonnie did not feel confident at all, but she nodded weakly.
Kai gave her a reassuring smile. “You’re doing the right thing, Good Citizen,” he said.
“Just do it quick,” Kai Two said. Behind him another Kai burst through the doors. There was almost no room left in the lobby not occupied by Kai.
Bonnie moved from behind the front desk and through the side door into the lobby. She fished out her master key while she pressed the call button on the elevator. She didn’t know how much time passed before the elevator door opened, but it couldn’t have been long, because Kai (or it could have been Kai Two) was watching her and he only had time to nod anxiously once.
She stepped into the elevator.
There was no one in the hallway as she hurried to room 213. She knocked. “Mister Zota?” she called. “I’m sorry to bother you but this is important. Mister Zota?”
No answer. How long should she wait? How long had she waited? Her stomach tightened as she thought about the lobby filling with Kai, and the energy building up every time one of them burst through the doors. She put her ear to the door but heard nothing.
She had the master key. She wasn’t supposed to enter a guest’s room unless it was an emergency. She tsk’d at herself. If the hotel lobby being trapped in a time loop and filling up with multiple versions of the same man and in imminent danger of being blown to smithereens wasn’t an emergency, then nothing was.
She swiped the key card and fumbled the influencer into her hand, holding it up in front of her like a tiny shield as she hesitantly entered. “Hello? Mister Zota?”
The lights were off. The room was empty. The one double bed was still made.
The device sat on the bed.
Bonnie tried to make it out in the gloom. It kept changing shape and configuration, one second thin and spindly, the next squat and solid. That it was a machine was the only thing she was certain of. The parts seemed to be made of metal, and gave off a distinct machine-like humming sound.
She wanted to turn and run back to the lobby. She wanted to ask Kai what she should do. Any of them. But she knew what she had to do. She had to make things right—and this device, ever shifting its reality, was the source of all the wrong. She approached the bed, but as she got closer to the device she felt an unsettling vibration in her chest, and an even more unsettling one in her mind. She was as afraid to touch it as she would be to thrust her hand into a running car engine.
She looked around the room. It was like all the other single rooms in the hotel, with absolutely no sign that it had been occupied since housekeeping had arranged it last. No luggage, no garbage in the waste bin. If Zota had ever been in this room there was no sign aside from the device on the bed.
The phone. Bonnie unplugged it from the wall, got as close to the device as she dared, and rapped it once with the receiver.
It had no effect.
She rapped it again, harder. Then she hit it as hard as she could—hard enough to crack the plastic of the receiver—and, just for a second, the hum the device gave off shifted slightly.
Frustrated, she threw it at the device. The phone bounced off and fell to the carpet. She needed something heavier, but turning on the spot nothing leapt to mind. The TV was bolted to the wall, and was too thin and flimsy to do anything but shatter, the bedside lamp was cheap ceramic, and the bedside table was built into the bed. Then it hit her—just like the TV, standard in every room. She wrenched open the doors to the fitted wardrobe, and there it was, nestled in a wooden alcove, next to the single-serving electric kettle, above the security safe bolted to the wardrobe floor.
A microwave oven.
Bonnie reached in on either side and pulled it forward. It slid off its base, the plug pulling taught. She gave the thing a yank and the plug pulled out of the wall socket. She almost overbalanced, then turned and hefted the oven over her head.
With a desperate shove, she slammed the microwave down onto the device.
There was a flash and a deafening bang. Bonnie felt herself being hurled in many directions at the same time. She was slammed against the wall she was knocked over the couch she was blown into the bathroom she was blown out the window with a shattering of glass she was thrown out the door into the hallway. All of the possible permutations, happening all at once.
She groaned. Her entire body hurt.
An older couple whom she remembered were from Naperville, Illinois, appeared at the door to the neighboring room. “Are you alright, dearie?” the old woman asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Bonnie said, not very convincingly.
They helped her to her feet. The doors to all the rooms on the corridor were opening now, confused and frightened guests babbling excitedly. Bonnie found herself surrounded by people asking what had happened and whether they should evacuate and wondering if their rooms would be comped due to the unacceptable disturbance.
Bonnie did her best to calm them down, but she had no idea how long it took before everyone was back in their rooms and she was free to take the elevator back down to the lobby.
When she stepped out, the lobby was empty.
There were no Kai.
Not even one.
Bonnie tried to answer her boss’ questions. As she spoke, his look of anger gave way to another, terrible expression, one that she hadn’t seen since the early days of the accident.
Pity. Fear. A false smile.
Very unfortunate, but of course Mister Vox couldn’t keep her employed. He sighed as he wrote out her final cheque, and made some sympathetic comments about the help that he was certain was out there for someone like her.
Bonnie kept her jaw set as she marched out the front doors, leaving behind her name tag and a promise to return the shirt with the hotel logo embroidered on it. She managed to hold back the tears long enough to reach a bench in the nearby park.
She had been weeping to herself for somewhere between five minutes and a thousand years when someone sat beside her. She looked up, and Kai gave her a sympathetic smile.
“I lost my job,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady.
“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
She blinked away her tears and looked around. “Where are the others?”
He chuckled softly. “There’s only me now. When you stopped Zota’s machine, the loop collapsed and I was thrown out of it.”
“So which Kai are you?”
“All of them,” he said. “Sort of. Smart move, by the way, using the microwave oven like that.”
She sniffed. “You know about that?”
Kai nodded. “I was sent there with a job to do, you know. I sneaked in through that back way you mentioned and went up to the room after, saw the mess. The latent radiation from the microwave’s magnetron likely shorted out the machine.”
“Radiation?” Bonnie said, alarmed. “Am I going to die?”
“Probably not.” Kai smiled. “Zota’s machine would have absorbed most of it. Anything else would have been distributed amongst the alternate outcomes generated by the blast of the quantum pack collapsing.”
Bonnie regarded him impassively. She didn’t really understand a single word he’d said, but at the same time she knew what he meant. The impossible memory of being thrown through every possible direction and out the window still gave her a headache to think about.“Did you find Zota?” she asked.
“No,” Kai said, with a steely tone to his voice. “But I will.”
Bonnie thought she should feel resentment towards him, given that he and his time loop had destroyed her life. Curiously, she felt nothing. She stood. “Well, good luck with that. I’ve got to start looking through the want ads tomorrow.”
“About that,” Kai said, standing too. “I don’t know if I mentioned before, about the organization that I work for. They pay pretty well. I mean, for this time period, they pay phenomenally well…”
Bonnie regarded him cautiously. “Are you offering me a job?”
Kai shrugged. “A woman with your particular temporal dissociation would be an asset in certain situations.”
“Like last night?”
Kai nodded. “Exactly like last night.”
“Does that happen often to you?”
He grimaced—Kai Two’s grimace. “Oftener than I’d like.”
They walked in silence for a few moments, or maybe a few hours, while she considered his offer.
“This organization of yours,” she asked at last. “Where is it?”
“Well,” Kai said with a grin, “it’s not so much a where as a when.”
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