“Why twenty-four hours?” said Lamb.
“I always say twenty-four. It’s a number people expect to hear at such a juncture,” said Constance. “I was hopeful. After I gave him the little ultimatum, he didn’t object any further. I thought we had him.”
“But no dice?”
“And that was the last you spoke to him?”
“We had one more encounter. He was more hostile, ultimately even more stubborn than he had been the first time,” Constance said—and all of this was true as far as it went.
Now Lamb did wear those little tells of inebriation, the ones he had been lacking earlier: the ever so slight slurring, the minute dilation.
“It was then that I called the director of my division. He presumably dispatched you,” said Constance.
“Of course you did,” said Lamb. “And it was the right thing to do. Let’s prepare for tomorrow when I go see this Lamb. You’ve seen one of the machines before, of course?”
“Ive seen them and heard the theory, but never witnessed them in action.” “Let’s light him up,” Lamb said.
He took out the shining suitcase and opened it on the table. It stood open with its screen and keyboard like some bulky laptop made to live through a nuclear winter. The keyboard was a basic QWERTY layout except that it contained twenty or thirty additional buttons and a handful of steel switches. The Future Machine possessed a large dial demarcated in hundreds of units, dashes labeled only by number. The dial reminded Constance of an overgrown version of an old-fashioned FM radio receiver. In its entirety, the suitcase was about as stylish as most Agency-designed equipment. It could have belonged in either a 1950s war room, or as a prop on the set of the original Star Trek series.
First the screen was just a blinking cursor in a black expanse: a command line interface. Lamb produced a manual from his jacket pocked. Looking between it and the screen he began to type. What he typed was a combination of extremely abbreviated English instructions–standard command-line commands—and the personal information of Allen Laconte. It included the man’s address, age, and other such facts of his existence.
“If this man keeps doing what he’s doing, and as recklessly as he’s doing it, the Degredation is going to worsen in this region,” said Lamb. “If we can get him to ease off only a little, the damage he’s doing in this area will drop off tremendously.”
“I know,” said Constance.
“And we could use the extra cash,” said Lamb.
After a moment more of Lamb typing, Constance said, “Are you ever concerned that we ourselves are bringing doom nearer? I mean, this Future Machine exploits the Degredation as well. Right?”
Death was in the eyes of Lamb when he next looked upon Constance. Constance decided he would not persist in this conversational line.
After resuming to type, Lamb did answer, however. “Our phycisists are on top of it, boy. The damage we cause has been projected and the projections have been analyzed. In the long run we help more than we’re hurting. Same isn’t true of Lucky, here.”
Now onscreen there were images of Laconte bowling, then of Laconte on a date. He sat at a desk and wrote. More odddly, he stroked a mule. He watched a huge television with several children, nieces and nephews at a guess.
“Laconte’s past,” Lamb said, pointing at the date readout in a corner of the picture. After another twist on the dial, he said, “Ah. Laconte’s future.” With that transition, Constance went cold in his heart. Could it be? Was it true that they were witnessing things to come?
After Lamb honed in some more, the screen presented a scene in which Laconte was on the phone.
“Let’s listen in on this conversation,” muttered Lamb. Lamb adjusted a few more controls, and they heard words.
“Look Constance, I’ve made up my mind,” Laconte was saying onscreen.
“Paydirt,” said Lamb. “He’s talking to you.”
“So I’m looking at—”
“Your own future, Mr. Constance, at least in a sort of tangential way. You’re witnessing the opposite end of a phone conversation of which you will be a part.” Lamb grinned at Constance. It was a smile with a lot of teeth, and Lamb had a crazed look in his eyes—unless it was just the atmosphere of the room that made it seem so.
The onscreen Laconte said nothing for a moment, just listening, apparently.
“Nothing you can say will change my mind. I won’t sign,” said Laconte from the Future Machine. “Never will I agree not to use my newfound luck.” He hung up the phone. After that, Laconte went outside (the frame changed automatically to follow his motion) and sat on his porch, began to rock in an old-fashioned rocking chair.
It looked like he would be there for a while. Lamb turned the knob, and the scenes changed again. Constance did not know what Lamb was looking for, now. Then, the screen went blank. It reverted to the blinking cursor of the command prompt.
“We can only use the device for an average of an hour a day, for some reason. Our phycisists are still working on that. But the good news is that we keep our place, you could say. Tomorrow when I boot up, I’ll be exactly where I left off from Laconte’s future. There won’t be so much honing-in to do when I resume my study.
“So what do we do now, Mr. Lamb?”
“This Laconte is obstinate. You saw. He’ll staunchly refuse to keep quiet.” “That’s our prediction, anyway. We believe that he will staunchly refuse to keep quiet.” “The machine is always right. We’ve done extensive experiments, believe me, and it’s impossible to change the outcome predicted by the Machine,”said Lamb.
“So I’ve heard. It’s hard to believe I can’t prevent him from saying those words tomorrow,” said Constance.
“Is it so hard to believe? Haven’t you been trying to prevent this man saying those very words all along since the case began? Do you see yourself as infallible in conducting this mission?”
“Not at all. That’s why I called you in. That’s not what I’m talking about though; surely I could at least change the phrasing, say. It would be a trivial difference, but—”
“It will happen just that way, down to the letter,” said Lamb. He put Constance under that penetrating, psychotherapeutic look, the one that made Constance feel studied. He was a pattern of thin lines intersecting one other, and Lamb knew the formula that determined his location at every point on the graph. Constance did not let on that, for some reason, he desperately clung to the notion that he could alter the future. He was beginning to feel like he was buried alive by time.
“Laconte will say just those words. Whatever you think or do trying to prevent those words, those are the very actions and thoughts that will result in your eventually saying them.”
“No. I’ll simply hang up as soon as I hear him start the sentence. Then I’ll have changed the future,” said Constance.
Lamb just laughed at this.
What a mindfuck, thought Constance, still not entirely able to believe it. He swigged the last of his drink all at once. “But if we told him about the Degredation, that might change his mind. He’s come a little way toward complying. He might respond to reason if he knew the larger physical implications of his abuse of his luck.”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you say that,” said Lamb. “The Agency has its regulations for a reason, Agent Constance. And anyway, even if I authorized you to tell him about the Degredation, it wouldn’t change the outcome. People aren’t capable of changing the future as predicted by this device.” Constance bid Lamb good night and retired to his own room.