A man in suit steps out of a room on the right and Derrick recognizes him: the co-founder of Time-Tbox.
“Wait,” the man says.
Derrick stops. The three people behind Derrick stop.
“I’m Prof. Lambert.” He walks over. First, he shakes hands with Derrick. Then the chubby guy on Derrick’s left.
“Glad to meet you, sir,” the only lady among them says as he shakes hands with her. The fortyish man wearing a cowboy hat is next.
“In a few minutes, four of you would have an experience of a lifetime,” Prof. Lambert says and starts toward the shiny door at the end of the hallway. They follow.
Derrick imagines, anticipates.
The floor vibrates as the door slides open. Once Prof. Lambert steps in, he turns around—his hands behind him—as though he wants to watch as they enter.
The blue lighting in the room switches to red. There are two time machines on the left and two on the right.
“So, I know all of you have been on the waiting list for at least five months. As you can see, we have only four M8 TBoxes, the only four in the world, actually, and we can only run them once in eight days. Thank you for your patience.”
He says a long code that starts with “M8,” and the machines which look like tall fridges turn on. The large displays in front of them show “0.” Every few seconds, they beep twice.
Prof. Lambert tucks his hand into his pants pocket. “You were told this during orientation, but I’ll say it again: avoid instant death; avoid - instant - death. Getting shot in the leg is good. Getting shot in the head is bad.
“The machine will give you a Soul Power based on some algorithms. Every human alive that isn’t bleeding… dying should have a Soul Power above ninety percent.” He rubs his bald head and continues. “Let’s assume when the experience starts you find yourself in front of a bus, and it hits you. And you start dying, slowly. Your Soul Power will start depleting. Once it gets to twenty percent, the machine will bring you back to the present—you’ll be back in the machine.
“But if you find yourself in front of a train and it crushes you and you die instantly, your Soul Power will deplete fast to zero. The machine may not be able to bring you back because of how fast your Soul Power depleted.
“Avoid instant death: it’s the most important of all you were told during orientation.”
The only sounds in the room are the beeping of the machines for several seconds. Derrick thinks of “instant death,” the rest are probably doing the same.
“Any questions,” Prof. Lambert asks.
Derrick steps forward. “This wasn’t mentioned during orientation: what would happen to a person who isn’t returned to the present because of instant death?”
“The person’s body would be stuck in wherever… whatever year he or she time travels to.” Prof. Lambert takes a step toward Derrick. “Let me add that once twenty minutes is over you will return to the present - as long as Soul Power is above zero.”
“So, the whole body leaves the machine?" the lady asks.
“Yes. Your body and soul leaves.”
Prof. Lambert turns to the chubby guy as though it’s his turn to ask a question.
“How can we prevent finding ourselves in front of a train?” the chubby guy asks.
Prof. Lambert smiles. “If you find yourself in front of a moving train, jump off the track. Um, don’t let my answer scare you. It likely won’t happen.”
The guy wearing the cowboy hat clears his throat, drawing everyone’s attention. He doesn’t ask a question, though; he says he’s ready.
Prof. Lambert confirms they’re all ready and asks them to choose a machine. Derrick walks over to the one closest to him. Standing in front of it, he takes a deep breath, waiting for the next instruction.
Then someone says loudly, “I can’t do this!” Derrick looks back and the chubby guy is walking to Prof. Lambert, his chest heaving as if he just ran a hundred meter dash.
“Sir, I can’t.”
“Are you scared of dying instantly? You can stand beside me as the rest journey into the future - or past. Everyone, place your right hand on the screen.”
When Derrick’s hand makes contact with the screen, the number changes from 0 to 96.7%. His Soul Power, he guesses. Then the front of the machine fades, and Prof. Lambert asks them to climb in.
Inside the machine is white, and the lights in it are damn bright. There’s a chair, and a small screen is on one of its arms.
“Sit,” Prof. Lambert says.
The chubby guy stands with his hands resting on his waist, looking scared. More like he believes someone won’t return.
The front of the machine seals.
“Now, configure your experience.” Prof. Lambert’s voice is clear as if he’s in the machine.
Derrick looks down at the small screen.
“Action - Soft - Random”
Derrick taps on “Action.”
“Before 2200 - After 2200 - Random”
He selects “After 2200.”
“Same continent - Specify continent - Random”
He chooses “Random.”
“Start experience - Change setup - Abort”
He moves his finger toward “Start experience” and stops. His heart pumps harder.
Maybe I should change Action to Soft.
“No, no. I just have to avoid instant death and everything will be fine,” he mutters.
What if the machine malfunctions? What if I get shot? What if—
He stops the negative thoughts and taps on “Start experience.”
A countdown timer appears in front of his left eye. 20:00. Its text is green, and it moves up slowly and stops just above his eye level.
Nothing happens for about half a minute.
Then—the machine starts beeping faster, vibrating intensely. After a few moments, sounds fade; Derrick hears nothing. The lights turn off, and the timer starts counting. He sees a bright flash of light, and suddenly it feels like he’s falling—fast. An ear-splitting sound blends with the wind rushing past his ears. One moment he feels hot, and the next, cold. He starts screaming, but he can’t hear himself. He concludes his Soul Power has dropped to zero.
Everything stops, and he’s lying on a hard surface. His vision clears. The place is dimly lit. It looks like a cave.
“Illegal teleporting gone wrong.” “Is he alive?” “Look—he’s blinking.” Derrick hears voices.
He looks left and three men are sitting on the ground, staring at him. Light from a circular, flat thing on the ground in front of them highlights their faces.
Quickly he raises himself and shifts away, and his back hits the end of the space. It’s damn small. His head almost touches the ceiling. A flat thing on the floor lights up in front of him—just like the one in front of the men.
“The universe has sent us food,” the man in the middle, with big ears, says. “I think so,” the man on the right, with a long neck, says and starts crawling toward Derrick.
“Wait, wait, I’m a human - just like you. I’m a time traveler.”
The man stops and sits. He glances at the other two. “We normally don’t eat humans, but we haven’t eaten in twelve days.”
The other two crawl to where the third is and sit; the man on the left is the biggest of the three. “Time traveler?” he asks, pulling his long beard. “From which year?”
The man with big ears says, “This is the year 2475. Anyway, your real body should be safe somewhere. We shall eat you.”
The long-necked man (Long-neck) pulls out a knife from his pants. He licks his lips as if he’s gazing at his favorite food. “Please, please, do-don’t eat me,” Derrick pleads. Long-neck leans forward and grabs Derrick’s leg, while the big-eared man (Big-ears) pulls off Derrick’s shoes.
Long-neck is ready to cut out some flesh, but the big man stops him. “No. We won’t eat him.”
Long-neck and Big-ears frown. Long-neck flings the knife to the other end of the space and crawls away. Big-ears follows, murmuring.
“Ask questions,” the big man says. “Isn’t that what you came for?”
Derrick tries to open his mouth, but he is so terrified. It takes about a minute of stammering and shuddering before he asks, “Why are you in this... hole?”
“We tried to overthrow their government. They are searching for us.”
“Which country is this?”
“Animal country,” the big man says. “They rule in this part of the earth.” He glances back at Big-ears and Long-neck who are whispering to each other.
“You look surprised,” he says.
“Yes, I am. Aren’t humans smarter?"
“Humans were smarter. But in 2242, a scientist called Collins Nikilovic gathered a hundred and fifty different animals and injected them with Nikilovinium, some brain booster he invented. And since then, everything changed.”
He opens his mouth to say more, and it stays agape. His eyes widen. “They are coming!”
Something sounding like an airplane seems to be approaching. The big man quickly turns off the lights by moving his hand over them. Darkness. A tiny hole is opened close to the ceiling and someone peeps through.
“It’s the Wolf Army. They are coming in this direction.”
The sound gets louder and louder; it sounds closer and closer.
When the sound stops, Derrick hears voices.
“It fell around here," a voice says. "I’m very sure I saw it. Blue. It looked like a capsule.”
“Start digging,” another voice says.
Someone crawls to Derrick. A warm air caresses his outer ear as the person whispers, “They’ll find us.” He recognizes it’s the big man talking. “They’ll find us because of you; they saw you arriving.”
“Dig faster. I can smell humans. Damn humans. Dig, dig, dig.”
A leg of an animal penetrates the ceiling just in front of Derrick. Another penetrates at the other end. Sand starts pouring in.
More legs penetrate. Holes are everywhere.
The ceiling collapses.
Wolfs standing on two legs pull them out. All are wearing black T-shirts. Some are holding guns. Some are wearing sunglasses. Derrick and the other three are hauled to a craft that looks like a zeppelin, and they are thrown into it.
The wolves climb in, about twenty of them, and it takes off.
Derrick’s arm hurt where claws had penetrated—where he’d been grabbed. His mind is on his Soul Power.
I should have chosen “Soft.” This is big trouble.
The craft lands.
Derrick, the big man, Long-neck, and Big-ears are dragged out. It seems the craft landed on the top of a building.
The wolves pull them down a flight of stairs, and they emerge in a long hallway with flower decorations on the walls. Giraffes, Buffalos, Zebras, Wildebeests… different quadrupeds are standing on two legs, on both sides of the hallway, chanting, “Instant judgment, instant judgment.”
The word “instant” scares the piss out of Derrick as it takes forever to get to the end of the hallway. The chants get louder.
A wooden door is at the end. A monkey wearing a shirt and a bow tie raises its hand, and the chants stop. It walks over and says, “You are about to enter King Zomba’s throne room. Homo sapiens, behave yourselves.”
The door hinges squeak as the monkey opens it. Derrick and the other humans are pushed inside with so much force that they all fall.
King Zomba is sitting on the throne, wearing a crown that’s twice the size of his head. Two female lions are on the left, and two are on the right. Cheetahs are palace guards.
He tips his head back, laughing. "You can't hide forever.
“My people want instant judgment for four of you; I’ll do what they want.” He moves his hand through his mane, looking in different directions as if he’s searching for something.
“Feed the two men on the left to the big cats in prison. But first, bring him to me.” He points at Big-ears.
Two palace guards walk over, and one drags a quivering Big-ears to King Zomba.
Derrick looks down, hoping for a “good” judgment. He wishes King Zomba would feed him to the big cats too: that wouldn’t be instant death.
Big-ears screams and Derrick raises his head. King Zomba is munching. One of Big-ears’ ears is gone. He motions for the palace guard to take Big-ears away.
“Let’s test our H20 guns on these two. Firing squad—now.”
Firing squad? No. No. That could be instant death. I have to think of something. I won’t die in 2475. I won’t. I won’t.
“Fight me! Let’s fight without weapons,” Derrick says loudly.
All heads in the throne room turn to Derrick, staring at him like he has gone crazy or something.
King Zomba laughs. “You want to fight me? Without using a weapon?” He continues laughing. “Interesting. You are brave. But let me remind you that a heroic death is still death. And unfortunately, you have chosen a more painful way to die. Take him to the arena!”
For several minutes, Derrick stands in the middle of the arena watching animals troop in.
When he heard King Zomba say all seats had to be filled before the fight would begin, he felt relief: the timer would count to zero before it gets filled. But he was wrong. It reaches 02:59, and every single seat is occupied. More and more animals rush in.
A monkey holding a trumpet runs to the middle of the arena, close to Derrick, and blows it. A few meters away, opposite, King Zomba stands on four legs, and a female lion takes off his crown.
He roars. Every animal sitting stands up, clapping. They start cheering.
King Zomba takes a few steps toward Derrick, flashing his canines.
Derrick takes steps back. There’s nowhere to run.
One moment his eyes are fixed on King Zomba. The next moment he’s pushed to the ground as King Zomba pounces on him.
Derrick closes his eyes, waiting for the worst.
Some animals chant, “Eat him,” some, “Kill him!”
Teeth penetrate Derrick’s throat, deep. He screams, feeling his blood gushing out. Life is being squeezed out of him, fast.
Suddenly, he rises above the arena. And he can see his body, King Zomba’s jaws locked on his neck.
Then his body disappears.
The noises around fade the higher he gets—his vision too.
Where’s the timer? Am I rising to heaven? Has my Soul Power dropped fast to zero?
He feels cold, and then very hot. He rises faster. The wind rushing past his ears sounds like a whistle. A bright flash of light follows.
Then—everything stops. For about a minute he sees nothing. He hears nothing. It’s just like his imagination of what happens after death.
He concludes he’s dead until his vision begins to clear.
He hears beeps in a distance.
Am I back in the machine?
Everything becomes clearer; he’s back in the machine.
The small screen displays “Passenger retrieved.”
He stands up. The front of the machine fades. He steps out and finds Prof. Lambert standing beside the chubby guy.
Glancing back, the screen on the front of the machine displays 20%.
“Welcome back. You lost your shoes,” Prof. Lambert says. “Unfortunately, your memory of the experience will fade in about… three minutes. The machine captured some moments, though."
“What did you see?” the chubby guy asks.
“Humans. Animals. Death,” Derrick says.
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