Ralph chewed onto the last bit of nail on his little finger as he stared blankly at his laptop. It displayed back the compiled code to him. No errors, a few minor warnings and seemingly perfect; yet it was throwing up the wrong output on each run.
There was a light tap on his shoulder and Ralph turned back to find his wife Karen, bending down with a broad smile on her face.
“Time for dinner honey,” she declared as she proceeded to shut down Ralph’s laptop.
“Hey, I needed to work a bit more on that,” he protested meekly.
“Well, I fixed some of your modules last week and have mailed you the corrected code too,” replied Karen. “You can compile it after dinner.”
She slammed the lid of the laptop and pulled her husband up from his chair.
Ralph was not surprised. Karen had the odd habit of hacking into his system and solving his algorithms for him. It frustrated him. He could not figure out whether she wanted to help him or to neuter him. And that frustrated him further.
“I cooked a small meal,” said Karen as she led Ralph into the kitchen. There was a nice juicy steak with steamed broccoli and baked potatoes on the side waiting for him on the counter.
“Enjoy,” she smiled as Ralph sat down on the high stool.
“You made all of these?” he smiled gratefully as he dug into his meal.
Karen winked playfully. For the next few minutes Ralph ate ravenously while his wife watched him patiently.
“Thanks Karen,” said Ralph as he finished his meal. “You are a terrific cook.”
“Can you guess which meat that was?”
“Umm, seemed like rabbit to me,” guessed Ralph as he ran his tongue along the insides of his mouth to savour the aftertaste.
“Rabbit?” Karen laughed out aloud. “It’s that…what you ‘forbade’ me to explore!”
Ralph’s smile vanished and his countenance curled into a frown as he slowly turned red.
“You couldn’t have,” he muttered.
“Oh yes, I did,” Karen smirked. “And I’m proud of myself.”
“You crazy woman,” yelled Ralph as he got up and began to rampage around the kitchen.
“You won’t find any more of that in here,” Karen stated calmly. “Look, it is perfectly safe. I’ve fed it to rats, to orangutans and even to other human beings before serving it to you. In fact, I have tasted it too.”
“It is not about food safety,” shouted Ralph.
“You are right, this is bigger than that,” Karen sat down and folded her arms. “Because this can help us to solve the world’s hunger issues.”
“There’s not a tiny shred of ethics left in you,” said Ralph as he suddenly threw himself at Karen and linked his fingers around her neck.
For a second Karen felt that she would choke but her reflexes were well trained for emergencies like this. She swiftly reached for the pouch of Calmnex in her pocket, tore the wrapper and stuck the button on Ralph’s bare neck. The tall and lanky frame of Ralph immediately went limp and his hands slid off Karen’s neck.
She helped him to their bedroom and laid him down on the bed.
“I am trying to solve the biggest concern of our planet,” she elucidated. “You can choose to be by my side as I go on to be the greatest messiah of all times or you can choose to be a failed scientist. We will discuss this when you wake up.”
She turned out the lights and left as Ralph fell into a deep slumber.
It was hours before the drowsiness began to subside for Ralph. The low hum of the vacuum cleaner woke him up. He peered through half closed eyes. The house boys Xiu and Ming were cleaning the bedroom. Ralph quickly shut his eyes back. Karen paid the boys handsomely and treated them well. They were never going to help him.
Xiu walked up to Ralph and rearranged the blanket neatly over him. He then placed a tray full of snacks on the bedside table when his phone started to ring. Xiu fumbled with the stuff in his apron’s pocket for a while. He had to lay out the bunch of key cards by the food tray before he could fish out his phone. And then, as he spoke earnestly into the phone in fluent Mandarin, Xiu began to walk out into the balcony.
Ming was still scrubbing the bathroom floor and Ralph realized that this was his opportunity to steal the key-cards. He had managed to take a copy of the front door key-card when Xiu walked back in. Ralph fell still. The boys were done after a few more minutes and, despite the silent prayers of Ralph, they locked his bedroom from the outside on their way out.
For the next one hour Ralph lay in the bed, plotting his escape. Karen, he knew, would be gone for a day to attend a conference in a different city. He had some food and waited patiently till Xiu and Ming were gone. And then he went out in the terrace and looked down. The first floor balcony was right below him. He held on to the low guard wall and swung his body out. He then carefully lowered himself as much as possible before letting go of the rim. It was a small fall and Ralph found himself on the first floor balcony, unhurt. He got up and darted towards the main exit. The heavy door slid back without protest as soon as he punched in the stolen key-card.
Ralph closed the door behind himself and ran out of the sprawling campus as fast as he could.
Once in the main road, he paused and took in a few large breaths. There was only one person who could help him out of this mess. His ex-girlfriend, Jill, whom he had dumped to marry Karen.
Jill was a maverick scientist who now lived a quiet life in her villa close to Elm Avenue. It would be highly inappropriate to ask for her help, thought Ralph. At that very moment a taxi was zooming by and he spontaneously waved his hands to make it stop.
“Elm Avenue,” he found himself saying before hopping in. Ralph told the driver to stop a few kilometres away from Jill’s place. He looked into the meter and clicked the pay-button. A scan of his retina settled the bill before he got off.
Ralph walked along a short-cut route to reach a cliff by the sea. He stood atop the cliff, facing the sea, inhaling the salty air and trying to find coherence in the wild plan that was taking shape in his mind. A narrow stretch of beach was visible with private properties along them. The first house belonged to Jill. He knew exactly how to reach there. If Karen tried to trace his retina scans, she must not find his location right away.
Ralph closed his eyes for a few seconds and recalled his younger years which he had spent doing deep sea diving in the idyllic beaches of Australia. He opened his eyes and jumped straight into the water. The tide was tame and he easily swam across to the beach.
Jill was sitting on her front porch, sipping cold beer and staring at the magical colours of the setting sun when Ralph hauled himself up from the beach, dripping wet, and began to walk towards her.
She continued to stare at him with no hint of surprise. Ever since the break-up she had been seeing Ralph everywhere. So she calmly assumed him to be another figment of hallucination.
It was only after Ralph’s wet fingers held her by the shoulders and gave her a shake that she realized him to be real.
“Ralph?! You came back,” Jill squealed and hugged him tight.
And Ralph felt again within his heart, a sharp twist of self-loathing. Despite her devotion, kindness and undivided love; all that he could manage to feel for Jill was a deep sense of pity.
“I need your help, Jill,” he managed to say as he released himself softly from her grasp.
And Jill nodded eagerly, her eyes shining in a way that stung Ralph hard.
“You were working on a time travel project,” he came straight to the point.
“It has been marked unsafe by the latest protocol,” Jill shrugged her shoulders. “The grants have stopped.”
“Who are you kidding? You don’t need their money,” Ralph pulled Jill towards himself and looked into her eyes. “Your parents have left you enough to fund your projects.”
“Why would I tell you about it?” Jill snapped. Her eyes glistened with pain.
“I was stupid Jill,” whispered Ralph and hugged her.
“I still love you,” he lied and Jill wept into his shirt. “You have to help me to stop Karen.”
“Brief me about the situation,” said Jill as she wiped off her eyes and took Ralph inside.
“Remember the times when we watched the sci-fi movies? Remember what my greatest fear was?” began Ralph.
Jill handed a beer can to him and snuggled closer.
“Mine was that I might lose you,” said Jill as she rested her head on his shoulder.
Ralph ignored her comment and kept talking.
“Most of the movies portray the aliens as malevolent megalomaniacs; and it made me wonder if we, humans, are pre-disposed to behave in a similar manner if we ever find ourselves more powerful than the alien life forms.”
“Are you saying that we have found life elsewhere?”
“Yes, lower forms of organic beings have been detected in a host of planets,” said Ralph. “Karen is leading one such projects and she has gotten the first batch of aliens transferred to our planet.”
“Oh dear,” exclaimed Jill. “Is she kidnapping them without any attempt to get their consent?”
“Worse. She is planning to use them as food,” said Ralph. “In fact she tricked me into eating one of them.”
Jill got up and took a few steps back. Her eyes were wide and her mouth open with indignation.
“Don’t hate me Jill,” Ralph begged. “Help me…help me to stop her. All the approved time travel routes are monitored and hence, accessible by her.”
“Don’t run away from this,” urged Jill. “Fight her, expose her to the government, to the world!”
“Karen is a genetically engineered human being,” said Ralph. “She is several times brighter than me. The woman is unstoppable.”
Jill sat down, staring hard at the floor.
“I was thinking that maybe I can go back in time and negotiate with the previous governments. I can get certain files classified. Or, I can talk to scientists and ban proliferation of certain segments of knowledge. I know the details of the work that led to the detection of the aliens.”
“Come with me,” said Jill as she walked toward her laboratory.
She unlocked the door and took Ralph inside. A metallic apparatus took up the most of the space. Jill turned on a few switches to power it up. A whirring sound was heard but nothing else was visible.
“This is my stabilizer,” she explained. “And that is the wormhole generator.”
She pointed to a closed room. A mesh of wires came out through a switchboard and connected to an upright rectangular box, big enough to fit an adult.
“Is that it?” asked Ralph.
“Yes,” said Jill. “The bad news is that my stabilizer is not robust enough to support a wormhole that can accommodate a human being. The time machine is working fine but for smaller animals. I have sent back ants successfully. The biggest that it can support is a dog.”
Ralph raised his eyebrows. “How will it help me then?”
“Well, I’ve built a converter too,” said Jill. “It can physiologically convert you into a lower animal and transport you back in time.”
Ralph sat down and began to rub the sides of his head.
“How much time would you need?” he asked after a few minutes of silence.
“Give me your blood samples,” said Jill. “I can work all night and prepare the data for a safe physiological conversion.”
That night Ralph and Jill had dinner together.
“Ralph, you do know that you can’t come back?” asked Jill.
He nodded in assent.
“I don’t want to lose you,” Jill began to sniffle.
Ralph rolled his eyes and sighed.
“Well, if I stay back, Karen will probably have me killed,” he consoled her after a while.
And then he retired into the bedroom without further conversation.
The next morning Jill started by enhancing Ralph’s endurance with a couple of shots while he brooded over his new plans. He had hoped for sane discussions with people from the past and now his plans veered towards biting the relevant people instead.
Soon it was time for him to enter the time machine. Ralph planted a kiss on Jill’s lips and thanked her before closing the door, forever.
Jill set the coordinates for Woolsthorpe, on the 22nd of June, 1679, at 10:30am. She double checked every set of data for an hour and then she activated the system.
She leaned back on her chair and stared at her work. The entire process would take 32 hours of time. However, once back in time Ralph will have plenty of time to fix the situation. The only problem was that he would come out in the past as a small Pomeranian dog.
Jill sighed and got up. She knew that Karen will soon be coming. Jill had to hold off Karen from finding the laboratory till Ralph was safely back in time.
Ralph found himself curled up on a vast emerald lawn. It was a nice summer day with a pleasant breeze blowing. He got up and walked about for some time, feeling a bit disoriented. And then he heard human voices approaching. Ralph peered through the trunks of the trees and the sight that he saw almost took his breath away. His idol from childhood was taking a walk with some of his students.
Ralph forgot everything about the severity of his mission and began to run as fast as his short legs would carry him, to meet the legend. Soon he was at the legend’s feet, trying to say a whole of things. But all that came out of him was a series of excited barks along with a vigorous wag of his tail.
But it was enough to impress the legend, who picked him up with a smile.
“Gentlemen, a dog appears just at which hour I wast mourning the death of mine own pet,” he said to his students.
Then he flashed the most beautiful smile at Ralph and went on to tell him, “Thou art a gift from the heaven. I shall nameth thee Diamond.”
As Ralph leaned against the warm coat of Sir Issac Newton, he realized that he had to betray the trust of his new master if he had to save the future.
In the next few months, Newton’s fondness for Ralph increased fast and soon it became a ritual for him to work at his desk in the evenings with Diamond curled up by the fireplace. And then the opportune day arrived when a distinguished guest paid Sir Issac Newton a visit while he was working in his study. As he left the room, Ralph observed calmly the gradually diminishing figure of his master who walked away towards the hall.
Without wasting another moment Ralph leapt up onto Newton’s desk and with one precise kick he upset the lit candle over the wooden cupboard that contained his master’s research work.
Ralph watched in silence, unable to cry, as the lead to alien detection among many other things went up in flames. After several minutes the sound of crackling wood alerted people. The maintenance staff came running along with the master himself.
Ralph crouched in a corner, yelping in fear while the people attempted to douse out the fire. But Sir Issac Newton picked him up as gently as ever and said softly, “O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the damage thee hast done.”
Ralph’s ears drooped and he looked away. Unexpressed guilt tore away at his heart as his mater continued to treat him with affection.
An entourage of cars stopped outside Jill’s villa. Karen stepped out of her car and began to march ahead.
One more minute and Ralph will have crossed over, calculated Jill as she waited to meet Karen at the gate.
Suddenly there was a spell of dizziness that took over every mortal being on earth and then it passed.
Karen stopped a step away from Jill and took a moment to steady herself. And then she flashed a broad smile.
“I came to invite you,” she said. “For my book launch next week.”
Jill smiled back happily. The alternate timeline had come into play.
“I’ll be there,” she promised as she shook Karen’s hands.
In the new timeline Jill and Karen were friends from school. Jill was a reputed scientist while Karen was a rising author. The new reality began to sink in slowly for Jill.
She chatted with Karen for a while before waving her goodbye.
Jill felt tired as she walked back in. She was the only one who had memories of both the timelines. Over the next 24 hours the new reality will completely replace her memories of the past timeline.
She thought of Ralph and realized that she did not want him anymore.
“Wish you find a good bitch there,” she said out aloud and laughed at her own joke.
Jill turned towards the mirror. She looked great. She smiled and ran out for a swim. She felt happy after a long time.