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Her Destiny

a novella
by Guy Hasson

"A road diverged in the woods," he whispered, standing over her grave. "And fate forced me to choose the one less traveled by." His legs, rooted in the mud, sank a bit. Wind blew through his hair. "And fate," he repeated softly, his voice cracking. "Forced me to choose the one less traveled by."

He knew her before he met her.

Like so many things in his life: he just knew.

He'd always known he'd create something big. He'd known that whatever it was he would do, it would make him rich and famous. He'd known that eventually he'd be in league with Edison or Einstein.

He wasn't good at inventing things, but he was good at making money. And he was near-prophetic at predicting where things would go. And so, at the age of twenty-three, he'd picked a direction and hit the gas. By twenty-five he was the CEO of Eternity Plus, a start-up that melded together different branches of sciences in a direction almost everyone thought was impossible. Its ultimate goal was to be able to copy people's minds into computers, so they could live forever. And now, only five years later, thanks to his leadership and thanks to his choice of scientists, all the major breakthroughs were behind them. They just needed it to work. It hadn't yet. Not without bugs. But it would. He knew it.

He knew.

He knew he'd be married, not by the age of thirty, but at the age of thirty: After he'd been around the block, after he'd experienced everything that was bad for him, after he'd have nothing more to regret not having done, after he'd had the crazy teenage energy drained out of him. He knew that only at the age of thirty he'd be mature enough to settle down. He knew it. And he knew that the second he'd be ready, he'd meet her. He knew she'd come to him.

He met her on his twenty-ninth birthday.

It was a one-in-a-billion lucky shot. It was a fluke. It should never have happened.

In the middle of his birthday party, at a friend's studio apartment, he felt nauseous. He stepped out to take a breath of fresh air. And just as he walked out of the staircase and into the street, she walked into the building.

She wasn't even supposed to be there. Her best friend had dragged her to Manhattan to celebrate her last day in the States. Of all the streets, they had a flat in this one. Of all the times for it to happen, one cellphone had broken down and the other's batteries had run down. Of all the buildings in that street, she'd stepped into this one to ask for help, just as he was coming down the stairs.

He found himself face to face with the image he'd had in his mind since he was six years old.

He offered to help them with the flat but they didn't have a spare. They used his cellphone to call for help. He stayed around until the help got there. They talked. They liked each other so much, that he ditched the party and left with them.

And the funny thing was, they were both called Tony.

There are things that are set. There are things that you know.

If they hadn't met then, they would never have met. He'd never stepped outside New York. She'd always sworn she'd die before setting foot in it. She was on her way to London, to get a degree in the BBC School of Communications. Had she gone, she would have gone on to make a career as a producer in the BBC, and would never have come back. And they would never have met. Now that they had met, she took a job as senior associate producer at a local station.

If they hadn't met on that day, at that second, they would never have met. He knew it.

There are things that you know. There are things that are set.

He knew exactly who he was. He knew what he would do five years from now, ten years from now, twenty years from now.

Now that he knew her, he knew who she was. He knew what she'd do five years from now. He knew what she'd do twenty years from now.

They'd set the wedding date on his thirtieth birthday. But two months before the wedding, she'd cancelled. It was a decision for life, and for a few horrible weeks she hesitated. He stayed with her. She stayed with him. They got over it, and set another date. It was set to be ten months after the original date -- he would still be thirty years old. This time, he knew it would happen. And the future was easy to see again. Marriage, work, kids. Kindergarten, school, college. Five years, ten years, twenty years. The path ahead was clear.

Their future, in his mind, had already been written. He knew the future. He knew it.

And now, a month before the wedding, after he'd told her the great news, after he'd told her that a French production company was interested in coming over to the States in a few weeks and doing a documentary about Eternity Plus, after he'd convinced her to be interviewed as well, she stepped out of the house, into the car, and a truck ran into her.

Had she waited another second, it would have been fine. Had she come out a second earlier, the other driver would have seen her. Had Tony told her only one more thing that morning, none of this would have happened.

It was a one-in-a-billion chance. It was a fluke. It should never have happened.

And now she was gone. And his life was gone. And he didn't know anything.

Some of the mourners approached him, wanting to console, to share their memories of her. He answered curtly.

Matt Sanders, the company's CTO, was one of the last to come and share his condolences. Tony stopped him, gripped the man's arm forcefully, and took him aside, towards his car.

"Matt," Tony said once they were alone. "Tell me you got her!"

Without looking up, Matt said: "No. I'm sorry."

"But ... I thought you had everything in place. You said you got all her data from her brain."

"Yes, well, Tony, we did."

"Then what?"

"We turned her on," Matt looked at him with helpless, puppy-dog eyes. "We did get everything from her brain -- her personality, everything -- into the computer. But ... It was the last ten seconds of her life, Tony. She was dying. Her brain was practically gone. And ... Every time we turned her on, she just ... died. Again. And again. And again."

"Is there ... Can't you ... " Tony's eyes were glazing over.

"Tony. We can only work with what we have. Her brain was dying. So we recorded a dying brain. If we'd gotten there an hour earlier ... " They both knew there had been no time. The accident had been too severe, and she'd lost too much blood. Tony called Matt from the ambulance, frantic, knowing that these were her last moments, desperate to keep even a remnant of her alive. Nothing could have been done faster. "We recorded a dying brain," Matt repeated. "So we have her dying. Even if our technology worked ten times better, we'd still only be able to work with what there is."

Tony's strength suddenly left him. "Yeah. Okay. I'm sorry."

Matt looked at him. "Yah. Do you need anything?"

"No. Thank you." Tony opened the car door. "Thank you for everything."

Matt looked at him with empathy. "Sure," he said at length, then turned away.

Matt made his way as quickly as possible to his own car, wanting to get away, wanting to just go home. As he reached it, he felt a hand on his shoulder.

It was Tony.

"I want to see them," Tony said.

"What?"

"The last ten seconds. I want to see them."

"What? No. You don't want to see that -- "

"I want to see what she saw, I want to see how she saw, I -- I -- I just want to -- Just bring it over to my house, okay?"

"Tony ... "

"Tomorrow. Do it tomorrow," and a spark of the strength that had so often marked the entrepreneur returned.

Matt relented, unable to face the man's sorrow. "Yeah, sure, okay." And he fell back into the car and into the driver's seat.

"Thanks. No. Tonight, bring it tonight."

Matt looked at Tony for a long time, then nodded, and quickly turned away and left.
 

When Matt came over that night, he brought two tapes.

"What's the difference?" Tony asked.

"Well ... They both show the last ten seconds of her life. This one," he raised one tape, "is actually what you asked for. The computer simulated the way her mind really works. It did the math from one fraction of a second to the next fraction of a second, from one moment to the next. Just like real life goes from one moment to the next."

"Okay. And the other one?"

"See, I figured ... I don't know ... I had this thought. I mean, this is Tony. It was worth doing something stupid for her."

"What?"

"I used ... the method we're working on for long-term."

"I thought that was for people who wanted to live in a computer for a period of years in a few seconds. Even thousands of years."

"Yes."

"What does that have to do with Tony? She only has ten seconds."

"I figured, I don't know, you know, the way the computer figures the brain using the other method is the way the computer figures where the moon will be in five years. You punch in a few numbers, and it tells you where the moon will be in five years without having gone through the middle. It's the same here, you punch in the years, and you get a person who's lived in a computer for a thousand years in a single second. So ... I figured, we don't have to type in a thousand years. Instead of skipping a year into the future, let's do the opposite."

"What? What do you mean?"

"I mean, let's break it down into frames, like a movie. I mean, a movie is made up of frozen frames. But you when run twenty-four-or-whatever frames a second, it looks like real life."

"So?"

"So ... When we compute the brain using the first method, we compute fifty states-of-mind a second. So let's compute the first fiftieth of a second using the second computation. And then the second fiftieth, and the third, and so on. I mean, it's different math, maybe it'll give different results. I mean, we still don't know if the damned thing -- "

"Fine. And ... ?"

"Same thing. Exactly. Frame for frame. Our computations must be right, because -- "

"So you have two tapes which show the same ten seconds?"

"Yeah. Done different ways. I figured you wouldn't take my word for it that they were the sa -- "

"Yeah, okay." Tony took the tapes from Matt's hands and looked at them. "I just play them?"

"Yeah."

For a long time, he just stared at the tapes. Then he looked up at Matt and handed him one.

"Put it in."

Matt put it in. Tony took the remote, and the both of them sat on the sofa and watched.

These were Tony's last seconds, seen from her point of view, garnered from her brain, seen exactly as she had seen them.

Tony recognized the small hospital room, as seen from her eyes. There was another bed beside hers, with another patient. A curtain. From the corner of her view, you could see part of her leg, covered by a blanket, and a couple of her fingers. And sitting right in front of her was Tony, as he was then, his face sad and broken, holding her hand.

The breathing got harder. Tony's face -- his own face -- became frantic. He looked around, about to call a doctor. She made a small sound, then gasped. The vision got blurry, and then the screen turned dark.

"Oh, my god ... " Tony said, looking at the blackness. "Oh, my god ... "

And they just sat there in silence.

Until: "Put the other tape in."

"Tony. You don't want to see this again. It's -- "

"Put it in!" Tony thrust the tape into Matt's lap, clearly unable to get up himself and put it in.

Matt lowered his head, took a deep breath, got up, replaced the tape, sat back down again, and pressed 'Play'.

The two watched the same ten seconds in silence.

Tony then took the remote. He rewound it, then pressed 'Play' again.

And when the screen turned dark, he played it again.

After the fifth time, the remote fell from his hand. "Okay," he said.

"Is her family here?"

"No, her brother's in Australia. They're not ... They're not on friendly ... He didn't want to come. And both her parents are dead."

"Do you ... " he looked around. The huge house felt so empty and dark. And Tony, sitting there in the couch, seemed to have shrunk. "Do you have anyone staying with you? Anyone who could ... ?"

"No. I'm fine."

"Maybe I should stay. Just a bit, just till -- "

"I don't need anyone, but thank you." He stood up and reached out to shake Matt's hand. "Thank you for everything you've done."

"No ... No problem. It's just that ... I'm so sorry. I know how much you two -- "

"Yah," Tony killed Matt's sentence with a word. "Thank you." And he said it in a way that clearly meant 'get out'.

"Sure," and Matt bent down to take the tapes.

"Leave them."

Matt's hand froze an inch from the tapes. His back still bent, he looked up. "What?"

"Leave the tapes."

Matt looked into Tony's eyes for two seconds, then turned and left.

There were twenty-nine days left till their wedding day.

Tony didn't come to the office for a week.

The people from Eternity called Tony every so often, but mostly left him alone. Surely he had friends in his own life, friends he could depend on during these tough times.

After a week, he appeared, went immediately into the office and shut the door behind him.

After a few hours, Matt walked to the door, opened it gingerly, and stepped in.

"Good," Tony said, before Matt shut the door behind him. "I was just coming to see you."

Matt shut the door, and looked at Tony. "How are you doing?"

"Yeah," Tony said. "Two things. I got this invitation to a general meeting of the shareholders of the company. You probably have one on your desk, too. 'On the agenda: The Chairman's term of office.'"

"I saw that. It's outrageous! They'd fire you?! And when you're grieving over -- "

"No, no. They sent it the day before she -- Look, it doesn't matter, it's bogus. They want results and that's how they're pressuring me. The point is, try to get results as soon as possible. The heat's going to get worse over the next few months. But don't skip over -- Do a good job, okay? Don't worry about the business side of things. I'll take care of it. But I'm counting on you to take care of everything else for the next few weeks."

"Sure."

"I want another favor."

Matt looked at him with apprehension. "What?"

"Those ten seconds of her. That second method."

"What about it?"

"I don't want ten seconds. I want a minute, two minutes."

"Tony," his voice was soft and reasonable. "You have everything we have. When we punch it in at a minute after the incident, we just get zero brain activity. It's just darkness. Ten seconds is all we h -- "

"You don't understand. I don't want more later, I want more inbetween. I mean, why have fifty frames a second? Why not compute a hundred frames a second? Or a hundred-and-fifty? Or at two hundred?"

"But ... at some point the equation will have to collapse. The human brain doesn't operate at a hundred frames a second or two hundred."

"If the thing breaks at a hundred, if a hundred is too much, then give me seventy frames a second. If seventy's too much, give me sixty. If fifty-two is too much, give me fifty-one. But I want that one extra frame I don't have."

"Why? What are you looking for? What do you think you'll see?"

"I don't know. It's just, I want to see everything she went through, everything she saw. And even if it's only one more frame, I just ... I just need to see it. To ... " he was stuck for words.

"To accept it?"

Tony lowered his eyes and didn't answer. "Look," he said. "I'll be here tomorrow, too. I haven't finished catching up on my paperwork. Can you do it by noon tomorrow?"

"Sure. No problem."

"And, look, however many frames you get, run it in slow motion, run it at twenty-four frames a second. So those ten seconds will stretch into a minute or two. Okay?"

"Sure."

"Good. When I come in tomorrow, I'll take the tape."

"Sure ... Are you -- ?"

"What?"

"Never mind."

Tony opened the door and was halfway through it when he turned back.

"You know what? Prepare it in tape, but I'd like to see it on the big screen, too." He meant their theater-sized screen on the third floor. "Maybe I'll ... I don't know ... "

"It's no problem, Tony."

"See you tomorrow."

"Tomorrow."

And Matt was left standing alone in Tony's office.

It was now twenty-one days before the wedding.

Tony came in early the next day.

The tape waited for him on his desk. He sat down, set it aside, finished as much of the paperwork as he could over the next three hours. Then he got up, took the tape, and headed down to Research.

Matt saw him as he came in, and walked up to him.

"You want to go now?"

"If you're not too busy."

"No problem." Matt signaled the others to continue, and led Tony to the screening room.

On the way, Tony said, "So how many frames did you get out of it?"

"Two hundred," Matt turned a corner. "And surprisingly, the equation didn't collapse. I mean, there's no doubt the brain doesn't work that fast. We did physical experiments on people. Our perception has limits. But you put two-hundredth of a second into the equation, and it gives us an image."

"What did you see?"

"If you run the ten seconds at twenty-four frames a second, it just looks like the same thing, only much slower. So I guess it gave us in-betweens. I mean, this just proves to me how good the equation is -- that it makes sense even at this level."

They went into the screening room. Tony sat in the second out of ten rows. Matt stayed at the last row to operate the digital controls.

"I'll turn it on," Matt said. He turned off the lights, and turned it on.

It was just the same in slow motion. There were no sounds this slow, but Tony sat riveted. Watching each of his breaths in slow motion, watching every expression on his own face.

It was over after forty seconds.

"I want to see it again," Tony said.

Wordlessly, Matt pressed a couple of buttons, and started it again. After the third time, Tony got up suddenly, and squinted at the big screen. "Freeze it," he said.

"What?"

"Look!" he pointed at the frozen picture. "You can see her reflection in my eyes." Something he could never have seen on a small TV screen. "See it?"

Tony got up and looked closer. "Yes," he said with wonder.

"Play it again," Tony said. "From the beginning."

And when Matt played it again, Tony's face was almost glued to the screen, as he stared at his dead fiancé's last seconds as reflected from his eyes. He could see her face, and the wall behind her.

And when it was over, Tony said, "Play it again."

And then, "Again."

And "Again."

And in the middle of the seventh time, Tony, now seated back in the second row, suddenly raised his hand. "Freeze it!"

The picture froze on his command, Tony's face on the screen filled with consternation.

"Matt," Tony stood up and turned to face him. "I thought everything we did was digital?"

"Of course it is, what do you mean?"

"Everything I'm seeing now, it's all supposed to be digital. It's not film, right?"

"Of course not. The mind was computed by a computer, the pictures you see were drawn by a computer and now you're seeing it using a computer."

"Well, I thought I just saw a scratch on the -- I mean, I saw it before, it's just that I remembered that it's not supposed to happen."

"A scratch?"

"Go back ten seconds. Play it again."

Matt easily ordered the computer to do that.

"Freeze!" Tony yelled suddenly. "See? It was there again! Next to me, next to the chair! It looked like a scratch on the film!"

Tony's brows furrowed. "It did look like that."

"Is it a bug in the programming? Is it the program or is it because we got too deep?"

"I don't know. Hold on." He rewound it a few seconds, moved it forward in slow-motion, then, as the counter in the corner showed that they getting closer, he manually played it frame by frame. At this slow a pace, moving slowly from one two hundredth of a second to another, it seemed like there was no movement at all. And suddenly -- from one frame to the next -- a woman appeared on the screen.

"What the -- " Tony rose slowly, staring at the screen.

The woman was small and round, and seemed to be in her mid-fifties. She was standing behind Tony's chair, her hand holding its back. She was staring at the 'camera' -- at the dying Tony's eyes -- with pity, as if she'd been there all along.

"Hold on," Matt moved the computer another frame forward. The woman was gone. "Holy ... " he whispered.

"Is this a joke?"

Matt moved a couple of frames forward -- but the woman was gone. He moved back a few frames, and just for one frame, on a single frame, the woman stood there, as if she was part of the events, as if she'd been one of the visitors.

"Are you playing a joke on me?"

"Of course not. Why? Do you know who that is?"

"Know who she is? Matt, that's Tony's mother."

"Tony's mother?" Matt whispered, putting his hand on his whiskers, looking at the woman, staring so intently at her daughter. "Was she there? Did we somehow miss her when we first computed the -- "

"'Was she there?'" Tony had to lean on the chairs. "Matt, Tony's mother has been dead for ten years."

Matt looked at Tony, then at the picture. "I'll recompute," he said.

He gathered his things, took a last look at Tony's mother standing there frozen, then turned off the screen.

"This'll take a few hours," he told Tony. "Get something to eat, then come down to the lab."

"I'll stay with you."

They took the elevator four floors down, past Psychology, past Human Research, past Neurology, back to Computers and Matt's lab.

Matt sat at the computers, and performed all the computations from the top by himself. Tony sat there in silence. The rest of the technicians worked wordlessly around them, giving them a wide radius.

"Okay," Matt said after five hours. The lab was empty now. Everyone had gone home. "I started from scratch and performed all the computations myself. No chance of error now."

He played it again on the small screen on his desk.

"Here we go," Matt said as the time counter at the side of the screen showed that the right frame was approaching.

"Whoa!" They both drew back at the same instant. It still looked like a scratch. Matt rewound and played it frame by frame. The image was the same: Tony's mother standing behind Tony, hands gripping the back of his chair.

Matt leaned back and took a deep breath.

"So it's not there because of a mistake or a joke?"

"No."

"What does this mean?"

"I don't know. The computer solved the equation for a millisecond that didn't exist. I expected, you know, that when the equation broke, it'll give us gibberish, flat lines, colors, something like that. But ... What you have here is a picture of something coherent, of a real person. And yet something that didn't happen."

"Why are we seeing her mother?"

"The equation is taken from her brain, after all. This image of her mother is clearly an image in her brain, a memory or something. And when there's nothing that makes sense ... This happens."

"Suddenly, out of nowhere?"

Matt looked at the screen for a long time, and finally said, "It has to be."

The two talked for a while. Eventually, Tony left, the videocassette in his hand. Matt stayed behind, saying he'll check a few more things, and that he'll go home in five minutes or so.

It was now twenty days before the wedding.

The first thing Tony did the next morning was drop by the lab. Matt was drinking coffee near the fridge.

"Are you wearing the same clothes you did yesterday?"

"Yeah. I didn't go home last night. Worked on this all night. I had to find out what this is."

"Yeah? Found something?"

"Yup. I have the explanation," he said calmly.

Tony's heart skipped a beat.

"Want to see?"

"Of course."

He put down the coffee and led Tony to the computer at his station.

"The first thing I did," Matt said, as they stood over the small monitor in Matt's part of the lab, "was to go over the whole thing frame by frame to see if there were any other such 'glitches' that we've missed."

"Yeah?"

"There were two more. The first one you spotted was two-point-five-five seconds into the vid. The next one was two-point-five-three seconds after that, and the third was two-point-four-five seconds after it. Here are the three frames." He pressed 'ENTER', and three images appeared. "See? Exactly the same. Tony's mother, standing over you, gripping the chair. The pattern's the same, too. One frame is normal. The next frame, she's there as if she's always been there. The next frame, she's gone, and everything's normal again.

"Except ... That the three images of her ... " he put them on the screen next to each other, "are not identical."

"What?" Tony tried to look closer.

"They're very similar, but look at the fingers in her right hand." He pointed. "There's a progression, from the first one to the third one. It's almost unnoticeable, but you can still see it. In the first one, she's holding the back of the chair tightly with all her fingers. But in the third one, she's only holding it tightly with two fingers." Matt looked at Tony and said slowly, "She's letting go of the back of the chair." He then leaned forward, and whispered, "There's motion!"

Tony looked at the three images on the screen, his face impassive. "Yes," he finally nodded. "There is motion."

"So I had two options. Either there's motion in jumps, every two or three seconds you get another frame in the movie. Or maybe there's motion in each of them, and they're independent."

"What do you mean?"

"Look at the first frame. It looks to us as if she wasn't there, then suddenly she was. But there's no reason for us to assume that there was nothing before or that she appeared just there, out of nowhere. She may have walked into the room, for example."

"Walked into the room?"

"It's possible. The frame before it is 2.545 seconds. The frame with her mother is 2.55 seconds, which is 1/200th of a second later. There are a whole lot of numbers inbetween. Who's to say she doesn't exist there? Who's to say she didn't move there? Who's to say we can't see how she appeared or how she disappeared before the next frame?"

"So I dug even deeper. I punched in even smaller numbers, and made a 'movie' of what happened inbetween those three frames. And, uh, look at this. We're working now with each frame being five-thousandth of a second. Watch. I'll run it for you at twenty-four frames a second."

The first frame was without her, and although the numbers at the bottom of the screen changed, to indicate that frames were moving forward, it seemed as if they were watching a still picture.

"After the first one thousandth of a second, she's suddenly there," Matt said. And, as if on cue, Tony's mother was suddenly standing behind the chair.

"Watch," Matt said.

While everything else in the hospital room was frozen in time, Tony's mother seemed to breathe in real time. She let go of the chair, approached her daughter's face -- growing bigger in the frame. She bent down, and kissed her daughter on the cheek. She then straightened, turned around, and walked back to stand behind the chair. She gripped the handle. And then she vanished.

Matt pressed a key, and the image froze on the screen. He then looked up at Tony.

"Holy shit," Tony whispered.

Matt nodded. "I know how you feel."

Tony leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling for a long time. Matt sat on the table in front of him.

"I want to make this very clear, Tony. What you saw is not real. What you saw can't possibly be true. There is no way -- no way in hell -- that Tony saw what we just saw. We can't see at that level. Reality is not like that. What we just saw, it's the equation that represents her mind trying to make sense under circumstances that can't possibly exist. So it's pulling things out of her subconscious ... Out of her memories, her dreams, her nightmares, her ego, her id, her whatever -- I don't really know. But these are just random images that the equation pulled out."

"Random images? Random images?! Tony's last ten seconds, and we see her dead mother giving her a last kiss, welcoming her to the next world?"

"No, no, Tony, you're putting in your interpretation. That's not what you saw."

"Really? You want to turn that thing on again and tell me that's not what I saw?"

"Tony, all you saw is Tony's mother kissing her. That's all."

"That's all?"

"It's something the equation filled in. There was a blank; it got filled. It's just the equation."

"That movement makes too much sense to seem random."

"The equation assumes reality is continuous. And so movement is continuous."

Tony thought for a long time, his mouth puckered. Finally, he said, "What's in the other two times?"

"The same thing. Slight variations between each time, as if she did three 'takes' for the same scene in a movie or something. Nothing new."

"What does it mean?"

"It doesn't mean anything. It's not exactly the same because different numbers fed into the equation give you the same pattern but not the exact same numbers. It's simple math."

"Everything is explained in the equation?"

"It has to be. There's no other explanation."

"But the equation represents the human brain."

"Yes."

"But then something, somewhere inside our brain can see things that are -- "

"Don't even go there."

"Where should I go?"

"Nowhere. It's jarring, I admit. Even to an atheist like myself. But I checked it out. This is just an equation coping with something it wasn't meant to cope with. Reality is finite. You slow it down too much, it'll break down. Numbers are infinite. You break them down forever and they'll still behave the same.

"The equation has to give us an image, so it gives us an image. It only has Tony's brain to work with, so it gives us images that come from Tony's brain. It is programmed to assume continuity, so it gives us continuous images -- it gives us motion. These are random images and nothing more."

"That's it?"

"I have an explanation," he shrugged. "It doesn't have to do with big things like god or the light we see when we die or ghosts which only dead people see. There's nothing supernatural about it. This is just math. Simple, plain math. I have the truth. My world works again. So I've had a long day, and I'm going home, taking a bath, and taking a long, calm sleep." He took his jacket. "And, besides, my equation works. Good night."

"Yeah.... Thanks for all your efforts."

Matt shut the see-through door on Tony, and made his way through the maze of corridors that constituted Eternity Plus. He climbed the stairs, went out the front doors, and into the parking lot. He stood over his car, pulled out the keys, when he heard someone yell: "Matt!"

He looked up. Tony had just come through the doors. Matt took a deep breath and waited for Tony to come over.

"Tony, I, really, my mind is frazzled. Any more questions can wait till I've had a few hours' sleep."

"No, no problem. Go home, sleep, come back tomorrow. But when you come back ... "

"What?"

"I was thinking. We only looked at three spots with a resolution of five thousand frames a second. Who's to say that if we don't look at the whole thing with 1/10,000th of a second, we won't find something else? Who's to say we can't dig even deeper, to go for 50,000 frames a second, or 100,000? We might see more images."

"Uh ... Sure, we might. But why would we want to just pull random images out of her mind? You know it doesn't mean anything, right?"

"Because ... I mean ... "

"What?"

"Matt ... It's all I have of her."

And Matt felt the same way he'd felt during the funeral. He nodded to Tony, indicating he'd do it, then got as quickly as he could into his car and drove off.

The wedding was nineteen days away.

The next day, Matt broke down the last ten seconds of Tony's life even further. The two of them spent the day watching it in slow motion, looking for a frame that had something more in it. Tony watched it, afraid to blink, afraid he'd miss the single frame that would lead to another set of images.

But at the end of the day, there was nothing other than what they had already seen.

The next day, Matt broke reality into even smaller pieces. And as time on the screen slowed down, they found two places, one near the beginning, one near the end, both giving them an image of a small boy walking next to the wall on the far side of the room. Tony identified the boy from Tony's photo albums. It was Tony's brother, the way he'd looked twenty years ago.

Tony's brother walked from the left side of the frame and slowly exited on the right, his left hand always touching the wall. He never looked aside. But a millionth of a second later, he came in again on the left side and repeated the same action, moving from left to right. His steps were different this time.

Breaking it down further gave them another image compounding this one. Tony's father, as he had been twenty years ago, was leaning on the far wall, staring into the air. Her brother was still there, walking as he did before, now in extreme slow motion. Their father (in what appeared to be real time) sees him approaching, straightens up, and moves forward, allowing him to pass.

Matt called this spot a 'Strange Attractor', which meant that there are numbers in math around which a lot of things happen.

But then the Strange Attractor seemed to dry up. There was nothing more underneath. The movement itself, existing only between milliseconds, turned slower and slower the more they broke it down, but there was nothing, nothing more to see between those numbers

They returned to search the whole ten seconds again, and Matt broke them down further.

And suddenly, after a day, there was an explosion of images. Her mother, her father, her friends, past, present, everyone she knew, everyone she had to know -- the equation seemed to pull them all out of her brain. It was as if, under certain magnification, if they looked at numbers smaller than ten millionth of a second, the 'dead space', the air itself, teemed with life. It was a quantum-sea of images popping into reality then, less than ten millionth of a second later, disappearing as if they've never been.

It was almost impossible to believe that just yesterday, every number they'd tried had been dry and now, using only numbers that are inbetween the numbers they'd tried, there was nothing but movement and people and action. It was as if the air was teeming with ghosts.

Oddly, not once had they seen someone 'popping' into reality. They were either there or they weren't. If someone was there, then there was always a number that came before in which that someone was already there. Disappearance was the same. They never actually 'caught' anyone disappearing. There was always a miniscule number later in which that person was still there.

The more Tony and Matt worked, the more Matt was forced to put some of his research aside and focus on this. Some he gave to others, some he just put aside, hoping this will blow over soon. But he also liked working on it. He's been working on the human mind, and this was like the opposite of a Rorschach test to him. It was fascinating to watch.

Tony focused on the places that included him. Aside from the Tony sitting there on the chair, seemingly frozen in time, there was another Tony walking around behind him.

There was a reenactment of the first time he and Tony had met. The three of them -- the two Tony's and Tony's friend -- leaning on the wall of the hospital room (instead of on the hood of the car). The three were holding a conversation which Tony and Matt could not hear. Still, to Tony it seemed accurate.

At another spot, he and Tony literally popped into the room, undressing each other while kissing. He recognized it. It was the first time she'd stayed over. If it wasn't for the strange frozen surroundings of the hospital room, it would have been the perfect video reconstruction of what had actually happened.

And here, floating around another Strange Attractor, the moment he'd proposed to her in that restaurant, being played over and over and over, in a sick playback loop.

Tony stared at these moving images again and again, obsessed. And he took tapes of everything, to play at home, to keep forever.

And then the dryness returned.

As they broke the numbers down even further, looking to see what happened between the moments in which things popped in and out of reality, there were massive expanses of nothing.

Another day passed. They broke it down further. And there was still nothing.

Another. Nothing.

Another. And now even the bits in which things had popped into reality had frozen in time. Nothing happened around them or between them. At the end of a day in which Tony and Matt had stared at nothing but still pictures of frozen people, Tony suddenly said: "Freeze it!"

Matt tensed. "What?"

"Something jumped. Another 'scratch' on the 'film'. Roll it back a few seconds."

Matt did so, and replayed the same few seconds in slower motion.

"There! Stop!" Tony said.

"What?" Matt stopped the action a few frames late. "I didn't see anything."

"Roll it back, frame by frame." The two watched silently. "There!"

"What?"

"Go one frame forward." Matt did, and Tony almost fell from his chair. "Oh my god."

"What?" Matt looked at the picture. It was the same basic frame they'd started out with. There was no one else in the room, no additional people, only Tony. Matt looked at him. "What?"

"How can you not see it? Look, in that chair, where I always sit, looking at her -- "

"Oh, my god," Matt whispered, finally seeing it. He'd gotten so used to it that he had never looked. But sitting in that chair in the same position ... "That's not you!"

Tony put his hand on his face.

Matt looked at the picture and took his time. "Well," he said as a smile slowly spread across his face. "At least things are interesting again. So," he turned to Tony. "Who's this one? That's not someone we've seen before, right?"

"No, this one's new. But the thing is ... She didn't know this guy."

"What? How can you know that?"

"She'd never seen this man before in her life."

"Tony, come on. Look at the position he's in, look at the way he's replaced you. This is probably one of her past boyfriends."

"This is not one of her boyfriends."

"You're being ridiculous. So there's someone she didn't tell you ab -- "

"Matt, there are things you know for certain! Tony and I had stayed up hundreds of hours in bed just talking about everything in her life, about everything in my life.

"I've seen pictures of all her past boyfriends. I've seen pictures of all her teachers from all the yearbooks, all the annual class pictures. I know what all her ex-classmates look like today. I know everyone in her family and everyone in their families. I even know what her neighbors looked like in all the apartments she'd lived in. She'd described them to me and I described mine to her. I'd even recognize the people she went to kindergarten with. I know everything about her."

Matt looked at him, wondering how seriously should he take what he'd just heard. Tony did have an obsessive nature. If he said he knew everyone, he knew everyone. "So ... You're saying you know for certain that the equation didn't pull this guy out of her memories? Are you saying the equation invented a person? A person?!"

"I obviously don't know everyone she ran into on the street or the subway or the bus or whatever. But this couldn't be someone of any importance in her life."

Matt stared at the picture. "I'll take your word for it. For the time being." He stared at it further. "Well, he reminds me of someone, that's for sure."

"Who?"

Matt scrunched up his mouth, and presently said, "Don't know." He looked at it a bit further, then sighed, and stood up. "Oh, well," he took his jacket. "It will come to me." He kept the door open for Tony. "Let's go home."

They turned off the lights and left the lab.

"One thing's for sure," Matt said as they walked the dark corridors -- it was the middle of the night "Tomorrow we'll be concentrating on that."

"Yeah."

The two exited the building, Tony stayed behind to lock the doors. "Go," he told Matt. "Go."

Matt left him there, took a few steps, when suddenly he stopped and turned around.

"I know who this guy reminds me of."

Tony turned around. "Who?"

"Larry Steele."

"The actor?"

"Yeah. He was a huge movie star when I was in grade school. Around the time Tony was in -- "

"High school!"

"Yeah. All the girls were crazy about him. He was a megastar, not a superstar. He was compared to James Dean all the time. Until, just like James Dean -- "

"He died," Tony whispered.

"Don't start thinking ghosts on me, again, Tony. That wasn't Larry Steele. It just looked like him, but it also clearly wasn't him."

"No, Matt, you don't understand. It's not that he's dead. It's that Tony ... when she was a young ... a teenager ... she always thought that the man she'd fall in love with would be someone like him. Not him exactly, but someone like him. He was her dream. The ultimate -- "

"The ultimate man?"

"Yes."

Matt laughed. "Well. At least we know where the image was pulled from. Not from her memories, but from her desires. Or her dreams, maybe."

"But you didn't pull this image from her teenage brain. You pulled it from her brain today. I mean ... " he put his hand on his forehead. "I mean, from a few weeks ago."

"So what? We never find our ultimate dream mate. We find someone close, a variation of the archetype. I mean, you must have had a dream woman in your head when you were that age."

"I did. She looked exactly like Tony."

Matt frowned. "Well," he said. "Look. I'll work around that number, see if he's moving, too." He looked at Tony for a second, and seemed to want to say something more. Then he turned around, and said, "Good night."

"Good night."

Tony stayed standing there for a minute, thinking, as Matt went to his car. Matt stood by his car, his hand on the handle. Then he turned around again.

"Tony. I don't want to do that tomorrow."

"What?" Tony snapped out of his thoughts.

"We have other things to do. Real research."

"But ... You don't think I'm just playing, just to get my--"

"No, please, please don't get me wrong. I know how important this is to you. But if we keep on digging forever, we'll just find more of the same things. Bits of her subconscious, bits of her memories, her dreams, her whatever. This is not helping you to let go. And two weeks is as much as I can afford to let other people do the research without me."

"Matt ... "

"Please," Matt needed to get it all out at once. "It was Tony, and it was you, and I understand that. And there was enough scientific interest in it for me. But we've discovered everything we're going to discover. Everything else is repetition. We solved the last problem -- we solved that image -- it's her dream. Fine. That's it. Let's move on. And besides," he had to stop for breath, and with Tony looking at him and saying nothing, he looked down, and then up again to meet Tony's eyes. "The people from Tout le Monde Tout Jours are coming here tomorrow." Tony winced inside. The French production company! It was the last thing he'd spoken about with Tony. He'd convinced her to be interviewed by them. If he had argued with her for another minute, if he had phrased things differently, she'd be here today.

Matt went on, "You know how important that is to us. This is publicity we can only dream of."

Tomorrow? Was it already a week before the wedding? He said, "I ... No ... I can't deal with them right now."

"That's fine. I understand. You don't need to. I'll handle them. I'll talk to them and explain what we do and show them around. At least for a few days. You just ... Take a couple of days. Work, don't work, but get yourself back into ... you know."

Tony deflated. "I guess," he said.

"Working on the ... on those last ten seconds. It just makes it harder to say goodbye."

"I don't want to say goodbye!" Tony exploded.

Matt stared at him. Tony put his hand over his eyes. "Okay," he said. "Okay. You handle them tomorrow."

"Go home."

"Okay."

Matt stood by his side for what seemed like five silent minutes.

"You'll be okay?" Matt finally said.

"Yeah." Tony still hadn't looked up.

"I'm going home."

"Okay."

Matt got into his car and drove away.

There were seven days to the wedding.

And the second Tony woke up, a clock began to tick inside his head. A clock that counted backwards to the wedding. It was there before, but it had counted silently and in the back of his mind. But now it was strong, and the feeling of absence, of loss, hit him, as if it was the first time he realized it.

The wedding would never happen.

The rest of his life would never happen.

He couldn't bring himself to get up from the bed.

After an hour, he finally dragged himself up and went to drink coffee.

Two hours later, he was still sipping his first cup.

He couldn't stand the house. He couldn't stand the emptiness.

A week before the wedding. My god!

He should go to work. But he couldn't. He should stay here. But he couldn't. The entire house smelled like Tony. And ...

A week before the wedding. The clock was ticking. Three hours had passed since he'd first had that thought.

If she were alive, what would she be doing now? Her calendar! He went over to her laptop, the computer that had stayed untouched ever since that morning.

He pressed a key, and the screen lit up immediately, showing an animation of a snake climbing up naked Eve's leg in the Garden of Eden. Her screensaver. With a hesitant finger, he touched a key, and the screensaver disappeared.

The screen was filled with Friendly Reminders that had jumped to the top of the screen over the last three weeks. One by one, he pressed 'Dismiss'. Get a fitting; Talk to Saban about the vacation; Check with Binias' people; Drag Tony to buy new shoes. Finally, with the screen clear, he pressed on the 'Calendar' and saw her schedule for the day. 8:00 a.m. pre-interview with Altman, 11:30, pre-production back at the station.

That means she'd have been up at six a.m., an hour before him. The alarm clock would have gone on on her side of the bed, and within ten seconds, just as he would have stirred, her long arm would have reached over, and shut it down permanently. Tony had never needed the 'snooze' function. She would have sat up, looked around her, yawned, and bent down and kissed him softly on the lips.

"Go to sleep," she would have said, as she always had. "That was for me."

He probably would have been sleeping too deeply. He'd have touched her face, then turned around and fallen completely back into his stupor. And when he'd have woken up an hour later, from the same alarm clock (which she would have reset and put on his side of the bed), Tony would have been gone and he'd have forgotten all about her kiss.

He stopped himself.

This was not good. Matt was right. He should stop surrounding himself with her scent.

Work would heal. Time would heal. Denial would heal.

Fuck being healed! He didn't want to be healed of her. It showed disrespect. To the greatest ... the greatest ... of all ... in all ...

He kept reading the calendar, as it detailed hour after hour what Tony would have done each day until the wedding.

Three hours later, Tony got into his car and drove aimlessly in the streets. Half an hour after that, he found himself in front of Eternity Plus.

He parked his car. In his office, he found Charles Caudwell sitting at his desk.

"Charley," he shook the man's hand. Caudwell worked for one of the eight venture capital funds whose money financed the project. "How are you doing?"

"Fine, thank you." He walked around the desk and sat at another chair. "How are you?"

"I didn't know we had an appointment," Tony sat down behind his desk.

"We don't. But you don't return phone calls."

"I'm sorry. These last few weeks have been -- I've had this personal -- "

"I know. I heard, and I'm sorry. But in the last few weeks since your tragedy, Eternity Plus has used six million dollars of the shareholders' money."

"That's normal."

"But no longer acceptable. We've seen the research, you've shown us your computer program. You can put people in computers now. We want a finished product. We want you to start an ad campaign. We want to start getting this ready for the stores."

"Charley, it's not ready yet. We have a whole floor devoted to debugging this thing, to comparing the human original to the digitized copy, to check ... To check a thousand different things. All these things take time."

"You're telling me this because you know all the theory, you know all the research and everything that's wrong with it."

"No, of course not."

"You rely on your scientists."

"Yes."

"Well, the consensus is, that you rely too much on your scientists. If scientists had their way, they'd never get anything out of the lab, they'll just examine it to death. Tell them you need it now, they'll give it to you now."

"Charley, that's reckless. If we send to the stores something that turns out to be -- "

"That's just talk. If you can't control your scientists, maybe we'll put in your position someone who can."

Tony smiled at him, and Charley froze. "You have no sense of timing, do you? You're whipping a man-eating lion when he's aggravated. I'm going to do you a big favor and do your wife a big favor and do your kids a big favor because one of these days you'll probably need money to send them to college -- and I'll forget this happened. You'll have your product, but you'll have a good one and a safe one and a trustworthy one. This is going to take a few more months, but only a few months, because we're almost done. And ten yards before the finishing line is no time to lose your head."

"I -- "

"Now get out of my office before you see how crappy my mood really is. I lost a -- " He took a deep breath. "Get out."

There was a knock on the door.

"Come in," Tony said.

Matt opened it hesitantly. "I hate to interrupt."

"It's fine. Charley was just leaving."

Charley stood up. "There's going to be a general meeting in a few days."

"There really isn't," Tony said. "Nice seeing you."

With a face that seemed to have been steamrolled, Charles Caudwell turned his back to Tony and left the office.

Tony looked at Matt. "Yeah?"

"Sylvia said she saw you come in a while ago. I hoped I might catch you."

"Sure. What is it?"

"The guy from ARTE is here. I wanted you to meet him."

"Matt, I thought we agreed I wasn't -- "

"Just say 'hello'."

Tony put a finger on his right temple and rubbed it. "Sure."

Matt opened the door wide, and stepped inside. "Tony Moore," he said. "Meet Steve Adams from Tout le Monde Tout Jours, from ARTE, France."

Tony rose automatically, his hand extended. And then he froze. He was staring at the man whose image he had seen only yesterday. The man they'd decided had been created from Tony's subconscious desire.

"Steve Adams," the man shook his hand.

Tony recovered quickly, reverting into his business self. "A pleasure."

"I was just commenting," Matt said. "On how much Steve looks like Larry Steele."

"I get that a lot."

"Yes, I can see the resemblance," Tony said. "Um ... Have you had lunch yet?"

"Actually, no."

"How about it, then, Steve? My treat."

"Happy to."

"Thanks, Matt," he looked into the man's eyes. "I'll take care of our guest from here on." Matt nodded. "And remember that avenue of research we were talking about yesterday? Maybe it deserves another looking into."

"I was thinking the same thing."

"Good."

"So, Steve," Tony said, as the waiter put down in front of them Steve's manicotti and his own linguine. "I can't help but notice that you have an American accent."

"Yes. I was born here and spent all my childhood here."

"'Here?'"

He smiled. "Not in New York, no. I'm from Lansing, Michigan."

"Really? Why'd you move?"

"Well, my mother's French. We moved there when I was eleven."

"Eleven? Wow. How -- if you'll excuse the question -- how long ago was that?"

"My god ... It was practically thirty-three years ago."

Which meant he'd left before Tony had been born.

"Still," Tony said. "There's not a tinge of a foreign accent when you speak. You must have been here quite often."

"Actually, no. I hadn't set foot in the States since we'd left. My father insisted on talking only in English, though. He gave me homework, increased my vocabulary, forced me to keep on reading in English. It's all thanks to him."

"What? And you didn't come back even once? Didn't you come to see relatives, friends? Family?"

"Well, okay, once. It was actually during the Paris riots." During the Paris riots Tony was in San Diego. "They broke out just as I landed in New York. From the way it looked on TV, I had to make sure that my family was all right. You couldn't reach anyone on the phones, if you remember, so I just turned around and took a flight right back to France."

"So when you said, 'not once', you meant ... "

"Not once. Yes. That one doesn't really count."

"Any others that don't count?"

"No."

"It's just that you seem so familiar to me."

"Well, maybe you've been to Europe."

"No, never." And neither has Tony.

"Then it must be the resemblance to Larry Steele."

"No, I'm pretty sure it's not. It's just ... you do look familiar. You work on TV. Maybe I saw you there."

Steve shook his head again. "No. This is my first actual job in front of a camera, and I had to work hard to get it."

Another dead avenue. But they had to have met. She had to have at least seen him somewhere.

"So you've been in France all this time?"

"Hardly. Ever since I finished high school I've been roaming around here and there. Didn't know what to do with myself. I spent a couple of years in Cambridge till I dropped out, then a couple of years at the Collège de France, then a couple of years in a university in Belgium you've never heard of. I had amazing grades, which is why they kept accepting me. But I was a bit on the wild side, which is why I couldn't stay put. Then I just decided this wasn't for me, and I started working at odd jobs in television, mostly in France.

"A couple of years ago, though, I finally settled down a bit, and decided television was definitely the thing for me. I got accepted to the BBC School of Communications. I was old, but I had a lot of experience, so they took me."

Tony froze in mid-chew. Steve couldn't possibly have said ... "The BBC School of Communications?"

"Yeah."

"In London?"

"Yeah."

But it couldn't possibly be that ...

"When, when, when," he stammered, then forced himself to stop. "When did you say you studied there?"

"Started almost exactly two years ago. Halfway through my second year, ARTE offered me a job, so I left the school and took it."

"You started two years ago?"

"Two years ago minus four months, just about."

"And what did you study?"

"Production."

The same as Tony. Had she gone to London, she would have studied the same thing, at exactly the same time.

But ... But that explained nothing.

They had never met. She had never seen him. That's not where the computer got his image from. But ...

But would they have met?

Tony put down his fork. "I heard good things about the program."

"Yeah?"

"A friend of mine was going to study there, at the same time actually, when he changed his mind."

"Hmm ... "

"Was it a big class? Two hundred people? Three hundred?"

"No, this is the BBC we're talking about. They take what they need, and it's almost impossible to get in. There were ten of us."

"Ten? So you knew the rest of the students well?"

"Oh ... Intimately." Steve smiled.

Tony felt the blood drain from his body and knew his face had just gone white.

"'Intimately,'" Tony did his best to smile back and sound nonchalant. "Sounds like a few ... improper things went on there."

"Oh, more than a few, that's for sure." Raised his hand. "No, actually, the really improper things came before London."

"Yeah?"

"I was coming off of a bad and long relationship that just exploded six months before that. So after two months of mourning and running after her and begging her to take me back and ... "

"Yeah."

"I got into four quick-as-hell, crash-and-burn, born-to-be-smashed rebound relationships. The last one ended two weeks before the semester started. And during those two weeks I got my head straightened out. I had gotten her out of my system. There would be no more rebounds, no more trying to make up for what was. I was ready, really ready inside for the first time in my life for a permanent relationship.

"And ... You know how it is when you're not in a relationship and you're about to go to a new place with a lot of people, and you're absolutely sure you're going to meet some woman there ... ? I mean, you know how you just know something's going to happen?"

"Yah."

"That's how I felt. I was so sure I'd meet someone. And that this time she'd be 'The One', the one I'd spend the rest of my life with, the one who would be the prize for going through all those other relationships."

"The one you were meant to be with."

"Yes, I guess so."

"I had that feeling, too. ... Did you meet her?"

"Well ... Yes and no. Yes, I met someone. She was also a student at the school. She was sort of my type, sort of ... We did get married eventually. And I'm sure that the main reason for my infatuation with her was because of my certainty that I'd find 'The One' there.

"But feelings are feelings, they're not facts. I felt I'd meet 'the one' when I came to the school. I treated it as a fact, and I went ahead and married the first woman I saw who actually came close. But my feelings were wrong. She wasn't waiting for me there. Someone else was. I treated my feelings as facts and I got burned for it."

Tony couldn't take any more. He looked at his watch, feigned being surprised, and 'remembered' a meeting. He apologized profusely as he paid the check.

"No, I understand," Steve said. "In fact, I won't be going back with you. There was some problem with the hotel, so we had to check into a place outside town called The Sunnyside Motel. Anyway, I have to check up on the crew."

"I see."

"But ... Tomorrow I'd like to start talking to people. Get a feel of the place."

"No problem. Come over at ten."

"Great."

Tony rushed back to the lab and back to Matt.

"You'll be happy to hear," Matt told him. "That past a certain number, Steve Adams is everywhere."

Tony sat down in a chair near Matt, with a clear view of the monitor. "Show me," he said.

Matt pressed a key. For a while, there was no motion at all in the familiar settings. Except for Steve, who was seated where Tony used to sit, looking at 'the camera' with concern in his eyes, the room was empty.

Suddenly, a car veered into the hospital room, and crashed into the far wall, behind Steve, creating a hole in the room. Tony almost jumped at the violence that shattered the inactivity. Smoke was coming out of the front of the car.

Steve got out of the driver's seat and looked at the ruins of his car. A tall and horrendously skinny and wrinkled man came into the room, and began to yell at him. Steve yelled back, clearly motioning for him to go back where he had come from. The man relented. Steve pulled out his cellphone and called someone. A minute later, he hung up, and dialed another number.

After two minutes, he was still talking. Tony looked at Matt. "We have Steve talking on the phone?"

"You have to wait for it," Matt said.

While Steve was talking on the phone, the elderly man entered the room again, shouting at Steve, and waving a broom.

"The old man's new, too, right?" Matt said. "Did Tony know him?"

"No," Tony said simply, not taking his eyes off the screen.

Steve turned around, and yelled back at the man. The man cowered, and rushed out of the hospital room.

Suddenly Tony, looking the way she did before she died, carrying totebags, came into the room, walking behind Steve.

Tony, watching this, almost gasped. God, how she looked! How true to life these images were!

Steve hung up the cellular and turned around, seeing Tony. The two talked like old friends. They knew each other, there was no doubt about that. And they were glad to meet again, too. Tony obviously asked him about the car. Steve explained. Then the conversation carried on with Tony and Matt unable to make out anything they were saying. But as they talked, they leaned on the hospital wall, and it seemed to Tony to mirror exactly the time he and Tony had met, the way they'd sat on the hood of the car.

Tony and Steve talked and talked and talked. Tony watched, his stomach turning.

Then, suddenly, they were gone. The hole, the car, Steve, Tony -- everything and everyone were gone, and the hospital room had returned to the way it has always been, with Steve looking at the dying Tony.

The entire scene had taken fifteen minutes.

Tony stared at the monitor for a few seconds, then looked at Matt. "What the hell was that?"

Matt gave a short, helpless laugh. "I have no idea."

"What does it mean?"

"It doesn't mean anything."

"According to you, none of this means anything. It's just random numbers."

"That's right."

"But it can't be just numbers. And it can't be random. It has meaning!"

"You assign it meaning. By itself it's nothing."

"You're wrong, Matt. And I know for a fact that you're wrong."

"How do you know?"

Tony turned, reluctant to say anything.

"How do you know?"

"Because!" Tony turned around, exploding. "Because they've never met! In all the years they've been alive, they have never seen each other! And yet here he is, inside her brain, not someone who looks like him, not someone who may be him. But him! At this age, the way he looks today, right down to the mole on his right cheek!"

"But that's exactly the point. She had to have seen him sometime."

"No." Tony shook his head. "No. I just grilled him on this for the last hour. He'd left the States before she was born. He came back once -- just once! -- only to turn back immediately and go back to Europe. That was during the Paris riots, when Tony was in San Diego. And he'd never been on TV till today. This is his first time in front of the camera. She couldn't have possibly seen his face. Ever. Don't you see?"

"So what's he doing in her head?"

"Matt ... The fact that he's there, inside her head, is not because they've already met. He's there because they should have met."

Matt stared at him. "What?"

"Two years ago. She was going to go to the BBC School of Communications. He was there, at the same year, at the same time. There were only ten students. He was ready for a permanent relationship. She was ready to settle down. God, I know that well, because she settled down with me and for that she gave up on the BBC."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Matt. You don't know what an impossible fluke it was that Tony and I met. If not for the most unlikely circumstances, if it was a minute this way or that way, we would never have met. The computer is telling us that he -- that Steve -- that he's the guy she should have been with. He's the guy she was ... " he trailed off.

"He's the guy she was what?"

Tony found it almost impossible to say. Then it exploded, "Destined for! He's the guy she was destined for!"

Matt's jaw hung open. "Are you serious?"

Tony lowered his eyes. "Yes," he said softly.

"There's no such thing as destiny, and you know it." Tony didn't look at him. "Tony, you know there's no such thing."

Tony looked up suddenly, shouting, "Then what is he doing in her head?! Her meeting me was just luck. At the school, she would have met him again and again and again," he struck his hand desk each time he said 'again'. "Until they would have clicked. ... Until they'd have married. And they'd be married today. Because their bond is stronger."

"'Their bond'? What bond?! You don't know how strong their bond would have been, and you don't know that they would even have had a bond."

"They would have had a bond, trust me," Tony said petulantly.

"Follow your own logic!" Matt was standing up, furious at Tony. "Destined to be together? Destined? Obviously not, because she met you, and she chose you, and she married ... " he blinked, then fixed his sentence, "and she would have married you!"

"You don't know what a fluke -- "

"I don't need to know, because I'm following the facts! Destined to be together?! First she meets you and not him. Then she decides to marry you and not him. And now she's dead. She'll never be with him. She never was with him. You call that destiny? That's not destiny. There is no destiny! There's only blind luck!"

"Then what's his picture doing in her head?"

"It's just blind luck."

"Blind luck?"

"Blind luck. Has to be. Given enough time, if we look at enough numbers, I'm sure we could find any human face there. ... Tony," and his voice softened. "You don't know that anything would have happened. You don't know anything for sure. And you know that."

Tony made a face and said nothing.

Matt continued, "Besides, even if she had never met you, even if she had gone to England, you can't possibly know for a fact that she would have been attracted to him."

"She would have been. I know what kind of men she likes. I know what kind of man she'd always dreamed of. I know who she'd be attracted to."

"Well ... even if you do, and I doubt it ... But even if you do, you don't know that he would be attracted to her. You don't know what his type is, do you?"

Tony suddenly straightened. "That's right. I don't know." And Matt saw that Tony had calmed down a bit. He missed the spark in Tony's eyes, the spark that said: 'But I will know.'

Tony woke up the next day, the clock still ticking in his head. Six more days till the wedding.

Oh, enough of this, he told himself. I'm pathetic.

He got up. As he slowly drank his coffee, showered, and got dressed, Tony's calendar was always there, nagging at him to see what she would have done today, where she was supposed to be now.

No, no, no.

He left the house without looking at Tony's calendar.

"The women I'm attracted to I like to call 'Inbetween Women'," Steve said. He and Tony had been sitting in Tony's office with the door closed for the last two hours. It began with a conversation about Eternity Plus, and slowly degenerated into 'men talk'. Tony took out some Bourbon, and the topics slowly grew more and more personal.

"'Inbetween Women'? What's that?"

"Women on the cusp, on the verge. Women that have a wild, wild side, but they also stand on the verge of order, of living an organized life, of becoming someone's wife. The women who bind their hair real tight behind the back of their heads, and dress sharply. You know, to show you that they're in control of the situation, that they control everything, and that you can't control them. But the thing is, they need to show you this. Which means that it's not real, they just want it to be true.

"That's why I usually like them when thirty, give or take a couple of years. They're leaving the wild side behind, they feel this monumental need to settle down and to have an orderly life, a home, a husband, kids, sometimes even at the expense of what they really want, even if it means spending their lives with a man that they're only marginally interested in."

"I think I know what you're talking about."

"Yeah?"

"But I'm not sure."

"Yeah."

"I'll give you an example of this woman I know, that I think is your type, and you tell me if that's what you're talking about."

"Okay."

"This friend of mine met a woman about two years ago."

"How old is he?"

"He was twenty-nine then. They got together, lived together, and set a wedding date for almost exactly a year after they met."

"Okay."

"And then, two months before the wedding, she cancelled. They never told me exactly why, so I can't be sure. From what I heard, I do know that she was worried because she couldn't make up her mind about 'forever'. She wanted it now but she didn't know if she wanted it forever."

"Yeah, I get that."

"And there was also something about him widowing her."

Steve sat up in his chair. "He's a businessman?"

"Yeah."

"And he spends endless hours at his job, and some weeks she hardly ever sees him?"

"Yes."

"So what happened then?"

"They still stayed together even though she cancelled. And after a couple of months she decided she does want it to be forever, and he promised again and again that she would come before the job and that he wouldn't widow her, and they set another wedding date."

"And what happened? Did they get married?"

"The wedding date's still a while away."

"So the jury's still out."

Tony forced himself to smile. "I guess so."

"Hmm ... " Steve thinks and such. "How old is she?"

"Just turned thirty."

"Well, there you go. That's just the right age. Unmarried women between twenty-eight and thirty-two, that's just the right -- I mean, it fits the pattern. And god knows, I've seen enough of -- "

"I don't foll -- "

"Look, she's not in love with your friend, or this wouldn't be happening. If you're in love, you don't hesitate on 'forever'. You want to spend the rest of your life with the other guy and you spend every day praying that he feels the same. She's not in love. She loves him, sure. Or maybe even she doesn't love him but wants to love him, because she thinks she should be attracted to him, because he's such a successful businessman or something. She's with him because she feels that this is it, that there's no more time, and this is as good as it's going to get. And the 'widowed' thing. That's just ... Don't you see? She's willing to compromise on this guy, she's willing to spend the rest of her life not with a man she's in love with, but she'd be damned if she compromised and it turned out she was married to a man who wasn't there. This 'widowed' thing is very important to her.

"But my point is this: Yes, she's exactly my type. The fact that she actually had the guts to cancel the wedding that first time, that shows she has strength. That shows her wild side. She has a spirit. I mean, I like her already. She spends most of her days pushing that spirit back down. But, yes, oh, yes, I know this woman. I can recognize them miles away."

"So you've met a lot of women like this one?"

"Oh, yes. And on more than one occasion I was the cause for their breakup."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, because ... This kind of behavior just drives me nuts. I always tell them, even if I don't have an interest, even if I don't want to be with them, go after your heart. If he's not the guy for you, if he's not the guy you want one hundred percent, then, damn it, don't marry him. Don't compromise. Tony, you have no idea how many women marry men they don't really want that much, just because it's that age, just because they're so desperate to get married."

He was almost yelling now. He caught himself, and leaned back. "I'm sorry. You have no idea how many times I gave this speech. You have no idea how many of my friends actually needed to hear it again and again and again until it sunk in: If you find no one better, then you find no one better. You're better off. And, besides, sometime, somehow, you will find 'The One'.

Tony's face was frozen. But he was able to feign an interested tone, "Does 'the speech' work?"

"A lot of the times, yes. But it's not really a speech. I mean, it drives me nuts that people don't do what they feel. I'm sure that if I felt that some woman is my 'one', nothing would stop me. Not my job, not society's conventions, not my friendship with the man whose wife I'm after. None of that. And if it was mutual, if we wanted to be together so much, then we should be together!

"If you meet a person, and you say to yourself that 'this is it', and I mean if this is it, then oh-my-god, it's so rare, it's so amazing, leap at it and stop at nothing. And there's no reason in the world why she shouldn't, if she feels the same. And if she feels the same but is afraid, then I'll give her the speech again and again and again until she finally does what she wants." He shook his head. Then he smiled, and said, "Here comes the real speech: Do what you feel! Don't do what you've been told you need to do, don't compromise, don't do it because everybody does it, don't do it out of fear of being alone or whatever. Do what you feel! Follow your heart!"

Tony, whose eyes were focused only on Steve, raised them for a second, and saw Matt's head peering in through the door.

"I'm sorry, I heard some shouting."

And Tony heard what Matt didn't say: 'I wanted to see you weren't making a fool of yourself.'

"Everything's fine," Tony smiled.

"Actually, as much as it is a pleasure talking to you," Steve quickly came to his feet. "And as much as we could spend hours talking about all of this, I did actually plan to work today."

"Sure. Matt and I have to work anyway on -- Anyway, what's next on your agenda? We're giving you complete freedom here, as you know."

"And we appreciate that. I was going to catch a conversation with a couple of scientists at the cooler, but that's not going to happen now. I have an appointment at 2 p.m. with your future wife."

The temperature in the room immediately dropped ten degrees.

"What?" Tony whispered.

"That was the agreement, wasn't it? We scheduled it weeks in advance. Today at two."

"I -- uh -- " The pieces came together in his head. Steve hadn't met her two years ago because she'd met Tony. But now that he'd met her and kept her in the States, Steve would have met her today, at 14:00. One way or another, Steve and Tony were destined to meet.

"Uh, Steve ... " Matt broke the silence. "Tony's wife ... I mean, Tony's fiancé, she ... She's deceased. She died."

"Oh my god! What?"

"Three weeks ago, in a car -- In an accident."

"Oh my god," he turned to Tony. "I'm sorry. No one told me."

Tony had to hold his own head. "No, it's fine."

"I ... I can't begin to guess what you're going through. I'm really sorry."

"I need to be alone."

"Sure, sure." Steve and Matt left Tony's office. Matt was the last to leave, and he threw a last glance at Tony. Tony didn't look back. Matt shut the door.

Tony stared at the door.

If Tony hadn't died, he would never have saved part of her mind on the computer, he would never have seen Steve's face before he showed up on Eternity Plus' doorstep. He would never have known that this man was dangerous. He would have sat right here, right now, talking with him like they were two old buddies, two men who experience the world in a similar way. And then, more or less right now, Steve would have stood up, looked at his watch, and said what he'd just said. 'This could go on forever. But we've set an appointment with your fiancé.' Tony would have shaken his hand, and let Steve leave.

Right now. Through that door.

Tony stood up, touched the door in the same way he imagined Steve would have done, and opened it.

Steve would now have been at the end of that corridor -- right there! -- disappearing behind the corner. Heading for his car, no doubt parked behind the building.

Tony went the other way. His car was management; it was parked in the front.

Tony got into his car. The way to Steve's car was longer. He figured he was about a minute ahead.

Tony turned on the car and drove through traffic.

He ran into red light after red light. Eventually, he couldn't take it, and just sped through. He had to get there before Steve.

A siren from behind caused him to slow down and stop. While the cop was giving him the ticket, Tony imagined Steve's car passing him right behind the cop's back, right about ... Now!

Tony reentered traffic. This time he was only met with green lights.

He got to the driveway at one fifty eight. He opened the door at a minute-to. He came in, shut the door, took a few steps in, and stared at his watch. Tony would have been sitting over there, poring over her laptop, a cigarette in one hand, coffee beside her, probably trying to catch up with the latest editorials. Steve would probably have been punctual to the second. Ten seconds ... Eight ... Five ... Three ... Two ... One ...

Ding dong!

He turned around.

Tony would have gotten up slowly -- he followed her with his gaze -- and walked to the door.

She would have opened the door.

'Hi, Ms. Lewis?'

'Yes.'

'Nice to meet you,' he would have offered his hand. 'Steve Adams.'

She would have shaken it confidently, then quickly led him in. He probably would already have recognized that she was his type.

Tony would have told him to sit on the couch. There.

'First of all let me congratulate you on your upcoming wedding, yadda-yadda-yadda, I've spoken to your fiancé, blah-blah-blah, he's a nice guy, blah-blah-blah.'

'Would you like something to drink,' she would have asked.

He would have asked for an espresso, which is what Tony had seen him ask for twice already. When she would have returned with a cup, she'd have sat opposite him on the couch, as she'd always done with new people. She'd have put on her open-and-nice-but-I'm-still-boss attitude.

'Anyway,' Steve would have said. 'I'd like to talk over a couple of things with you.'

'Sure.'

Tony now sat on the smaller couch, watching the two ghosts converse in front of him.

First, there'd have been serious talk. But after a couple of minutes ...

There it is! The first laugh Steve would have gotten out of her.

And then the second laugh.

And she would have made him laugh, too. He'd have been attracted to her, which would have made him prone to laugh.

And Tony? She was sensitive. She would have sensed his attraction. And someplace in the back of her mind, she'd have been flattered, especially by someone to whom she would have been attracted, too.

And they'd be looser now. The conversation would have flowed more freely. They'd talk about the project and about him, but then he would have asked her about herself. And Tony guessed that he would have said something about himself, as well. And then ...

And then, of course, they would have gotten to speak of the BBC School of Communications.

She was in television, he was in television. It was inevitable. And it would have to have happened in the first half hour of the conversation.

Then there'd have been a bond. About that. A small bond. And the rest of the conversation would have been about that. And time would fly. Then one of them would have looked at the time, and seen that it's time to go. But the rapport would be there, and Tony would be more willing now to hold the interview in front of the 'camera'. They'd have set another date, and Steve would have left.

There. Right through that door.

Tony looked at the door, then back at the couch, at Tony's ghost. How much time would she have needed to recover? How much time would she have spent thinking about that man she'd just left, about things that would now never be?

Tony sat down. Nothing. Nothing would have happened.

Still, it didn't have to be exactly that way. Maybe something else would have happened. Maybe ...

Ding Dong!

He turned around. And watched their first meeting again. But this time it was different.

And when Steve left, Tony watched it again.

I'm driving myself crazy, he thought. But he did it again.

And again.

And ...

His cellphone rang.

Tony opened his eyes. He must have fallen asleep on the sofa, fully clothed. He was groggy, as if he'd slept for two days.

His cellphone rang again. He stood up, took it out of his pocket, and looked at it. Only a quarter to six p.m. He didn't recognize the number.

"Tony Moore," he answered.

"Tony, hi. It's Steve."

"Steve," Tony rubbed his eyes. The sun was beginning to set outside. The house was getting dark. "Hi. What can I do for you?"

"I know we had an appointment at six, but I can't keep it. I just had an accident with the car."

"What? Are you all right?"

"I'm fine."

"What happened?"

"Well, I had to avoid hitting this guy that just jumped at me, and I swerved into a laundromat."

"Are you all right?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. I was actually in an action flick for a second, with all that glass shattering. And I crashed into a washing machine, too"

"But you're fine?"

"Yeah. Just, you know, my heart is racing."

"Look. Where are you?"

"The corner of East 56th and 2nd Avenue."

"That's on my way to the office. I can swing by and pick you up. We'll hold the interview then."

"Thanks, but I'm waiting for the tow truck, and -- Hey! Mr. Comic Relief, I'm talking here!" There was shouting in the background. Steve was yelling at someone, his mouth far from the mouthpiece. "Enough!" Then his voice was louder again. "Sorry about that," he said.

"'Mr. Comic Relief'?"

"This guy here looks like one of those ridiculous characters from the Commedia Del'Arte, Pantalone, I think his name is. All right!" Steve shouted, clearly at Mr. Comic Relief, as hair on the back of Tony's neck rose in a queer feeling of déjà vu. "Yes, I can see the damage! We'll compensate you! Stop shouting! I can see the damage! Stop! Shouting! Go back in! Go in!" And then, his mouth clearly closer to the phone, he said to Tony. "Anyway, I have to wait here for the tow truck. And we have to see how much everything is going to cost, and I have to check if any of our equipment was damaged. So we'll have to reschedule. Tomorrow morning, is that all right with you?"

"I don't have my schedule in front of me. But, sure, talk to Sylvia, and she'll set it up."

"Great. Thanks. Bye."

"Wait! Steve, the car. It's your car that got smashed, right?"

"Sure."

"And I'm guessing it's rented, right?"

"Of course."

"Um ... Can I just ... guess here ... The color of your car ... Is it ... " he almost couldn't breathe. "Is it ... red?"

There was a short silence on the other side. And then, "What, did you see it?"

"It's a red Ford, right?"

"You saw it?"

"Am I right?"

"Yes. When did you see it?"

"This morning, as I came in. Look, I'll leave you to your tow truck."

"Yah."

"See you tomorrow."

"Bye."

Tony ran to the car. As he sped through traffic, he dialed Matt's lab.

"Sanders."

"Matt, Tony."

"Tony, listen -- "

"Remember the incident with the car we saw yesterday?"

"Yeah."

"Get it ready on the screen. I have to see it again. I'm on my way. I'll be there in a few minutes."

"Okay."

"Anything else?"

"It'll wait. I'll see you in a few minutes."

"Bye."

Ten minutes later, Tony parked in his spot in front of Eternity Plus. He half-ran through the front doors, and to the elevator.

"Tony!" A voice called from behind him just as the elevator doors opened.

Tony turned around. It was Sylvia, his personal assistant.

"Not now," he said, and took walked into the elevator.

"Tony!" and her tone made it clear that this was important.

Tony put his hand in the space in front of him, keeping the elevator door from closing. "What?"

"The general meeting." He'd asked her to go through the usual routine. Whenever he felt it necessary to delay a general meeting, all he had to do was call a couple of shareholders and ask them not to come. And with a quorum not met, the general meeting would be delayed. "Everyone refused. They're all coming."

"They all refused?"

"Yes."

"All ten?" With him and Matt not coming, all they needed was one person.

"Yes."

That was the first time this has happened. Something big was happening and he'd missed it. They were preparing for war. "All right. Thanks. Put the meeting back on my calendar."

"Should I try again? Should I try to pressure them in any -- "

"No, no. They want a war, they'll get a war." Just not the one they planned. "And make sure it's on Matt's calendar, too."

"Sure."

"Thanks." He removed his hand, and the elevator doors immediately closed in front of him.

One floor down, and he ran into the computer lab.

Matt stood up.

"Show me," Tony said, sitting at his usual spot.

Matt looked at him, then, seeing that look in his eyes, decided it was best to press 'Play'.

"Watch," Tony said. "A red Ford. The same type of car Steve rented. Now he'd just swerved to avoid a guy that jumped in front of him." The car slammed into the wall of the hospital room. "See, first thing he does is call the tow truck. Fast-forward until he dials again." Matt pressed a key, and Steve went through the motions at high-speed. He hung up and dials again. "Slow it down." Matt did so. "Okay, now he's talking to me. He's telling me he can't come to the interview Sylvia scheduled at six."

The old man walked in and screamed at Steve while Steve was talking. Finally Steve turned around, and shouted at him.

"'Hey!'" Tony mouthed, "'Mr. Comic Relief! I'm talking here!'" Matt looked at Tony, jaw half open.

"Look at the lips, look at the lips," Tony urged him on. "Now he's saying 'Enough,'" Tony synchronized perfectly. Steve turned his back on Pantalone, and continued to talk to his phone partner. "'Sorry about that,'" Tony said.

"Now I ask him what happened.

"'This guy here looks like one of those ridiculous characters from the Commedia Del'Arte," Matt quickly looked away from Steve's lips to Tony, then back again, astonished. The words matched perfectly. "'Pantalone, I think his name is.'"

Now Steve turned back to shout at Mr. Comic Relief, who was shouting at him from behind.

"'Yes, yes, I can see the damage, we'll compensate you, stop shouting.' Now Steve gets really angry," Tony said over some of Steve's words. "'Stop! Shouting! Go back in! Go in!'" Mr. Comic Relief, shamed, left the hospital room.

"See, now he's talking to me, he's canceling the interview. We're rescheduling." But this is where the similarity would stop, because if Tony had lived, he would never have seen this beforehand, he would never have tried to guess the color of Steve's car.

"Now watch what happens next," Tony leaned forward.

Steve turned off the cellphone. He waited a second, then turned around, and bumped into Tony, carrying totebags.

Tony pressed on a key, and the image froze. "Steve's accident was a bit before six p.m. It was into the laundromat at East 65th and 2nd Avenue. At five thirty, Tony's calendar has her picking up her dress from Couture Brides & Belles, which just happens to be on East 66th and 2nd Avenue. That's less than a two-minute walk away. She'd try the dress on, see that it was perfect or see that it wasn't, pack it or return it, talk a bit with the tailor and at around six she'd head back for the car. Last time she was there, she told me about this great place that had cheap parking on 64th and 2nd, which meant that walking back she would have to bump into Steve."

Tony pressed the key again, and on the screen Tony and Steve came alive again.

"'Oh, what a coincidence!'" Tony mimicked their voices. "'Why, what are you doing here? I only saw you a few hours ago.'"

"That wasn't in synch," Matt said.

"I know. Now he's telling her about the accident. See, she's asking if he's all right. I'm fine, I'm fine. Now she's offering to take him with her car. No, no, he says, I have to wait for the tow truck. Well, I'll just wait here with you. He says no, she says yes, he says no, she says, 'That's your tough luck'," in perfect synch; she'd always said that. "He finally agrees."

Now the two of them just stood there, waiting. Slowly, they began to talk.

Matt looked at Tony. "What are they saying?"

"I don't know," Tony hissed. "I wasn't there."

"Then how did you know everything he said before?"

"Because," Tony looked straight into Matt's eyes. "Everything there just happened. Exactly the way it's seen here. Word for word. Except for the part with Tony. I told you. I knew all along. She wasn't supposed to die. And that thing," he pointed at the computer, "shows the future."

Matt hesitated for a second, then said, "I know."

Tony's breath caught. "What?"

"Well, about the last part at least. This thing shows the future."

Tony felt part of his legs turn numb. "How do you know?" he managed.

"I kept looking deeper. I found a few more Steve moments."

"And ... ?"

"I'll show you." Matt turned his back to Tony and began clicking on his computer.

Suddenly there was a single bed in the middle of the hospital room. Steve was sitting on it, reading a newspaper.

"I'll fast-forward," Matt said.

Steve began to flip through the pages at a ridiculous speed. Tony came in, dressed in a bathrobe, her hair covered in a towel. Obviously, she'd just showered. Steve looked up at her.

"What the hell is that?" Tony said.

"That's not it yet," Matt said. He fast-forwarded again. Steve and Tony began to talk, but also kept their distance. Tony sat on a chair that seemed to be part of their new room. A couple of minutes later, Steve got up from the bed and walked near the camera. "There!" Matt said, and slowed it down to normal speed. Steve got even closer. "There!" And Matt froze the picture.

"What?"

"The newspaper, look at the newspaper." The paper filled half the screen.

"What about it?"

"That's today's newspaper. Right down to the headlines and all the small print I could make out." Tony looked at it again. He'd dismissed it because he'd recognized it. "That's today's newspaper," Matt said. "Which we got from Tony's brain more than three weeks ago."

"How can this be?"

"I ... There can only be one explanation. There's an infinite number of numbers. If you looked long enough, you'd find any scenario, any newspaper, any possible person here, I'm sure of that. We could just as easily find plays Shakespeare would have written had he lived longer. We just happened to find a possible scenario with today's -- "

"You don't think that's what it is, do you?"

Matt shrugged. "What other explanation is there? That there's something inside of us that knows the future? That our 'destiny' is ingrained into us from birth? That's ... absurd."

Tony looked at the frozen image. "That's today's newspaper. That's something that would have happened today."

Matt looked at him, not following. "What?"

"Steve and Tony would have met earlier today, at two, at our place for the pre-interview. There's no doubt about that. They would have met again, four hours later, at six, after he crashed into the laundromat. There's no doubt about that. So this hasn't happened yet. But it's supposed to happen today, that's what the existence of the newspaper means. Where is this? What is this? When is this?"

"I ... Well, having seen all this from beginning to end, I can tell you by the electric clock near the bed," he pointed to it. "This entire thing here happens between 11 p.m. and one a.m."

"11 p.m. today?"

"I guess."

"Where is this? Why are they together? Why is she dressed like that?"

"The towel, if you notice, is from the Sunnyside Motel."

"That's where Steve is staying!"

Why would she be there, at his place? She couldn't have had a row with Tony and left. That's just not possible. Even if she did, she wouldn't have gone to stay with a complete stranger. What would she be doing there?

And then something about the times clicked in his head. At 7 p.m. today she'd scheduled a prep for an exclusive interview with former NBA superstar John Binias. The man hadn't shown his face in public since he quit so suddenly six months ago, and although Tony today couldn't be sure that he was where he was supposed to be, it was rumored now in the papers that he was somewhere in New York, which meant that he was here, which meant that the interview would have gone on as scheduled. Tony had learned from him that he was supposed to stay at his grandparents' house for three days and they had agreed to hold the interview there. Their house was an hour's drive from the city, passing the Sunnyside Motel going both ways.

In doing a prep, she always made sure it's no less than two hours, to get the other side at ease with her, but she always made sure, too, that it was no more than three hours, so that whatever the man said to the camera did not sound rehearsed. Which meant that by ten p.m. at the latest, she'd be on her way back home. Passing the Sunnyside Motel anywhere between ten and ten thirty. But even if she saw Steve there, even if she stopped to say hello, she wouldn't have stayed over.

The only way she'd stay was if ... if there was no way back. What if there was a traffic jam to end all traffic jams, what if the FBI, suspecting a terrorist attack or chasing someone, cordoned off part of the city, and there was no way back?

Then eventually she'd call Tony, saying she's stuck in this awful traffic jam.

He'd say, 'Yes, I heard it on the news, the entire city's clogged down because of this whatever-it-is.'

She'll say, 'When do you think it'll be over? I've been sitting in the same spot for fifteen minutes.'

'Who knows.'

And then they'll talk a bit, but eventually he'll either ask her or she'll tell him without him asking where she is exactly. It wouldn't be possible to have that conversation and not ask.

So she'll say, 'I'm right outside the Sunnyside Motel.'

And he'll say something along the lines of 'Why that's exactly where Steve and the camera crew are staying. Why sit in the car until the middle of the night when this thing will probably be over? They're nice people, they'll probably agree to have you over for the night. You don't need the aggravation.'

And she'll agree. And Steve will volunteer his room.

And for all this to actually happen, something else must happen today, something that would clog down the city and create a jam outside it at a time that would have put Tony right outside the Sunnyside Motel.

So they'd spend the night together. And ... What?

Tony looked at Matt. "This is two-hours-long, you say?"

"Yes."

"Then before I see it, give me the bottom line. What happens here?"

"First they eat something. I think it was leftovers from what he had. Then she takes a shower. Then they talk and talk. They talk for almost the entire time. It's boring to watch. Then she sleeps on the bed, and he sleeps on the small couch. And that's it."

Tony stared at the frozen picture. Then, after a minute, he looked at Matt. "They talk and talk?"

Matt nodded.

"Does he yell?"

"Ah ... Yes, actually, there is a bit where he yells."

"Show me."

Matt sped forward at ten times the normal speed. The entire time, clearly deep into a conversation, the two of them sat about three yards apart (Steve having sat back down on the bed). Finally, as Steve's gestures seemed to grow bigger, he stood up from the bed, Matt slowed it down to normal speed. Tony looked at his gestures. He was definitely yelling. And the color of his face ... Tony leaned back. "The speech," he whispered. "Dammit!"

He kept watching the silent speech as Steve got more and more heated. And then Tony noticed that Matt was looking at him and not at Steve or Tony. It took him a second to understand. He froze the picture and looked at Matt. "You found more, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"Show me."

"Well, there are two more incidents with Steve that I found."

"Show me."

"I'm ... " Matt couldn't finish the sentence.

"What?"

But Matt just looked at Tony. "I'm not sure you want to see them." And the look in Matt's eyes caused Tony to take a deep breath and lean back, fighting back panic.

"Why?"

"One of them has ... It has Tony ... "

"What? Matt, what?"

"It shows ... It shows Tony and Steve's wedding."

For a second Tony's eyes seemed to lose focus, then he said, "Are you sure? Could it be -- "

"It has them saying 'I do'. That's very clear. You don't want to see that, do you?"

" ... Maybe later." Tony thought for a minute, then straightened his back, bracing himself. "What's in the other one?" Matt hesitated. "It can't be worse than that. Show me the other one."

Wordlessly, Matt turned around, and pressed a couple of keys. The hospital room reappeared on the screen in front of them.

A small girl entered the room.

"That's Tony," Tony narrated. "When she was six."

"No, it isn't." Matt froze the picture. "Look at her. I don't think that's Tony."

Tony bent closer and squinted. Presently he said, "You're right. The nose is different, and the hair's straighter than Tony's at that age, and the color's slightly different, too. But if you hadn't told me -- How'd you know?"

"Watch."

Matt pressed a key, and the girl sprang into life again. From the other corner of the screen, Tony emerged. She was a few years older than today, nearing her forties. Tony's heart felt like it just squirted poison into his system.

Tony was coming at the girl with a big smile and open arms. The girl ran towards Tony and leapt into her arms.

The girl called something out when she jumped. Both of them had seen that word enough times to read her lips without a doubt. She'd said 'Mom'.

"That's her daughter," Tony whispered.

"Yes. Watch."

Steve came into the hospital room from the same direction. The girl, held by Tony, reached for him, clearly mouthing, 'Dad!'

Matt pressed a key that froze the frame, just as Steve reached for his girl.

"Oh, my god," Tony whispered. "Oh, my god. She's destined to be their kid."

Matt shut off the screen and moved his chair in such a way that he was now facing Tony. "Tony," he said. "Tony," he touched his knee to reach him. Tony looked at him. "Tony, you have to know that this can't be. This isn't true."

"Everything so far has been true."

"It doesn't matter. A man ejects millions of sperms into a woman, and each has different genetic material. There is no way -- there is no way! -- that anything inside the brain can even remotely come close to predicting what a child would look like. There are millions and millions of possibilities. There is no way that what we just saw with the kid is true. There is no way that their wedding is true. There is no way that the meeting at the hotel is true. There is no way that any of this is true. If only for the fact that she's dead. This thing does not show facts. It does not show the truth. She's dead, Tony. She is dead!"

"She was supposed to be with him and not with me." Tony looked as grief-stricken as he had looked at the funeral. It was as if he'd just lost Tony all over again.

"No!"

"It was meant to happen."

"No! You have to think of it like this: How can it be 'meant to happen' if it didn't happen? If it can't happen?"

Tony looked at him. He had no answer. But it clearly did not change the way he felt.

"And besides," Matt said. "Even if she was alive, there's no way all this could possibly happen. Even if, for the sake of argument, there were ten more coincidences a day, even if they met six more times a day each day until the wedding. Even if she was deadly attracted to him, even if he thought she was the love of his life. You don't leave your upcoming marriage a few days before the wedding for a 'maybe'. You don't leave for a 'hopefully'. You don't even leave for 'The One and Only'. Because you can't really know if he is 'The One and Only', you don't really know if you can live with him, or if he isn't still in love with his last girlfriend, or if he's not crazy, or if the two of you won't get on each other's nerves after a month. You don't know and you don't leave. Marriage is a decision for life. You don't go into it lightly, and you don't back out of it lightly."

Tony was slowly coming out of it. "Yes."

"Tony wouldn't leave you a few days before the wedding. Not with Steve and not with anyone."

"That's right. Not this close to the wedding."

"That's right."

"Not this close to the wedding," Tony said again. Maybe if it had happened a few months ago, then she wouldn't have had a problem. But the two wouldn't have met then -- correction: they hadn't met then. It was already a fact. For her to leave him so close to the wedding, she'd need a catalyst. And the catalyst would have to be him. He'd have to do something awful that would drive her into Steve's ready arms. And what could he possibly do? Not only would he not do anything awful, he'd always intended on being on his best behavior. He had declared from the start that he would do anything Tony asked, that he would appear at whatever tailor or hairdresser or whatever-other-wedding-chore that Tony would decide he should go to, and that he would prove to her once and for all that he wouldn't let the job widow her. And it was so close to the wedding. There were now six days left. And it would be impossible. And tomorrow it'd be five days, and it would be more impossible. And the day after, it would be harder still. And the day after that, and the day before the wedding, the day of the rehearsal wedding would be --

And suddenly it sank in. The general meeting! It wasn't at all what he had thought.

In his mind, he ran through the last month as it would have been had Tony stayed alive, now that he had all the facts. On the evening before the accident, some of the shareholders produced a letter inviting all the shareholders of the company, including Tony and Matt, to the general meeting. On the next morning, if Tony hadn't died, he would have gone on to the office as usual. He'd have seen the letter, and would certainly have noticed that it fell on the day before the wedding. He'd no doubt think that this was a mistake -- they did, after all, know about his wedding.

But it wouldn't have worried him. Why should it? Confident that it was a mistake, confident that he could move the meeting whenever he wanted, he would have left off delaying it to the last week before the wedding. In the meantime, he'd have felt pressure from the different venture capital funds, but he would have acted just as cockily as he had these last few weeks. He wouldn't have noticed the stench of war in the air.

Three days before the meeting, he'd have given Sylvia the usual task of making sure a quorum was not met. But Sylvia wouldn't have succeeded. The general meeting would not have been delayed. And Tony would then have realized how serious their intentions are, and he'd also have realized what he hadn't realized when Sylvia had talked to him a few minutes ago -- that the date itself was a snub against him, that they had intended to make it hard on him. And he wouldn't have a choice but to go, or else he'd lose his job and, worse, lose control of his life's work at Eternity Plus.

He would have had to go. Tony would have had to live with it.

The meeting would probably start late, just to spite him on this day. And even though he would no doubt win, it would take hours, and they would make sure to make the meeting as long and excruciating as possible. And all this time he would have been at his job and not at the rehearsal wedding.

By this time, Tony would have known Steve for five days. And after a million coincidences and after a thousand chance meetings, after 'the speech' had been drilled into her every day, Tony himself would have shown her that he would widow her during their marriage. And it would be too much. Steve was right: To be with someone she didn't love as much as he loved her, added to the fact that he would never be there? She would go to Steve, and live with Steve, and marry Steve.

Tony noticed that Matt was talking to him.

"Tony?"

There are things that you know. There are things that are set. There are things that are true.

"You just went white."

They should never have even met. It was a fluke. It was a billion-to-one shot. It should never have happened.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "None of this matters." Tony stood up and left.

He'd never had a chance. Some futures are set in stone


© Guy Hasson 2005.
This story was first published in Internova (March 2005).

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