Failing the Future

Moments after I arrived, I ran into him in the hotel lobby. I started feeling nauseous, and then I saw him. Part of me wondered if this might be a side effect, but a bigger part of me was trying to make it to the bathroom before something terrible happened.

I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find him again after I had finished, but there he was, standing at the sinks. I couldn’t believe it. I had wanted to meet him for so long, and there he was. Not exactly the first impression I had planned though. Thankfully, he broke the ice.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“Much better now,” I said, nodding. “I’m sorry for bumping into you out there. I don’t know what came over me.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, as we left the bathroom and walked toward the hotel bar.

“Can I get you something?” I asked. “Least I can do.” I watched him hesitate, look back across the lobby, and then check his watch. Please, please, please, I thought as I watched him stall. It was one of those drawn-out moments. So much was riding on him not walking away. If he says no, it’s all over; people will die.

“Sure,” he replied, taking a stool and pointing to a Scotch. “Long day?”

“You have no idea,” I told him.

“Your first con?”

“Yes. I’ve wanted to come for a while now, but this was the first year everything worked out.”

“The secret is to pace yourself,” he said, pointing at my bourbon.

“Oh, no. That wasn’t because of this. I’m just getting over a little something.” I sounded like an idiot. I couldn’t help it. I was nervous. You try talking to a celebrity and not looking silly. No matter how you plan it out, it never happens like you thought it would or hoped it would. Your only option is to clumsily push ahead. “But, to be honest, sitting next to you, talking to you? That’s not helping. Do you mind if I get the fanboy out of my system? I mean, Curtis Richmond, the writer. Having a drink. With me. Crazy. I’ve read all your stuff. Multiple times. I can’t believe I’m actually sitting here with you.”

He put out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

I shook it. “I’m Luke. Luke Miller.”

“Always good to meet a fan, Luke,” he said, smiling.

“So if a rookie should pace himself, what’s your secret? Aren’t you bored of conventions by now?”

“No, there’s always something interesting. You never know who you’ll meet. Sometimes it’s a new author I heard good things about, and sometimes it’s Luke, the puking wonder boy.”

“So better to be interesting than boring,” I said. “But what about the fans who cross the line? The ones who are a little too interesting?”

“Don’t get me wrong. Boring has its benefits. If I hear the same questions over and over again, I can check out a bit. Sometimes I’m half asleep with all the travel, so boring is not always bad. As for interesting, I like passionate fans. Thankfully I haven’t had to deal with many stalkers or dangerous fans.”

And then he shot me a look over the top of his glass. I don’t know if he was still deciding what kind of fan I was, but I tried to smile and look non-threatening. I don’t know if that helped. I just had to keep him talking, get to my proposal. That’s all that mattered.

He continued, “But the most annoying ones are the fans who tell me their idea for a book, and that they want me do all the writing. All they want is half the earnings.”

“You get that a lot?”

He nodded. “Especially lately. Sometimes the stories are silly and hacky. Sometimes not. If their heart is in the right place, and it’s about the story, I try to be kind. Encourage them to develop the idea, write something. But for many of them, it’s about the money. That’s when I get upset. Then they get upset. Things don’t usually end well.”

Was he warning me? How did he know what I was going to say? No, it was a coincidence. I can’t stop now. It wasn’t about the money or anything like that anyway; it was about saving lives. “So every now and then you hear a good idea? Ever wonder if you walked away from a bestseller?”

“It’s possible. Maybe in some alternate universe, I have different bestsellers,” he mused. “But I seem to be doing alright writing my own stories.”

“Ever heard of the story ‘Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan’?”

He shook his head.

“It’s the story of an unsinkable ship named the Titan that hits an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sinks, and almost all of the passengers die due to a shortage of lifeboats. And it was published 14 years before the Titanic sank.

“In 1914, the same author wrote a short story about a Japanese naval fleet launching surprise attacks on the American navy, using something like an atomic bomb.

“Makes you wonder. What if someone from the future came back with warnings? What if he chose a famous author who had already written a few bestsellers? Maybe Futility becomes a hit, and maybe he saves lives because crewmembers and passengers read the story. They saw the signs and knew what to do in advance.”

“It’s an interesting idea. Sounds like it would make a great novel. You should write it,” he said putting his glass down and getting up from his stool.

“Mr. Richmond, you don’t understand. I am that man from the future,” I said. I saw his eyes open wider as he started to back away from me. I was afraid of this. I knew this would be the hard part. There’s no way to say this sort of thing without sounding like a lunatic. “In 2029 various strains of the flu virus start to combine and mutate. Outbreaks turn into a pandemic. People panic, society falls apart, humanity is hanging on by a thread. You have to write this story,” I told him, grabbing his arm. “You have to write this story. People need to be warned. To prepare, to learn what to do when it happens.”

He yanked his arm back, as if I was infected. “Get away from me.”

“No, Mr. Richmond. I’m healthy. And I don’t want any money or fame. I just want to warn people. I can give you names, dates, locations. I can tell you about your future stories, your family. Whatever it takes. Just listen to me, please.”

He backed away, saying, “No. No. Leave me alone.”

When Richmond was a few paces away, he turned and left as quickly as he could. Richmond probably would have sprinted if the crowds weren’t in his way.

They told me he would never go for it. That I’d sound crazy. I really thought I could do it. That I could convince him to be a hero. Instead, billions will die.

I slumped back into my chair at the bar. Even the bourbon tasted sour. I had waited years to have a sip, but I guess that was ruined too.

* * *

New Orleans is a wonderful place if you’re in a good mood. And if not, at least there is plenty of booze to distract you. Tonight, I was getting very distracted. I had been tracking Richmond for a year or so, but I wasn’t able to talk to him again. It was the night before the awards ceremony, and he was nominated for the Best Novel award this year, so I hoped to find him at the hotel bar like last time. Turns out when you start buying drinks for the entire bar, writers come running. And they call their friends. And that’s how he found me. Well, his friends found me. One of them slapped me on the back and was already talking before I turned around.

“So they tell us you’re the person responsible for the drinks—our generous new patron,” one of them said, toasting me with an empty glass before signaling for a refill.

I smiled once I spotted Richmond behind his two friends. “That would be me, yes. Congratulations on the Best Novel nomination, Mr. Richmond,” I said, raising my glass.

“Thank you. Always good to meet a fan,” he said. He finished his drink and looked up. It didn’t take long for him to remember me. “You. C’mon, guys. You said thank you. Now let’s leave him alone.”

“Oh, it’s no bother. Have a seat,” I said. “Luke Miller. Nice to meet you.”

“Sam,” the backslapper said.

“Mark.”

“So how do you know Luke, Curtis?” Steve asked Richmond, who was hanging back, almost hiding.

“We met at a convention a few years back. Let’s get out of here, guys.”

“What’s going on?”

“He thinks I’m crazy, Mark. He doesn’t believe I’m from the future. But how do you think I can afford all these drinks? Sports, horse races, movies, whatever anyone will bet on. I’m a very good guesser. Want to know if Mr. Richmond will win tomorrow?”

“Who cares about that? Do the Cubs ever win the World Series?” Sam asked.

Before I could disappoint him, Richmond interrupted. “Don’t listen to him. He’s nuts.”

“Maybe he’s just a lucky guesser,” Mark said.

“Pfft. Luck had nothing to do with it. Compared to physics, memorizing a few hundred winners is a cakewalk.

“You know the particle accelerator in Switzerland? CERN? I used to work there. But thirteen years from now, there’s a pandemic. Suddenly, our experiments didn’t seem as important. People stopped coming in to work. But for the few that remained? Well, when a bunch of really smart people start contemplating their extinction, they tend to get creative, take more risks. It wasn’t long before we were able to start sending people back.”

“In time?” Sam asked, not even able to stifle his laughter. “It’s funny, Curtis. He doesn’t look crazy, but then he opens his mouth. I’m with you.”

“They tried to tell me this idea was crazy. And they said I would sound crazy trying to explain it. But nothing else was working. We sent people back, but the pandemic kept getting worse. So I thought that if I could convince a writer to tell a story—a bestseller—and get people reading. Prepare them. More people might survive.”

Sam started laughing harder. “Oh, wait, now I get it. This is why you’re so upset, Curtis. Because you weren’t Plan A.”

Mark cracked a smile. “Is this why Stephen King re-released The Stand?”

“And wasn’t his latest novel about time travel? Poor Curtis, always in King’s shadow,” Sam said.

“No,” I said. “We never met with King. Mr. Richmond was always my first choice. But the first group was supposed to go to the CDC, the WHO, and places where the outbreaks first started. The second group was supposed to find journalists, bloggers—people we knew would be famous when the outbreak hit. I was the only one looking for a fiction writer.”

“You keep saying ‘outbreak,’” Mark said.

“It didn’t seem like much at first. There were always reports of this or that flu. It was like the boy who cried wolf. We got used to them. Then half a dozen wolves actually showed up. The various strains met, interacted, and became even worse.

“People wanted to go home, be with family. So they fled. But they brought the diseases with them. Suddenly it was everywhere. It was fast and lethal. If only people had just stayed put. Stop the spread; limit the interactions.”

“You survived,” Mark said.

“There’s something to be said about an armed population able to seal off mountain passes. We watched the world go to hell, and we thought we were safe. Eventually, we had to start rationing. Week after week, we had to make due with less and less. Booze was one of the first things to go. Not a drop to be found,” I said, ordering another drink. “No luxuries, then no staples. We were down to scraps. But the pandemic kept killing. So here I am, probably the last person to be sent back.”

“So what happens if you succeed and Curtis writes your story?” Sam started to ask.

“I’m NOT writing his story,” Curtis said.

“Alright, alright. I’m just curious. We’ve all read stories with time travel paradoxes. Hell, we’ve written some too. We’re sitting with a time travelling physicist, and I have questions. So long as he keeps buying, I’ll hear him out. So if you succeed, what happens to you?”

“I’m not sure. Everyone in the group had their theory. Maybe I can go back in time because the future is inevitable, and I can’t change anything. Maybe each person we sent back landed in an alternate past. Maybe each time we sent someone back, they stayed on the original time line and everyone else jumped to an alternate timeline. Maybe I fix things, and, POOF, I cease to exist. Maybe I create an alternate future. All I know for sure is that we sent a lot of people back, and nothing changed. People were still dying. So I had to try. At least here I can drink. And when I see our friend here, I ask him to write my story. So, Mr. Richmond, what do you think of my story now? Think it’ll work for your next novel?”

“No.” he said. “And you should know my answer. You’re the one from the future.”

“I came back to change the future. But my offer still stands. Whatever it takes, I’ll trade you: knowledge about your bestsellers and your bombs, your future, your family’s future. Write my story, and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

He just stared at me, shaking his head. “No. This is crazy. This is all some big joke, right?”

Mark smiled. “He said you have bestsellers ahead of you. Even if his book is terrible, you’ll survive.”

I smiled too, but I was trying to ignore Mark and Sam. All that mattered was Richmond saying yes.

“I can’t. It’s not my story. You write it.”

“I need a guaranteed bestseller.”

“I’d love one too. So does every writer in here. There’s no such thing as a guaranteed bestseller.”

“Not every writer in here is nominated for Best Novel. Not every writer in here has more bestsellers than fingers. Everything you touch sells. That’s why I need you. Please. People will die if you say no,” I said. “You can be a hero. You can’t walk away from this.”

But he did. Mark and Sam followed after him. “Congratulations on your win tomorrow, Mr. Richmond,” I shouted as they left, but it didn’t make me feel any better. And after all those drinks, I only felt worse the next morning.

* * *

He did win Best Novel. But his next book didn’t do so well. Although it had decent pre-orders, after the critics panned it, sales dropped off quickly. I knew it. I could have told him. It’s alright, though. He has a few big hits left before the outbreak.

I spent the next few years trying to track down Richmond, but he didn’t attend many conventions or events. When he did, there was never a signing or a meet and greet. And I never saw him at another bar.

I managed to find out where he lived. I hoped I wouldn’t have to use that information, but he left me with no choice. I couldn’t talk to him any other way. So I drove to his house. A young woman answered the door.

“Hi, I’m here to meet with Mr. Richmond, please.”

“I’m sorry. You have the wrong house.”

“Curtis Richmond, the author? I guess you have to keep the fans away, but he knows me. We’ve talked before. I know he lives here. I just need to talk to him for a few minutes. I’ll be quick.”

“You need to leave. You have the wrong house.” She shut the door in my face, but just before she did, I could have sworn I saw Richmond peeking around a corner.

I started pounding on the door. “I know you’re in there, Mr. Richmond. I saw you. We need to talk. You need to write this story.”

“I will call the police. You are trespassing,” I heard her say through the door.

“You don’t have much time. How can you ignore this? We’re talking about the end of humanity! People deserve a warning. Why don’t you want to help?”

“Go away,” I heard her shout. “You’ve got the wrong house. I’m calling the police right now.”

“I’m not a crazed stalker or anything, I just want to talk to Curtis Richmond. He needs to tell my story.”

Suddenly, the door opened. Richmond was standing there, telling the woman it would be OK. “Fine. I’ll do it,” he said. “I’ll write your book.”

“Really? Thank you, Mr. Richmond. I was so afraid you thought I was crazy.”

“No, I didn’t think you were crazy. I thought I was going crazy. You’re the fourth person to talk to me about this story. You convinced the other members of your team, so convince me.” He invited me in. “Start again at the beginning and tell me everything. And next time, don’t congratulate me on an award. Warn me about the novels that don’t sell.”

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