The number flashed on my watch: seventeen-million, four-hundred forty-two thousand, six-hundred and eighty-three. Everything looked strange in the small restaurant. A translucent haze of shimmering multicolored light radiated from the tables, chairs, floor, people.
My waitress, Colette, stood beside me, her deep blue eyes glistening. “What can I get you?” She nodded to the menu on the table in front of me and brushed her soft hair away from her face with her hand. Even with the temporal and spatial distortion, she was beautiful. I’d give anything to see her smile. Anything.
“What are my choices?”
“They’re in your menu.” She sounded bored. And tired. “Peach cobbler, chocolate cake, blueberry pie, ice cream.”
“Wait—” I looked down at my menu and traced the letters with my finger. “Blueberry pie?”
“Yep.” She ticked her pencil against her order pad and shifted her weight from her left foot to her right just as she had done seventeen-million, four-hundred forty-two thousand, six-hundred and eighty-two times before. “That what you want?”
“Is it served hot or cold?”
“How do you like it?”
“Hot.” That was different. Collette glanced up from her order pad and met my gaze. That was different, too.
“Hot it is then.” She turned and walked back to the kitchen.
My watch beeped. Two minutes until I had to decide whether or not to push the button. Hot blueberry pie. That was different, to be sure. But was it enough? My finger trembled on the button.
I had arrived at the restaurant at exactly seven o’clock Thursday night like I always did. I sat at my usual table — Colette’s table. She approached, knowing that we’d go through the same ritual we’d gone through almost every Thursday night for the past three years. I’d pretend not to know what the dessert choices were. She’d list them. I’d order the blueberry pie. Cold. She’d walk back to the kitchen and return a couple minutes later with the slice of pie. I’d look up at her to ask her a question I’d wanted to ask since I first met her. She’d wait. I wouldn’t ask it. She’d put the check on the table and walk away. Same thing every time. Tails.
My background in physics taught me that, as Heisenberg postulated, uncertainty lies at the heart of the universe — a great cosmic coin flip determines everything that can or will happen in a given moment. For some events, the coin seems to land on tails every time. But if Heisenberg was right, if that event could be repeated a sufficient number of times, it was possible that the coin could land on heads.
When I first met Colette, and heard her laugh, and smelled her perfume, and saw the twinkle in her eye, I knew I needed the coin to land on heads.
One hundred and twenty-six times over the past three years, I sat at her table, ordered pie, and watched the Universe flip its cosmic coin. It landed on tails every time. I could not bring myself to ask her even the simplest question about herself. To flip the coin to heads even once.
As a young grad student at MIT, I had designed the rudimentary components for a time slice looper device. But since it relied on an extremely rare and fragile element that would immediately dissolve upon use of the device, and I knew I would only have the opportunity to try it once, I had all but abandoned the project, hiding it away for safekeeping.
On the night of my one hundred and twenty-sixth attempt with Colette, I rushed home, scrabbled through my garage, and laid the components on my workbench. With a renewed sense of motivation, I assembled the small, wristwatch-like device in only a few hours, and inserted the rare, precious element into its inner compartment.
If the device worked, pushing a small button on the side of the watch would start a four-minute time slice loop, beginning at the moment I pressed the button. After four minutes, time would revert automatically to the moment I had pressed the button, and the four-minute sequence would start over. After each loop, the device incremented the count displayed on the watch face by one. Being the initiator, I would theoretically retain memory of the loops and notice an increasing visual distortion with each subsequent loop, but for others, the loops would be undetectable. The looping would continue until I pressed the button again, at which time the device would be destroyed — never to work again — and time would proceed as normal, forever locking that four-minute time slice in place.
The following week, I strapped the device to my wrist, headed to the restaurant for my one hundred and twenty-seventh (and beyond) attempt, and pressed the button. It worked.
My watch beeped again, pulling me back to the present moment. Thirty seconds. I had to decide now. If I pushed the button, I’d never be able to repeat this time slice again. Whatever had happened would become part of my reality forever. Was this the reality I wanted?
I did a quick calculation on the device. Seventeen-million, four-hundred forty-two thousand, six-hundred and eighty-three loops at four minutes each. A lot of time.
Hot blueberry pie. That had to be a coin flip, didn’t it? I pushed the button.
“Here you go.” Colette set a small plate with a steaming slice of blueberry pie in front of me. “Anything else, Arnold?” She said my name. That was very different.
“Yeah,” I looked up and locked my eyes on hers. Did they twinkle? Her face was clear and smooth. No distortion. “Which one is your favorite?”
“The blueberry, definitely.”
“Hot or cold?”
“Hot.” She smiled.
Randy Hulshizer is a writer and editor living in beautiful southeastern Pennsylvania just outside of Philadelphia, arguably one of the most historic cities in the United States. His over-educated brain, two dogs, wife, and daughter push him a little closer each day to the madness that fuels his science fiction and fantasy writing. In addition to his writing, Randy is editor-in-chief at Empyreome, a quarterly online speculative fiction magazine.