We were going to use dogs at first. Can you imagine? Dear God, that would’ve been a PR disaster. Not my department, I know, but still. I was against it. Suppose everyone would say that but I really was. Check Dr. Venable’s files, you’ll see I wrote him about it. Wasn’t on moral grounds, though. Dr. Venable wasn’t one for morals, obviously. I just didn’t think a dog would cut it. Too friendly, too trusting. We needed an animal that would be impartial. And hardy, which is why we ruled out cats. Thank God. I can say that now. Especially after what happened…can you imagine?
Well, I guess you can. Why we’re doing this, ain’t it?
I guessed you looked me up. I have a profile with you now, don’t I? Funny. I mean, how many Midwestern farm boys grow up to have profiles with so many international agencies? I almost feel like a secret agent, cloak and dagger shit. Except instead of dames, I’ve got goats.
Okay. Yeah, so I answered an ad in the paper and wound up in the employ of some of the most brilliant minds on the planet. That simple. Shouldn’t have been, maybe, but it was. I’ve always been good with animals. Got it from my father, who was even better than me. I won several 4-H awards in my youth, I’m sure you know that I had a good farm for a while, cows and chickens and goats. Never got into hogs; had ’em as a kid and one tried to eat me once. Hand to God. I slipped in the mud and this two-hundred pound sow came charging me. I could smell her breath and her musk. Her saliva burned like acid when it splashed my cheek. I only survived because she tripped over one of her own young. Gave me time to get the fuck out of Dodge. Think about that: she wanted me so bad, she damn near trampled her own brood to get me. Her hunger was so intense, it overcame the instinct all animals have to protect their lineage, to save their species. Ma’am, imagine craving something so much you’d risk killing your own child to get it. I was face to face with my own death, and survived because of an accident. Shouldn’t be here now. For more reasons than one.
I’ve got a point. This is relevant. I haven’t told that story in years. Don’t like thinking about it, but I have been these past few days. Wondering how lucky a guy can be. Or how unlucky, if you look at it that way, which I’ve been inclined to do lately.
Funny: they considered using pigs. We considered using them, I mean. I was in on that. Obviously, we didn’t, for which in hindsight I am eternally grateful.
Goats. Wasn’t just my idea. Everyone knows they eat anything. Can survive anywhere. Great sense of balance. They aren’t smart, per say, but they have amazing instincts. Climb, run, even bite and kick if they need to. Piss off a goat, and you won’t ever do it again. They’re survivors. And for what Dr. Venable had in mind, they were perfect. Or, you know, as perfect as we could assume. Not even the eggheads really knew what was gonna happen. And me…I didn’t believe it was possible.
I know how that sounds: me taking the government’s money to try and do something I didn’t think could even be done. Well, okay. Doesn’t make me a bad guy. I ain’t the first. And honestly, I thought I was owed. Told you I had a farm, right? Wanna guess what happened to it? Lost it to one of those big banks you sons of bitches bailed out. Lost my father’s farm. My grandfather’s farm. Know how it feels to lose something that’s been passed down through generations? Makes it hard to sleep at night. Makes it hard to look your kids in the eye. So yeah, I took the money. Good money, too. My family will be set for a while ’cause of it, maybe longer depending on what happens to me. Throw me in jail, make me disappear—they’re still set, at least. I tried to make up for things.
So. We went with goats. The first one was named Andre. I mean…look, I’m against giving animals people’s names. I love all of God’s creatures great and small, but you just can’t personalize them. Or, what’s the term? Anthropomorphize? Thanks. Can’t do it. They aren’t people. They’ll die sooner than you, and you may be the one doing the killing, terrible as that is. Not to mention, they’re animals, they’re gonna act like animals. Fido might one day up and bite you for no damn reason other than he’s a dog and dogs have sharp teeth, and what good’s sharp teeth for if you ain’t gonna bite shit? There’s a big difference between treating an animal with respect and anthro-whatevering them. Huge difference.
But Andre. Dunno who named him, but that’s a hell of a name for a person, let alone a goat. Maybe it was a French species? Like a joke? Well, Andre was the guinea pig, or whatever shitty pun you wanna make out of it. Kind of small, a couple of us thought too small, but we were overridden on that one. Stacy…Stacy was my choice. Dr. Venable listened to me the next time. But Andre, poor soul, was not cut out for his assignment. He was like some kid drafted into Vietnam, just, “Hey, here’s a gun, go shoot into those trees.” Guess some things never change, huh?
Yeah, I’m doing whatever that thing is. Kinda hard not to, after the fact. You try it.
Poor Andre. I think we all knew he wouldn’t make it. Like, subconsciously. No one said anything. Dr. Venable thought it would work; he thought all of his ideas were sure-fire hits, like every thought that flashed through his head was written by John Lennon. He had “Imagine” playing in the lab the day they sent Andre ahead, you know that? That’s one of those details that doesn’t get around much. Guess he thought it was appropriate.
Now, I’m gonna admit: you know as much about the science part as I do. Ah, who am I kidding? Dressed like that, I’m guessing you know more, not just stuff I don’t understand, but stuff I ain’t privy to. And that’s fine; I already know more than I wanted. I’m just saying that I can’t attest to how things happened that day. Some of those people are still alive. Didn’t see Dr. Venable’s body after the whole Stacy thing, haven’t heard much about him, so I’m guessing you’ve got him tucked away somewhere. Hopefully it’s dark and unpleasant and he hates it. And they’re playing nothing but the Rolling Stones. That’d drive him crazy. Crazier.
Shit. I’m making it personal. Ah, hell, you got me started. Get what you pay for, I guess.
Dr. Venable strapped Andre into that sphere of his. Well, he called it a sphere. Looked like an egg to me, but he’s the scientist. I remember, I’ll never forget, Dr. Venable stroked Andre’s muzzle. It was the only act of kindness I ever saw from him. Sometimes that man could seem almost human, like maybe he understood the weight of what he was doing after all. Or maybe he just got caught up in the moment. He wouldn’t have been the only one.
After that, Dr. Venable stepped back and threw a few switches. The air crackled, just like Rice Krispies. Thought my eardrum was rupturing. One lady, I don’t know her name or what she did, fainted and started bleeding from the ears. The whole sphere seemed alive, colors rippling across its surface like St. Elmo’s fire. Blue and white and some yellow so bright it was almost translucent. The sphere was made of some clear polymer, supposed to be a great conductor of electricity, but you could see Andre, and he was terrified. Goats may not be God’s brightest, but they know when they should be scared, and I think Andre was on the verge of a heart attack. You couldn’t hear him bleating, the thing was soundproof, but you could see it, and that was almost as bad. Little guy’s in there screaming his heart out, his fur’s standing on end, his tail’s straightened, his legs so stiff I swear his knees were about to pop out of their sockets.
And then the lights became blinding, just for an instant, a brilliant flash, but when they dimmed again, the sphere was empty.
Andre had gone ahead.
That’s how Dr. Venable always put it. You can’t go back, he said, because the past has already been written. It’s unalterable. Finite, is how he put it. Can’t change a lamp post into a woodchuck was one of my grandfather’s sayings. He was drunk a good part of the time, but that’s what Dr. Venable’s philosophy made me think of. And it makes sense, right? If all the great minds that looked at time travel focused on going backwards, and you can’t go back, then of course they’d think the whole concept is impossible. But if you follow Dr. Venable’s logic, then traveling forward is possible because the future doesn’t exist yet. You can’t change anything by going there, can’t create any paradoxes. Can’t interact with yourself because, by the very act of going ahead, you’ve created a reality where you are not in the same location as your past self who’s come forward. I might be quoting there; I can barely wrap my head around it. But even to me, it makes some kind of sense. Dr. Venable was—is—a psychotic son of a bitch, but he’s a genius, maybe one of the smartest men who’s ever lived. A scary combination that people like yourselves made possible. Why give someone like that unlimited funds? Jesus, if Hitler’d had people like you backing him? We’d all be wearing jackboots right now.
So Andre went ahead. I thought the sphere would go with him but apparently it doesn’t work like that. He was just…gone. The crackling in the air decreased almost immediately, but it was still there, you could feel your skin tingling if you thought about it hard enough. A couple people carted off the woman who fainted, though they forgot to wipe up the blood. I kept staring at it, because blood is something I understand. You see a lot of it on a farm—yours, your animal’s, your children’s. It stops being ominous after a while. It’s just a fact of life. Literally. If something’s bleeding, it means it’s alive. It’s a good thing. I mean, if you choose to think of it that way.
I don’t know much about what happened after Andre disappeared. I just kind of lost focus. I mean, I worked with the animals, right? No goat, nothing for me to do but stay out of the way and let the eggheads crunch their numbers and bounce terminology off each other. There was a lot of talking, all of it animated. No one seemed worried or upset. Not even me. I was just…stunned. Like I said, I hadn’t thought it possible. But, hey, abracadabra and poof, gone, goat, gone! David Copperfield would’ve wept.
It’s funny how fast your whole perception of the world can change, isn’t it? Not your world itself; that stays the same as it’s always been. But suddenly, you don’t see it the same way anymore. Like you had your hands over your eyes, and then someone pried them off. Maybe that’s why I hate Dr. Venable so much. He made me see things I never wanted to see. Never needed to see.
Also, he was just an asshole.
He was gloating, you know. Even while there was still so much work to be done, he was crowing about his accomplishments, even though every person in that room, myself included, had helped him get there. It was his name attached to the project; he’d get the glory. And he wanted it. Oh God, did he ever. In his mind he already had it; he was already dining with the President and partying with Brad Pitt or whoever. You can’t even call that confidence. That’s arrogance, and in situations like that it tends to be short-lived.
Never get arrogant about or around animals. Just don’t. It never ends well. You ever see When Nature Attacks? Those people were all arrogant bastards and they all paid for it.
Our punishment came in a very different form, but I think, looking back, I’d much rather get mauled by a bear. You can play dead and the bear might leave you alone. Some evils in this world…there’s no escaping them.
Andre came back. We didn’t call him back, he just came. Dr. Venable had said this would happen; that he’d only programed Andre’s trip to be temporary, though the distortion of the time-space continuum meant he couldn’t predict exactly how long a trip the goat would have. Turned out to be ten minutes and twenty-seven seconds. We were all going about our business, or rather they were and I was just standing there, when the air started to come alive again. The sphere started to glow. A technician who was close to it at the time screamed, and that caught everyone’s attention.
The goat didn’t appear all at once. I…I don’t know how to put it. We saw flashes of him here and there. Just little glimpses, like an eye here, a kidney here, a hoof there, hey there’s his tail. Here and gone, over a period of about forty seconds. Until the whole of him came back, and that’s maybe even worse.
He was upright for about a second. Stock-still, like maybe he was in shock. And then his legs collapsed, literally his knees just gave out and he fell onto his abdomen. Something that wasn’t blood started leaking out of his belly. It was pink and viscuous, and after a few seconds it started coming from his eyes and mouth, too. He was dead—I mean, there’s no doubt about this, okay? He was dead, he was a dead fucking goat if ever there’s been a dead fucking goat.
But still, something inside of him moved.
Afterwards, Dr. Venable wrote it off as gas, or maybe a buildup of that unidentifiable liquid. But no. Andre’s skin rippled and bulged outward, then receded slowly, and movement like that can only be made by something alive. Something alive and under his skin. Something that wasn’t there when he went ahead, something that came back with him.
Oh God. Even after what happened with Stacy, I can’t get that image out of my mind. It lasted for maybe a second, maybe two, but some things just linger. I go over and over it, trying to convince myself Dr. Venable was right, but of course he wasn’t, I know that now. And you know what? I don’t think he believed it either. I think he said it because, if he admitted the truth, that meant he’d never be able to send another goat.
We never would’ve sent Stacy.
Poor Stacy. She was gentle. For a goat. Liked to eat out of your hand, never nipped your skin. Kind of intelligent, too, again, for a goat. She liked to rub her head against yours. I swear she would’ve made a better pet than a farm animal. A way better pet than a lab rat. But that’s what she was, that’s what she’d been hand-picked for, and you know the kicker? She was the best damn goat we had, so I chose her for the next assignment. Even after what I saw with Andre, I chose Stacy.
I’ve tried rationalizing it to myself. I’ve gotten a lot of practice. She was the best option we had, for one thing. For another: we waited three weeks. Dr. Venable studied Andre’s corpse. Found nothing under the skin except what was supposed to be there, although not all of what was supposed to be there. A few organs missing, like a couple of pieces didn’t make it back. That pink liquid, he said it was just watered down blood and fleshy matter. Believable, I mean. For the money we were making, for the history we were making. Yeah, it was believable. Dr. Venable was good at that. All the great madmen are pros at rationalizing their decisions. That’s how I know I’m not insane—because no matter how hard I try, I still hate myself for choosing Stacy.
Like I said, Dr. Venable listened to me the second time. I wasn’t in charge of animal care—nobody was in charge of anything except Dr. Venable—but I was the only one willing to pick out the next victim. I explained my logic to him. He looked me in the eye and nodded. Insane eyes. I remember thinking it had to be an act, he couldn’t possibly be that eager to continue.
But he was. And he was the only one. There was a noticeable tension in the lab when we gathered to send Stacy forward. Everyone but Dr. Venable was fidgety and short-tempered; we all looked like we were about to get caught cheating on our spouses, casting furtive glances around, checking the clock. But you know what? Everyone was there. Even the lady who had bled from the ears the previous time. We had our apprehensions, but not one person tried to stop it. Maybe some of them trusted Dr. Venable when he said he’d worked out the kinks. Smart people can have pretty weak minds sometimes. But honestly, I think most of us were just curious. This was history. This was the kind of story you sit at a bar and make friends over. People would be in awe of our part in this. It was my way of redeeming myself. Hey Dad, I lost the farm, but I helped change the world. I’m not trying to justify it. We were all wrong to be there, to not stand up and say it was a bad idea. For all his genius, Dr. Venable couldn’t have continued on his own. If enough of us had protested, we could’ve prevented it. But we didn’t, and some people paid for that mistake with their lives.
I don’t mean to go on some rant. But ultimately, you people are to blame. Not even Dr. Venable, not really, because without you he’d just be some mad scientist without the lab or the equipment. You made him what he is. You enabled all of this to happen. But accusing you doesn’t do any good. Being mad at you doesn’t do any good. Because if you cared, if you truly had any sympathy or regret about the evils you unleashed, you wouldn’t be any good at your jobs. You wouldn’t be here. I was pissed at you for a while, but now…resigned? Is that the word? Some wrongs just go unaccounted for. I was always told that God works in mysterious ways, but He’s clear as crystal compared to human beings, sometimes.
So Stacy. Well, you know what happened. You know everything I’m telling you. But this is for posterity. Or more likely, this is gonna get shoved in a drawer somewhere, and maybe in fifty years it’ll see the light of day. Too late to do anyone any good, but you aren’t interested in doing good. Who knows what you’re interested in.
All right. So I’m kinda irritated. Wanna hear why?
Dr. Venable strapped Stacy into the sphere. No petting her muzzle this time. She may as well have been a beaker or a microscope. Just equipment. Don’t think I didn’t have my regrets; part of me wanted to run up there and carry Stacy as far away from that lunatic as possible. But I just watched, like everyone else, as Dr. Venable flipped the same switches. What’s that saying? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Guess that makes all of us there that day crazy. I say that as though someone’s gonna argue it.
The air became electric again, but this time, instead of coming with a sense of anticipation, all we felt was dread. Or at least I hope it wasn’t just me. I’d like to think I wasn’t the only one reliving what happened with Andre, hoping that Dr. Venable wasn’t just talking out of his ass this time. No one moved much; the first time, everyone had been bouncing around like the lab was an insane pinball machine. This time, I couldn’t help but think about honeybees on a humid summer day. How they don’t fly so much as just drift through the air like tiny blimps. People walked with their heads hung, their shoulders scrunched up, like they were expecting to be punched in the face any second. It was quiet as a funeral. Quieter.
Nothing about the process changed. The buzz in the air grew ’til it was almost unbearable, then that brilliant flash of light snapped the energy away, until it became a dull hum in the background of your senses. Stacy disappeared as quickly as Andre, without a trace left of her. Again, the eggheads took their measurements. Dr. Venable paced the whole time, looking at the monitors, at various charts, but constantly pacing. No one passed out when Stacy went ahead, but in the first few minutes after she left, I noticed a few people make for the doors. Can’t blame them. Well, I shouldn’t. Part of me does. Is that weird? Shouldn’t they have to suffer for their part in it, too? Maybe they do. Survivor’s remorse. I guess you’d know about that. You’ve probably rounded us all up by now.
It took just over ten minutes for Andre to return. It took Stacy over half an hour. Thirty-two minutes, eighteen seconds. I don’t like to think what those extra twenty-two minutes were like for her, but of course I know. I at least have an idea. Pure hell. Torture, agony. Makes no difference she was a goat; pain transcends species. Thirty-two minutes of your worst nightmares. How long would that seem? Endless? So long that death isn’t just a wish, it’s something you think will never come? I sent her to that. I chose her, I pleaded her case, I put her in the hands of that fucking madman who sent her ahead. And I did it knowing it wasn’t right. I keep telling myself my work on the project was some sort of redemption, but I didn’t redeem a goddamn thing. All I did was ensure my seat in Hell is ready and waiting for me.
She came back. She came back and she wasn’t herself anymore, just a shell of the goat that vanished. And yet…part of Stacy was still there, at least for a moment. There and alive, do you understand? Aware. She came back all at once, a crackle of light and energy and bam there she was. I felt her coming back, we all did, so I turned and just happened to be looking at the spot where her head appeared. Saw her eyes. Just for a moment, but they were aware, and beyond terrified. So much anguish, so much horror. No hope at all. Her eyes were almost lifeless. Almost like doll’s eyes, like she’d been stuffed and mounted but was somehow still alive.
And then she…exploded. That’s the image in my mind, even though I know it’s not technically correct. Stacy didn’t explode. Something inside burst out of her—through her—so fast, she seemed to disintegrate. These things just erupted out of her, from everywhere, her sides, her stomach, hooves, eyes, mouth. Waving, crazed tentacles, hundreds of them, like puke-colored tapeworms. They came out with so much force, they punched through the sphere like it was tissue paper. The people closest were impaled, and they didn’t just die, they died screaming. Their flesh rippled as they fell, those tentacles—those worms—burrowing beneath the skin.
I saw one of the worms knock Dr. Venable over an array of computers, and that was the last I saw of him. The worms moved off the platform; there were so many, I couldn’t see if they were dragging along what remained of Stacy, or moving independently of their host. We all scrambled for the doors but, you know what? You’re gonna love this. The explosion of the sphere set off the sprinkler system. Which activated the emergency quarantine protocol. Which caused the containment doors to slam shut.
We were trapped in the lab with Hell itself. I don’t know how long. Felt like hours. Three minutes? That’s it? Oh Jesus. How many people died in three minutes? Sweet Jesus. Those worms weren’t fast, but where the hell could we go? It was just running around, watching people die. And the worst part, if any of it can be worse than any other part of it, is that I saw the bodies move. I saw the bodies move. Like with Andre, like something was under their skin, trying to get out.
Nothing did. I don’t think. It didn’t come to that. After a while—three minutes?—the worms grew sluggish. They retreated back to a central nucleus, what I guess was the last bits of Stacy’s corpse. Eventually, they stopped moving, and just died. The bodies stopped moving about the same time, I think. Maybe a little sooner. I’m sure you know the answer; you’ve seen the security feed. I haven’t, and I don’t want to.
They came and got us. Security. You people. Carted us off, the living, the dead, the worms. Probably burned the lab down and good riddance to it. At least you let me call my family. Let them know I’m alive. I thank you for that. You may be terrible people, but you aren’t complete monsters.
I’ve had some time to think about it. Not sure how long; you haven’t given me a clock, and it’s not like I can see the sun through the steel and cement. Some old magazines and an iPod full of easy listening. That’s what I’ve got, so yeah, I’ve had little to do except think about what happened. Better than sleeping all the time. I can control my thoughts; my dreams are another matter.
With all my thinking, I’ve come to two conclusions. Wanna hear them? The first: Dr. Venable was wrong. Traveling backwards is possible. It’s just, ultimately, fatal. I considered that maybe going ahead somehow changed Stacy’s biological makeup, but that’s not true, is it? Because of Andre. Andre may not have come back fully intact, but he was still a goat. What was there—and most of it was, remember—was one hundred percent goat.
But something came back with them. Some other organism traveled backwards. And both times, it died. So you can go back. You just can’t survive the trip.
The second conclusion…let me start by saying I hope you aren’t naïve. That has nothing to do with being smart, which I’m sure you are. But I can see a perverse train of logic here. What came back was clearly a parasite, yes? I’m a farmer, I know parasites. So you might be tempted to think that there could be a next time, just without goats. Some other animal, maybe a bird or a squirrel or a fucking turtle. Something that wouldn’t catch the parasites. But you’d be wrong to think like that. You didn’t see how aggressive it was. How…virulent? You put this parasite on a farm, it’d infect every living organism within twenty-four hours. It’s vicious. Okay? A parasite this aggressive, this dominating…there’d be no stopping it. By the time you found a cure, there’d be nothing left to administer it to.
I’m saying, wherever it came from, whenever it came from, wherever we sent those poor goats, this parasite is the predominant life form. Maybe the only life form. It’s so violent, so domineering, that it wouldn’t stand to let an organism through its environment uninfected. Maybe the other organisms don’t die, like ours did. Maybe there’s some tolerance built up. But it doesn’t matter what, or who, you send ahead; they’ll come back with the worms inside of them. This thing…it’s like a plague. A universal plague that’s waiting for us.
Which brings me to my second conclusion. And I hope something has rattled loose in my brain, because this all makes so much sense and I don’t want it to. Those bodies I saw moving were infected. The people died from their wounds but the worms injected something into them, eggs or maybe even small pieces of themselves. They’re contagious, like all parasites. But like I said, those people died, and so did whatever was inside of them.
Dr. Venable didn’t die though, did he? I’ve had the names of the other deceased confirmed to me. But not Dr. Venable’s, which suggests he’s alive. He’s alive, and I saw one of the worms touch him!
Do you understand? Going back is possible. But what if, by going back, you create the future? Not alter it but create it? Those worms are waiting for us and, dear God, what if, somehow, we put them there? By going ahead and bringing them back, what if we’ve created our own future? Created the hell that’s waiting for all of us?
I don’t want to ask this. I don’t want to but I have to. Dr. Venable’s infected, isn’t he? Of course he is. He’s infected but he didn’t die like the others. Which means…look, I don’t want to know, but you have to tell me, I have to understand what we’ve done, what I’ve done…
The parasite inside of Dr. Venable. Is it still alive? Are you studying it, testing it, trying to learn about it? Do you know what you’re doing, what you’re going to do?
Is it still alive? Is it? Is it?
BIO: Daniel Davis is the Nonfiction Editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine. His own work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him at www.facebook.com/DanielDavis05, or @dan_davis86 on Twitter.