Reg cocked an eyebrow. “Sorry, how many?”
“Probably more or less as many as the number of times you looped. Give or take the odd one or two where you went forward or back a bit too far.”
We had pulled guard duty for Clive again. It was the third time this week, and things were getting lax, despite the fact his cell seemed to have got more… well… secure.
A forcefield crackled at the front of the space with a bright pink glow. It hummed with a kind of menace that didn’t have to work too hard to persuade you not to touch it. Yet – somehow – a sign dangled on it reminding you not to lean against it. No idea how that worked.
Reg and I were sat either side of this forcefield, while Clive reclined on his bed. Reg was recounting the story of how he had used his alien time travel belt to guide Trisha and I out of a booby-trapped maze.
Obviously, Trisha and I didn’t rmember it like that. All we remember was Reg getting increasingly annoying and agitated as he asked inane questions and yelled at us.
But, Clive being psychic, he sided with Reg. The last few shifts we had had guarding him had seen the three of us get onto friendly terms, whiling away hours by jsut sitting around and chatting. What else were you going to do?
Only now there was a bit of tension as Clive broke the news that Reg’s reckless, untrained us of the time travel device had probably started more paradoxes than any of us could count.
“You probably repopulated that entire region,” Clive murmured.
“Oh God – an entire planet populated by dozens of copies of you…” I added, unhelpfully.
Reg looked indignant. “I was helping you!”
Clive’s glare hardened. “No doubt, but you need to understand the grave nature of the things you are dealing with.”
I had no idea why Clive was the ship’s time travel expert all of a sudden.
“You realise you narrate things a lot?” Clive was staring at me now.
How did he do that?
“So what do we do about all this, then?” asked reg, clearly agitated by Clive’s theory. “Report it?”
“Well – you never know when having an army of your own might come in handy.”
I twisted to face Clive. “Nah… They won’t last five minutes down there. Reg hates himself too much. They’ll kill each other.” I ignored Reg’s attempt to interrupt. “Just treat it like those old sci fi shows and ignore it. It’ll all be fine next week. Besides – in a universe where that-” I pointed at the sign somehow floating on the forcefield. “- can happen, it probably isn’t our biggest problem.”
Trisha wandered in, her face dropping at the sight of Reg and I sat on the floor either side of Clive’s cell. Our rifles were leaning against the wall. We clearly weren’t making any attempt to actually guard Clive. But Trisha was starting to gun for a promotion, so wanted to be seen to be doing things.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Reg shrugged. “Hanging out.” Out the corner of my eye I could see Clive nod.
“Yeah,” I chipped in. “You know in those old sci fi shows where they have a big-budget episode then there’s inevitably a really low-budget one to balance it out?”
Trisha screwed her face up, clearly thinking I had finally cracked. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Oh. Well… We’re doing that. The low-budget bit.”
“You’re meant to be guarding him.” She jabbed a finger in Clive’s direction. “He could be manipulating your minds right now. You need to be on the ball.”
I hadn’t thought of that. It would explain a lot about what had been going on recently, from Reg’s unpredictable actions to the wierd sign floating on a forcefield. Then something occurred to me.
“What if he’s manipulating your mind right now to make us think we’re being manipulated?”
“Because-” Her face fell. She slumped down on the floor with us. “S*** you’re right. How would any of us know?”
“Uhm… Sorry?” We all turned to face Clive, who was still laying on the bed, perfectly casual. “Can we not talk about me like I’m not here, please? Besides – I’m doing nothing. All… this” He waved a hand in our direction like a wizard casting a spell. “This paranoia. That’s all you.”
I took a deep breath. “But how will we know if you’re manipulating us or not?”
“Look, if you start thinking along those lines you just send yourself and everybody else in the room mad. Soon you’ll be questioning everything. Everything. Is this forcefield is even really here? Do I just want you to think it is? Are you even on a spaceship?” He let the weight of that thought settle. “You’ll just have to trust me.”
Trisha, Reg and I looked at each other. I had questions. “Clive… I don’t want to be too negative, but you’re locked up. Why should we trust you?”
“If I was controlling your minds, do you honestly think I’d have even let this conversation get this far?”
I grimaced and nodded. He had a point.
He finally sat up on the bed. “Do you know why I’m in here?”
The silence told him everything.
“I had a… ‘run-in’ with the Captain. Who, like Reg here, might be…struggling with a few things?”
We all knew the implication.
Reg looked at the ground. “So… what are you saying?”
“I’m saying I’m meant to be the ships psychiatrist. The Captain might not have wanted to hear it, but I know how people should be taking things through. Talk to him. I know your future self warned you against it, and I know you’ve been putting it off. But talk to him. Both of you need it.”
Reg screwed up his face, trying hard to not look like a scolded child. Without saying a word, he got up and trudged out.
A few heavy seconds passed. Trisha looked confused about something. “Why are you so concerned about Reg and the Captain?”
“I’m a people person. Besides-” He gestured at me- “These two are the only two that have sat with me. They actually treated me like a person when they’ve been in here. Not like a… I dunno.. Plague rat or something. The Captain threw me in here for doing my job. I’m not a criminal.”
Trisha smiled. “Wouldn’t think for a second you’d been somehow using your gift to manipulate the guard schedule.”
Clive returned a wry grin. “Ah… Now, that would be telling.”
I couldn’t tell if I should feel flattered or used. I looked at the infuriatingly floating sign again. I told myself to stop worrying – the universe had bigger, inexplicable, problems.