Cheeseburger Brown CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah
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The Profiteers, a story by Chester Burton Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming


"Meet me for a pop. It's business."

That was Dennis. Bloody Dennis. Dennis only called when he wanted something.

Against my better judgement I took the train to Toronto to talk. We met in a pub in Liberty Village. I got us a table. I knew he'd be late.

I was screwing around with my phone when he came. "Miles," he said. "How the hell are you?" I bumbled my phone down and awkwardly slid out from behind the little table. We shook hands. His handshake was dry and tight and sure. A really winning handshake.

He rambled a bit to open. Golf and opportunities. Names I should've recognized but didn't with whom he'd rubbed elbows. Dennis smiled a lot.

I glanced at my phone. "So what've you got going on now, Dennis?"

"Right down to business. I respect that. You're a no-nonsense guy. Let's get on with it, right?"

I adjusted my beer on the coaster and smiled a bit but said nothing. Dennis plunged ahead.

"I'm putting something together. It's going to blow the doors off everything I've ever done before. I want you in at the ground floor. Can you appreciate that? It's not for nothing. You're a smart guy. Let me level with you. I'm going to need you to source and run some coders."

"Software developers?"

"Yeah. You can do that?"


"Of course you can. You're the man, Miles. That's why I'm coming to you first. I want you to manage that shit. It's an important part but it's not important-important. But I'm starting a cloud company."

"You're starting a cloud company and code isn't important-important?"

"Did I say I? Because I meant we."

I raised a brow. He sat back a bit and spread his hands.

"Here's the thing. I can't give you my pitch until I know you're in."

"I can't tell you if I'm in if you don't tell me the idea."

The waitress wanted to know if we wanted another round. I looked at Dennis. Dennis nodded. "Oh yeah," he said to her. "On me," he said to me. "Listen," he whispered once she'd gone, "this is a unique industry we're breaking into."

"Which industry, Dennis?"

"Time-traveller services."

Beer came out my nose. I coughed and dabbed at my face with a napkin. "I'm sorry?"

"Fuck you," said Dennis. "You heard me, Miles. I can't say more without a non-disclosure signed."

"You're joking."

Dennis leaned aside and opened his briefcase. He straightened again and laid down a typed page on his lawyer's letterhead. From his jacket he withdrew a pen. He sat back and took a sip of his drink with studied indifference.

"Fuck you," I said.

"Fuck you," he replied into his pint, eying me over the rim.

I signed the damn paper. He whisked it away into his briefcase and leaned forward conspiratorially. "You're going to love this," he promised.


The investors were in Brampton. We drove in Dennis' car, because my car is sensible and affordable so Dennis felt it wouldn't make the right impression. His car is Bavarian and warms your bum electrically. The hood is like a mirror. Clouds smeared along its lines.

"Don't be tentative," he told me. "Everything's for sure. That's how investors need to hear it put, Miles. Right?"

"Right, Dennis."

"Don't spook the money."

"I won't."

"They need stuff simple. No verbal asterisks. Not a single caveat." He pulled into a driveway. The parking brake croaked as he yanked it up. "Come on, they're waiting."

It was an unassuming house. We climbed the steps to the porch, straightening our suits. He thumbed the doorbell. He stretched out his mouth and did lip exercises like an actor or a singer. "I know you love details, Miles," he said without looking at me, "and that's why I need you, but now's not the time. Let's be easy on the details today. Broad strokes. Right?"

Somebody's dog was barking. I looked vaguely in its direction and then back at Dennis. "Sure, Dennis. Whatever you say."

He smoothed his jowls and spit his gum into the geraniums. The door opened. Dennis grinned.


I was introduced to young Vedmohan and his uncles. I shook their big brown hands. Then Vedmohan led us all into the dining room to sit around the dining room table. As we shuffled into our seats Dennis leaned his head toward mine while unbuttoning his jacket, prompting me on the men's names from left to right: Jagjeevan, Tathagata, Faraz.

A teenage girl in a sari brought glasses of water then returned with matching file folders containing photocopies of the business plan. Vedmohan's uncles each made a slow, lazy show of flipping through the business plan, as if they might have forgotten what sort of things it described. But that wasn't possible.

To Vedmohan's sheepish smile I said, "I hear you did some work with Kim Dotcom down in New Zealand. Is that right?"

"Oh yes," he replied quickly, looking back and forth between Dennis and me. "I had a hand in the relaunch. As I'm sure Dennis has explained, Mr. Miles, cryptography is my field of focus."

"Miles is my first name actually."

"I'm so very sorry."

We chatted topically while Dennis caught the eye of the uncles. The uncles frowned with great dignity, their hands folded before them. Faraz said, "My brothers and I feel the business plan is a little light on operational detail. So we are especially glad to have the opportunity to meet you today, Miles, so you can fill us in."

"Fill you in?"

"On the details."

I kicked Dennis under the table. His nostrils flared as he worked to muffle his reaction. I forced a chuckle and shifted position. "Gentlemen, I'd be happy to."

And so I heard myself buying thinking time by relaying the pillars of Dennis' pitch: "Given that the future is longer than the past, it is inevitable that our civilization's technological prowess will eventually include the ability to travel backward in time. Or else backward time travel is impossible.

"But if backward time travel is possible and humanity does indeed have a long future the discovery is virtually assured, sooner or later. And if people are going to one day travel backward in time, it seems likely they would visit the human past to learn about their history.

"And that's where we're living now: in the human past.

"So, why don't we see time-travellers? Why did nobody show up for Stephen Hawking's time traveller's tea luncheon? The answer is obvious: they operate covertly.

"And if there really are backwards time-travellers operating covertly in our own era, they represent what may well be the last untapped highly-resourced market segment in the world."

Faraz took off his glasses and looked me in the eye. "You're telling me you want to tap a market you can't prove exists?"

"It's the very fact of what we can't prove that tells us everything we need to know," interrupted Dennis smoothly. Faraz turned to him. Dennis smiled. "Do you see what I'm saying, sir? If the existence of time-travellers can't be observed it can only be because discretion is essential to their work."

"Or that there's no such thing as time-travellers," pointed out Vedmohan gently. He seemed unsure whether he was offering a joke or an argument.

"Sure," grinned Dennis, "but then we wouldn't have any customers. And I won't lie to you: it could happen. We could set out our shingle and sit there waiting and waiting, and nobody will ever sign up. Could be. It's a distinct possibility."

He let them shift uncomfortably before continuing.

"But...if we have only a single customer -- we'll know. You follow me, right? We'll know the market is real, that it has needs, that those needs are needs we can service, and is therefore worth investing in. So that's the risk: we set up shop and wait for customer number one. And if we get him..."

Tathagata leaned forward. "We'll own the pasture, the gate, and the cows."

"You took the words right out of my mouth, sir," claimed Dennis.

Vedmohan chuckled uncertainly. "On the other hand, if this customer number one never materializes, we'll have thrown our family's money down a hole."

I expected Dennis to counter the negativity but it was Jagjeevan who spoke up next, his baritone voice amplified as it shuddered through his wide, frog-like neck. "That, my young nephew, is quite impossible."

Vedmohan turned to his uncle. "Uncle?"

"Samsara," said Jagjeevan heavily. "But to you it's maybe just a word."

Vedmohan looked down. I cleared my throat. "What does it mean, sir -- samsara?"

"It is the river whose headwaters flow into its own tail, the river in which all men flail and drown until they are purified -- liberated to join the timeless stillness of total unity."

"Reincarnation," offered Vedmohan as a gloss.

Jagjeevan pursed his lips with disdain. "Yes," he conceded, "that is the common, and facile, Western understanding. Thank you for supplying it, nephew."

Vedmohan looked down again.

"The facilitation of dharma transmission from one brahmin incarnation to the next has been a custodial duty of our family's line for millennia," Jagjeevan explained, "and while I am not prepared to draw back the veil of our most closely guarded secrets I want to show you -- and my brothers -- my confidence that this so-called market exists is not a matter of speculation or debate. It is a metaphysical and historical certainty."

It was quiet for a moment. Then Dennis spread his hands. "You heard the man," he said to the rest of us. "It's basically a risk-free opportunity."


We built it; would they come?

Our initial setup was pretty pedestrian, to be honest. We had our street-facing hosting spread across a number of third-party providers, mostly Amazon and Citrix, bundled in layers of Vedmohan's cutting-edge obfuscationary code to keep American and Chinese cybers out of the loop before the data had a chance to get to the warehouse in Etobicoke where the isolation tanks hummed.

Our midtown office had warped floors and always smelled like the fish restaurant downstairs. The receptionist was an entry-level account with an AI provider based in Moncton whose audio avatars had even poorer people skills than Siri. There was no place to park. The ventilation was awful so the coders in their cubicles were always either too hot or too cold. Either way they complained.

Dennis hooted as he walked in, the door coughing as it caught on the warped floor. He passed a tray of hot coffees to the nearest person standing and let his coat fall at his feet. He was all teeth. "They finally came!"

"We've got a customer?" Vedmohan cried excitedly.

"No, the business cards!" said Dennis. "Check them out. Totally fancy. Metallic ink. Lenticular background, makes it look all three-d."

I squinted at the card as it was passed to me. "These look expensive, Dennis."

"You've got to spend money to make money, Miles."

"I borrowed my investment from my grandma. Pay me the minimal respect of at least pretending not to be cavalier about how you use it."

"I shopped around a lot before settling on a print supplier."

"You did not. But I appreciate the thought behind that lie."

"Beautiful. Now listen: we need to seed the hat before we can start dancing."

Vedmohan frowned and turned to me with furrowed brow. I shrugged. "What do you mean, Dennis?"

"You can't busk with an empty guitar case," said Dennis. "You drop a few bucks in there to give people the right idea."

"In your hat?"

"No, the hat's if you're dancing for tips. Slightly different analogy. When I write my business success book I'm not sure which version I'll use. Which do you guys think is more effective in communicating the idea?" Vedmohan and agreed it was the guitar one. Dennis nodded. "I think so, too. So we've got to seed the userbase with a couple of paying accounts."

"You want us to recruit friends and family?"

"No, this isn't Amway. We're going to need more than arm's length relationships with any of the initial subscribers. Otherwise it looks like fraud."

"It is fraud."

"Exactly. So let's keep it discrete."

Vedmohan's eyes widened. "What's this about fraud? I don't think my uncles will --"

Dennis put his arm around the kid's skinny shoulders. "It's just a figure of speech, kid. It's an English thing. Business expression."

"English is my first language. I was born and raised in Brampton. I am perfectly well acquainted with what fraud means."

"Have a coffee," said Dennis. "Miles, I'm going to need you do to me a favour."

I nodded, turning to Vedmohan. "It's not a big deal, Ved. It's like paying for a handful of Twitter followers so other people think it's cool to follow you. It's just to get the ball rolling, right Dennis?"

"Right," smiled Dennis, still squeezing Vedmohan's shoulders. To me: "Where's your car?"

"On St. Clair. Shit, I should put more money in the meter. What time is it?"

"Forget about it. I'm going to need you to do an errand. See that briefcase? It's got to go to this address this afternoon."

"What's in it?"

"The seed money. You're going to meet with this guy, give him the briefcase, he puts them on untraceable prepaid debit cards. These Russians, they have a machine that cranks them out. The seeders are going to use the cards to buy the seed accounts. See?"

"Where the hell did you get that kind of money?" 
"Don't worry, I didn't use company funds. I sold my house."

"Where are you living, Dennis?"

"In my office."

"So that's what that smell is. You're crazy."

"Fuck you. I'm all-in. It's do or die."

When he said this he lifted his hands, letting Vedmohan go free. I swept up my jacket and patted my pocket for my telephone. "I'm taking gas money from petty cash."


Dennis was interviewed for the Report on Business channel. That was the gig that opened the floodgates. Vedmohan sat on the edge of my desk as we hunched over my laptop to watch, eating popcorn. They came back from commercial with a clip from the second Back to the Future movie.

ROB TV: "That's Canada's own Michael J. Fox and SCTV alumnus and Canadian classic of comedy Joe Flaherty in a scene courtesy of Universal Pictures. The topic: post-dated mail. I'm back with Dennis Cole. Dennis, your company purports to deliver messages to the future for time-travelling customers. Is this a lark or do you know something the rest of the business world doesn't?"

DENNIS COLE: "Ha, ha, ha. The fact is we do know we're tapping into a viable market. We've done the due diligence. At the end of the day we simply wouldn't be out here, offering this service now, if nobody wanted it."

ROB TV: "Give us an overview. How does it work?"

DENNIS COLE: "Basically, a customer opens an account with us and uploads a message to be delivered at a specific date and time in the future, with an address expressed using current protocols -- if it's needed at the time of delivery part of the included service includes bridging the gap from older addressing systems to newer ones as they evolve in order to ensure proper delivery. We hold that message encrypted in secure storage until the specified time arrives."

ROB TV: "Walk us through an example."

DENNIS COLE: "Alright, let's say I'm some kind of time agent from the twenty-fifth century. I have a mission in the twenty-first century and in order to complete it I'm going to need to get information to a colleague at some time between -- let's say 2205 AD. When this hypothetical agent is in the twenty-first century he signs up for an account, puts his message in trust, and when 2205 rolls around we'll pass the message on to the Internet of the day for delivery."

ROB TV: "Kind of like Michael J. Fox in the clip. Ha, ha, ha."

DENNIS COLE: "Ha, ha, ha."

ROB TV: "Seriously though, this all sounds like science-fiction, Dennis. How can you have any idea whether or not time travel will exist in the twenty-fifth century?"

DENNIS COLE: "Because we've got customers. Why would anybody pay us now to hold on to their messages unless they know we'd fulfill on our part of the bargain in the future? Do you follow me?"

ROB TV: "Are you saying anybody who has confidence in you now must have foreknowledge of the future?"

DENNIS COLE: "That's what I'm saying. We've set the price of entry high on purpose, to prohibit abuse by pranksters. Would you sign up for a twenty-five thousand dollar Internet account if you didn't have some reason to think it would come through for you?"

ROB TV: "Ha, ha, ha. Good point, Dennis. But how do you know these initial accounts haven't been set up by someone with a well-funded curiosity -- a journalist from a major news-gathering organization, for instance?"

DENNIS COLE: "The truth is we don't know. We don't know anything about our customers. Their complete anonymity and the total sanctity of their communications privacy is guaranteed by the TOS. That's the whole point. If you're a time-traveller and upsetting causality is your concern, this is, very simply, the most robust, secure, professional messaging service in history, with a smaller causality footprint than any other known method of sending messages into the future. If you're funding a mission through time or managing resources for a large organization like, say, some sort of temporal army, this is going to make sense for you from a cost perspective."

ROB TV: "Please explain the concept behind a 'causality footprint' for us."

DENNIS COLE: "Sure. It means we isolate the messages from interacting with other systems, even in very minimal ways, through the use of proprietary anti-Bayesian disentanglement technologies that divide and store the information in a series of patent-pending electromagnetic lockers that act as a buffer -- a very strong buffer -- against interactions with other particles or fields. It's a lot like a quantum computer, except instead of shielding a delicate computational procedure from interference from the outside we're shielding a critical message from having influence on the outside world."

ROB TV: "Wow, that's a lot of science words, Dennis."

DENNIS COLE: "Ha, ha, ha. What I'm saying is that the act of a time-traveller depositing a message with us will result in near-zero change to history. There's basically no impact. So instead of altering the future you're trying to transmit to, you're transmitting to a version of the future uncorrupted from the version you initially left."

ROB TV: "I'm going to get political for a moment here."


ROB TV: "What's to stop al-Qaeda from using your service as a snoop-proof network for communicating with terror agents? You've said it yourself the system is anonymous and secure."

DENNIS COLE: "Ha, ha, ha. I see where you're coming from there. It's a great point, but at the end of the day it doesn't represent a vulnerability for us because we've set the minimum time to delivery at a decade. That's to discourage contemporary applications of the system."

ROB TV: "So it wouldn't be possible to me to use the service to send myself a message in five years time?"

DENNIS COLE: "I'm afraid not."

ROB TV: "Then am I right in this? We won't have independent confirmation of a delivery to the future for ten years?"

DENNIS COLE: "That's exactly right."

ROB TV: "Forgive me but it's an unusual model for building stakeholder confidence."

DENNIS COLE: "Sure. But you have to admit, we've got some pretty unusual stakeholders. For them, ten years hence is as clear as ten years ago. To them, it's all the past. To them, the success of our enterprise is a fait accompli. So should your viewers have confidence in us today? Absolutely. If you can't trust people from the future, who can you trust?"

ROB TV: "Ha, ha, ha. Doc Brown eat your heart out. Thanks for coming on the show today. Ladies and gentlemen -- Dennis Cole."

DENNIS COLE: "Ha, ha, ha. Thanks for having me. It's been great."

Vedmohan and I both jumped when my laptop beeped. Then it beeped again. And again. With wide eyes we turned to the screen: new account requests. Those that weren't coming through proxies were coming from the world's largest news outfits, but that didn't matter -- business was business. The userbase was growing beyond the initial seeds.

People were paying.


I found caviar really salty at first but it grows on you.

Dennis had somehow created a kind of perpetual motion machine made of money. He pumped the initial revenue into a massive advertising campaign and a platoon of social media content-crank companies charged with keeping us topical. He offered contests to win access to steeply discounted accounts to keep new money dribbling in. He sued imitators and near-imitators with abandon, happy for the headlines.

The accounting made no sense. There was no conceivable way we would be able to pay our bills. But for the moment that didn't seem to matter much.

Over saké and escorts Dennis explained the exit strategy. "My share of the money is going to a bank on this island, your share's going to a bank on that island. Here's the passbook. We fly to Ecuador first, then split up."

"What about Vedmohan?"

"Fuck Vedmohan. The family's rich. He'll land on a cushion of fat uncles."

A thought occurred. I cocked my head. "Am I going to have to change my name?"

"Fuck yes," he nodded, then threw back the end of his saké. "I knew it could work for you because you haven't got family anymore. And I knew I owed it to you because I never forgot how your dad saved my ass. Don't worry. Miles is a shitty name anyway."


"Forget about it. Listen: we can't wait to cheese it. You've seen the books: you know the hammer's going to fall at the next shareholders' meeting. How long do you need to get your shit together? Forty-eight hours?"

"I can do that, yeah."

"I'll book the flight. What's your frequent flyer account number again?"

"I already sent it to you. Search your email."

"I looked but I couldn't find it."

"Search with search."

"My fingers are too big."

"Give me your damn phone, Dennis."

The escorts yawned.


My telephone started singing Bollywood. I juggled it while I drove. "Vedmohan, what's happening buddy?"

"Are you driving?"

"It's okay I've got a Bluetooth."

"Can I ask you something, Miles?"


"Candidly, are we -- um, seeding -- the hat again?"

"What? No. Why?"

"Sign-ups are up, Miles. Very much up."

I frowned. "More decade deliveries?"

"The earliest is 2042, but most of them are firmly in the twenty-second century."

"Where are they coming from?"

"They're obfuscated through Tor, or something that looks like Tor from the outside anyway. Every one of them."

"How many accounts?"

"Eight hundred and twenty-nine."

"I'm sorry?"

"Eight-two-nine since noon, Miles. No -- wait. Eight hundred thirty now."

"I'll be right over."

I flew into the office, throwing open the door until it caught on the warped floor. Vedmohan popped up from his cubicle like a gopher, eyes wide. Frantically he waved me over. I was already half way there. The logs on his screen advanced steadily, line by line, as new users registered and paid.

I stared. I blinked. I stared again. We exchanged a look. I ran to the accountant's office. She looked up, her expression flustered. "I was just taking a couple of seconds to check my Facebook, Miles, honestly I don't do this all the time."

"No worries, Ally. Can you move aside for a second?"

I ploughed into the keyboard, fingers flying. Windows opened and closed on the display. I scrolled through the ledgers. Without moving my eyes from the screen I quizzed her on recent transactions. I was looking for something -- anything! -- that would tip me off on how Dennis was weaselling the cash together to pay more plants.

But I came up empty. I dropped my hands from the keyboard and sat back.

Ally fidgeted. "Am I in trouble or something?"

"What? No. You're doing a bang-up job, Ally. Every eye dotted, every tea crossed. Just try to stay off the Facebook, will you? I don't want to have to filter it."

"Yes, of course! I'm very sorry Miles."

I was already gone. I closed my eyes and leaned into the wall beside the pop machine. "Call Dennis, mobile," I grunted at my phone. It buzzed and garbled and droned. "Dennis! Dennis? Dennis, can you listen for a sec: something's happening. Something big."


The flight was cancelled. Dennis and I were far too busy all of a sudden running what had become a going concern from merely the shell of one. There was no time to hightail it scot-free from our scam when the scam kept insisting on behaving as if it were legitimate.

Chronic overtime led to complaining coders. Somebody had hacked the candy machine and stolen all the Smarties. If Ally didn't lock the supply cabinet all the stationary disappeared, and if she did lock the supply cabinet she kept losing the key and then nobody could print anything on letterhead. Two days after we hired a human receptionist she told us our building had sick-building syndrome and it was exacerbating her environmental allergy to electromagnetism.

The landlord said our sign was too big and the fish restaurant was upset about it. The bank next door said we were hogging all the street parking and lodged a protest with the city. Throughout everything was a steady stream of invoices from various specializing sub-species of lawyer.

Suddenly Dennis was on the front cover of business magazines, complete with the crossed-arms pose and knowing smirk. Flattering rhetorical headlines. Unrelenting interview requests. Famous lunches.

Vedmohan and I had lunch at the fish restaurant downstairs. It was our last time. The company was moving to fancier facilities downtown. "I don't think anybody's asking the key question," he said around his food.

"The new place doesn't use keys. It's all wireless fobs now. They're orange."

"I mean about time-travel, Miles."

"What's the key question about time-travel, Ved?"

"The application of it, naturally," he said. "Is it research or war?"

I shrugged, pushing my fork around my plate. "Your uncle seemed to think it was all cool."

"Uncle Jagjeevan thinks homeopathy is real and genetics isn't."

"That is your stunted Western perspective speaking," I said in my best version of Jagjeevan's bass voice, wagging my head from side to side and shaking my finger at him.

Vedmohan laughed briefly but the smile didn't last. "Miles, I'm serious. It creeps me out but I guess it's okay if we're facilitating the study of history for agents from the future, but what if backwards time travel is a contentious technology? What if there's more than one party at work?"

"What if?"

"We might be putting ourselves in the middle of a conflict, Miles. We could be in real danger."

"You worry too much."

"You're sounding more and more like Dennis every day."

"You can't really knock Dennis, Ved. I mean, whatever flaws the guy has it's not debatable that he's making us rich. How's your new car?"

Vedmohan's eyes flitted. "It's awesome," he confessed, then frowned. "But if our operation has become very valuable to one party in a multi-party scenario, we could be a target for retaliation. Can you appreciate that? Of all people, I hope you are be able to see the implications. Miles. Yes?"

I sniffed and wiped absently at my nose. "My friend, I think you're being paranoid," I told him, then popped the very last bite into my mouth. "Man I'm going to miss this place."


Vedmohan crashed his new car into a telephone pole. He didn't ever drink alcohol and there was none in his blood but he'd obviously been suffering from some overage of zeal because he'd been going so fast parts of the engine were recovered almost a half a kilometre down the road.

What remained of Vedmohan didn't survive long, fortunately.

The police described it as a "road racing-related accident" on the basis that "rich Indian kids from Brampton love road racing." Q.E.D.

That's when things started to go weird.

Dennis strode into my new office, interrupting my view of glass towers and a glittering inland sea. "Now you've got to explain this one to me, Miles. Why were you guys buying this piece of shit?"

I accepted a proffered paper. I looked up over it at him. "What the fuck?"

"I know, exactly," nodded Dennis. "When did you even negotiate this deal?"

"I didn't, Dennis."

"You think Vedmohan forged your name?"

I rubbed my thumb over the signature on the page. "This is fucked up, Dennis. Ved wasn't like that. You knew him. He was a math prostitute with a heart of gold."

"So maybe he fooled us all. Point remains somebody bought this turd out in the middle of butt-fuck. It's ours. So guess who's booking a flight to inspect the new acquisition?"

I sighed. "Fuck you," I tried.

"Fuck you," said Dennis. "Your name's on the page, Miles. Go deal with it. Whatever it is. And find out what that skinny little dead kid blew company money on. Probably a fucking curry factory."

"Have some respect. Ved was a good guy, for Christ's sake."

"Was he? Get on a damn plane and find out, Miles. Find out precisely what he had his dick in. Then come tell me he's a good guy. Okay?"

I frowned. I nodded. "My girlfriend's going to kill me for cancelling this weekend," I muttered.

"So?" shrugged Dennis as he stood and buttoned his jacket. "Get a new one."

My assistant got the lawyer on the line. "Your office know anything about this deal? We're starting to suspect Ved was up to something fishy. My name's all over the paperwork somehow. Did you get my fax?"

"Sure, Miles, I got your fax but I don't need it -- I remember the deal. Pauline put this one together. We talked when you came in to sign, don't you remember? I rambled about my boat."

"I'm sorry?" I said. He repeated himself. I asked for the date. He gave it to me. "I was in San Francisco on the fifth," I said, feeling a bit numb.

"I don't know what to tell you, Miles. Would you like me to have the security desk pull the tapes?"

"Yeah, would you?"

"I'm kidding, Miles."

"I'm not."

I landed in Winnipeg and rented a car. We were the proud owners of a warehouse about two hundred kilometres outside of the city. I drove north until the windshield was a splatter painting of insect impressions, my GPS murmuring directions. Off the highway, along a summer-only road. I parked on cracked pavement and got out.

There was no sign. The key from the real estate people turned the deadbolt successfully. I swung open the door and stepped into a cloud of dust kicked up by my own entry. It dissipated.

The warehouse was vast. Pigeons hummed and hawed and quibbled from the rafters, white streaks of their shit painting everything below in dense layers. Sunlight cut the funk in a couple of places where the roof was giving out.

Row upon row upon row of pigeon-shit caked metal crates. I used the toe of my shoe to tease open the front of one of them. Inside the metal crate were stacks and stacks of yellowing document boxes. I took one down. Inside the yellowing document box were sheaves of manila envelopes. I withdrew a random envelope.

On the outside, just below the string tie, were three fields filled in with neat, clear, antiquated handwriting. A serial number and two dates: RECEIVED 05-05-1962, DELIVERY 11-19-2105.

I unwound the string and let the contents slip out: a single typewritten sheet with a latent message locked behind an alphanumeric cypher.

"Call Dennis, mobile."


"I found out what we bought. We bought a company just like ours. But established much earlier. Nineteen fifties or sixties at least, maybe older. The warehouse is full of messages awaiting delivery some time next century."

"That's fantastic!"

"Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure. Think about it, Miles. Somebody's just arranged a takeover for us, extending our marketshare backward in time. This is a huge opportunity! Does the nineteen fifties use credit cards?"

"Miles, whatever profits this company made -- or didn't make, from the looks of this dump -- have been on the books for decades. Nothing we decide in our boardroom's going to change any of that."

"Suddenly you're an expert on backward time-travel causality? What do you know? You don't even remember buying the place."

"I didn't buy it!"

"No, I guess this Miles didn't. But some Miles did. Those tapes from the security guys came in -- it's you alright."

"I'm being impersonated?"

"Probably not. Why impersonate someone when you can get them to do it themselves in a little loop of alternative history?"

"Holy shit, Dennis. That's a terrifying idea."

"I read it in a book about black holes."

"You're talking about weaponized paradoxes."

"If you say so. What does it matter in the end? They know the only way to keep us on side is to keep us successful, so before you cry into your cereal about being manipulated across time remember that you're being manipulated into a fabulously wealthy man."

"But it means they're not scientists, Dennis. Don't you get it? Vedmohan was right -- they're soldiers. We're currency in a conflict now."

Dennis grinned. "You can't spell profiteering without profit."

I took the phone away from my ear for a moment so I wouldn't say something I'd regret. Took a deep breath. "Listen Dennis, let's just look at this from a business point of view. Where's the profit in using our staff and resources to deliver this warehouse of bird shit and secrets? There's no return on investment for us."

"Doesn't matter," he replied. "It's what they want us to do, obviously, or they wouldn't have made it happen."

"That's the part I don't like."

"Oh yeah? So what do you want to do? You want to go against them?"


"Fuck you. Don't even joke around. Don't jeopardize everything we've built to tilt at windmills. You can't win against people who know the future, Miles. It's all an open book to them. Every move you could possibly make."

"And that's okay with you?"

"When I was a kid my mom told me God watched me and arranged the events of my life. So it turns out it's not God it's some kind of temporal army from the distant future. The net result is the same, Miles -- except that these guys pay out. God is a cheapskate."

"Jesus, man."

"Go with the flow, Miles," said Dennis before he hung up. "Everything happens for a reason."

My telephone arm sagged. The stuttered cooing of the pigeons now sounded like chuckling to me. After a long numb moment my trance was only broken when one of them shat on my shoulder.

I couldn't remember if that was supposed to be good luck or bad. Didn't matter. Luck had nothing to do with what happened to me from now on. There was only will. And it wasn't mine.


My apartment was weird. I couldn't quite put my finger on it until I got to the bedroom. Everything there belonged only to me.

I looked around everywhere but there was no Dear John letter. My pocket buzzed. I fished out my phone. "Miles!"


"What's wrong, guy?"

"She left me."

"Who left you?"

"My girlfriend. While I was in Manitoba. I just got back and all her stuff's cleared out." As I slowly panned around the apartment my mouth went dry. "...It's as if she had never lived here at all."

"Since when do you have a girlfriend, Miles?"

"You dumb shit. You met her. We went to dinner. Ate Korean on King. You spilled your drink all over the table."

"Not ringing any bells, sorry. Sounds like you're having more fun than your brain can handle. You should cut down a bit, buddy."

I felt bile in the back of my throat. "It's them again," I heard myself whisper. "They're changing history."

"Them who?"

"Who the fuck do you think who? The backwards time-travellers! They tried to kill me on the road to Winnipeg. Rigged the brakes."

"I think you need a vacation, Miles."

I laughed a hollow laugh. "You're not wrong."

"Come and see me first thing tomorrow at the office. We'll work out a plan for handing over your projects so you can take a breather. Have you ever dived at Cozumel?"

I flew to Mexico. I drank rip-off drinks in the sun and did a bit of snorkeling. I expected any moment to be my last.

Two weeks later I was back in the office. "Nice tan!" whistled Dennis. "You look like a million bucks. Come in, sit down."

I kept glancing over my shoulder. "Who are all these people?"

"New staff. We're sourcing all the grunts through a temp agency now. It's way more efficient from an HR point of view. All the serious players are doing it these days. Walmart, the NSA -- you name it."

"They all kind of look the same. It's unnerving."

"You fucking racist. Don't you know it's racist to say all Asians look alike?"

"It's not that they're Asian, man. Look, do they speak English?"

"You fucking, fucking racist."

"Who trained them?"

"The managers. Sally, Amin, Scott, Gina. You know."

"Where are they now?"

"The temp agency said we wouldn't need them anymore. Trimming the fat. Now we're a lean and mean operation. Shareholders are gonna jizz their jeans."

I shook my head and stood up. "I think you're missing the point. We've lost all control."

"You're working from an entrepreneurial mindset, Miles. It takes a different kind of stuff to run a business than it does to start one. We don't need to have our fingers in every pie now. We've got processes in place. The machine works."

I snorted and turned away, striding out among the cubicles. After a moment I felt Dennis saunter up beside me, arms crossed over his chest. "See? Busy little bees."

"Watch longer."


"Shut up and watch. Can you notice it?"


"The reiterations. The repetition."

"Are you losing your shit, Miles?"

I grabbed him by the shoulders and backed him into the wall. None of the workers eyes followed us. "No! Dennis you're the one who said it: why impersonate people when you can use nested time loops to have alternative versions impersonate themselves?"

One of the new workers walked past us on his way from the photocopier. Acting on a hunch I spun and grabbed him by the wrist. The worker looked at me placidly, his eyes as fathomless as a cow's. With my free hand I picked up an matting knife from the printing table and slashed the worker across his forearm.

"Holy shit, Miles!" cried Dennis. "What are you doing?"

I released the worker's wrist. He collected his photocopies and walked back to his cubicle leaving a little trail of red drips on the carpet. Miles stared at the carpet. I gently took hold of his face and steered it upward to look out over the cubicles again.

Fully one third of the workers had bandaged forearms. Dennis blinked stupidly. "What...the...fuck...?"

"It's the same worker, Miles. Cycled in time. Is he even sentient? Who knows? But it's like somebody's run him through every conceivable operation in the office and recorded it for later playback. A library of worker behaviours, like a computer programme with a database of precompiled calls. It's not a human being -- it's an instance."

Dennis whistled. "Now that's what I call HR efficiency! Man oh man, what will the future come up with next?"

I punched him in the shoulder. "This is serious, you idiot."

"That hurt. And if it's so serious why are you smiling for the first time in months?"

"Because it's just like you said: day to day operations aren't managed by entrepreneurs. Processes are being put in place. Don't you get it? They don't need us anymore." I laughed. "Dennis, maybe this means they'll let us go!"

"Maybe I don't want to go."

"Be reasonable. This can't go on forever. Why would they risk keeping us involved? We're temporal aboriginals -- primitives. We're unpredictable. We have our own agendas. It only makes good business sense to cut us loose." I put my arm around his shoulder. "Don't worry. Before you know it you'll be all hot to trot on your next big idea."

Dennis sniffed and shook his head. "I don't have any other ideas that are going to put me on the cover of Fortune magazine."

"Okay maybe, maybe not. But you've got an actual fortune! Won't your actual fortune comfort you when you cry into your Cheerios over not being on the cover of Fortune magazine?"

Dennis shrugged. "I don't want money. I want influence."

"Influence is expensive. You could spend your fortune on it."

He chuckled without humour. "Or I can broker a deal balanced on the continued operation of this service that is indispensable to our obviously powerful time-travelling friends. If they're in business they'll know a good deal when they see it."

"And if they're military they'll leave scorched earth where your whole life used to be."


The hard and impatient knock of authority. I didn't bother to check the clock. In my pajamas I shuffled across the apartment to the door. I opened it a crack. "It's the middle of the night," I said.

It was a fed. My tired eyes couldn't focus on his ID. What resistance could I offer? I yawned and let him in.

While he found a seat in the kitchen I put on coffee. I slid a steaming mug at him. He flipped stiffly through a notebook and confirmed my name and work address. "I knew you'd be here sooner or later," I said. "I mean, you or someone."

"It's a risky business."

I smirked. "We make a good faith effort to keep it clean, detective. That's the honest truth. Signed releases, dedicated HR department, the works. But I know shit slips between the cracks. No containment is perfect. I'm a big boy. I can take my lumps.Tell me what caught your attention. I'm cooperating."

The fed flipped through his notebook a little more. "Tell me about Dennis Cole."

I titled my head. "Who?"

"The name doesn't mean anything to you?"

I shook my head and spread my hands. "I thought you were going to ask after that kid that got cut last week. We can go down to the office and go through the paperwork if you want. No problem. But if you're pulling me into some kind of fishing expedition I'd really rather go back to bed. Can my lawyer help you?"

"No," said the detective. "Do you recognize the name Vedmohan Talwar?"

"Pretty much not, no. Does she work for me?"

"Jagjeevan Nair?"

"Is that even a girl's name?"

"It is a man's name."

"We don't do gay. I mean, we're thinking of opening up a subdomain but it's just at the concept stage right now. Maybe next quarter."

The detective nodded over his notes. "Would you describe for me the nature of your business?"

I squinted at him. "Forgive me but what kind of investigation is this, anyway?"

He didn't look up. Pen poised. "Just answer the question."

"We convert popular porn movies into three-d using a patented skin-modeling algorithm and stream the results through our proprietary web portal, allowing users to customize edits and maintain a personal library of favourite loop points. Yadda-yadda-yadda. It's all in the FAQ. Doesn't the RCMP give you guys laptops or something?"

"Does your service include a messaging apparatus?"

"Users can post on each other's profiles, sure."

"In real time?"

"What does that even mean anymore? Sure, it's more or less real time. It's not like they have to manually refresh the browser window if that's what you're getting at."

"Is there a provision in the service for creating a message now to be delivered at a later time?"

"What? No. Why?"

He closed his notebook. "Thank you for your assistance tonight."

The dour fellow got up and limped to the door. I let him out. He didn't tell me not to cross any borders. He didn't even say good-bye.

The sun was coming up. It felt like a new day. Sunrise doesn't always feel that way, though -- sometimes it's just the harsh transition in a long continuum. But sometimes sunrise feels like a whole new beginning.

I stood on the balcony and watched the city wake.

In that calm it came to me. Dennis Cole! Of course. From when I was a kid. He was a friend of my father's, a salesman who died in that terrible drunk driving accident on his way to our house. His name had never come up again until the first time I was allowed to borrow the family car. My father hesitated before dropping the keys in my hand. "Remember what happened to Dennis Cole?" he said. "Don't let it happen to you, Miles."

I nodded. He gave the keys.

A funny thing happened the other day. I was shopping for Christmas crap at a discount outlet in Brampton. I happened to knock elbows with a fat old Indian. "Sorry about that," I mumbled in a very Canadian way.

He seemed startled. "Miles? How are you?"

"Do we know each other?"

The Indian bit his lip. "I must've mistaken you for somebody else," he said quickly. "Forgive me."

I scratched my head. "Somebody else named Miles?"

He shrugged and smiled and shuffled along, suddenly very interested in a bin of collared shirts. I watched after him for a moment, bemused. For a moment I was clutched by a sense of extreme déja-vu but that's not hard to fathom in a discount outlet -- they all look the same. I shook my head and went on with my shopping.


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