"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2, Act IV, Scene 2
Steven woke suddenly—one of those snap-awake, totally aware things that rarely happen. With eyes still shut, an ominous feeling invaded his being. The inability to move his torso, arms, or legs was proof enough to him he was dreaming, still asleep. Eyes cracked open, no crusties. First sight revealed he was floating naked, encased in a glass-like tube. The room was … Well, there was no room, no vistas, nothing, except a low-level, diffused light coming from every direction.
Looking to his left, toward the noise, Steven saw a vaguely androgynous, totally hairless human-like being—source of the annoying sound.
“Please pay attention, Mr. Reynolds. We haven’t much time. I need you to indicate your acceptance on this form.”
“Oh, so sorry. This has been an endless day. You’re my one hundred and twenty-third transfer this afternoon.”
A shimmering two-dimensional plane appeared in Steven’s cocoon, eight inches from his face. “What the hell is this?”
“Your intake document. Disclosures are at the bottom. Just boilerplate language the lawyers insist we use. If you focus on the center dot, we can record your retinal print. After that, you can return to the living, or, more precisely, your bed.”
“Well, that tells me nothing. This is the nuttiest dream I’ve ever had.”
“Sir, while you are dreaming, I assure you everything we do here is quite real. Now, if you’ll simply indicate—”
“Whoa, fella. I’m not signing anything. Just what’s going on here?” Steven was developing an intense dislike for this annoying little denizen. As any dreamer knows, you’re along for the ride while your brain sorts and shuffles things, clearing out the deadwood.
“Sir, you’re here for an adjustment. Now please cooperate. I have ten more people waiting for clearance before I can go home, and I don’t get overtime pay.”
“Adjustment? What sort of adjustment?”
“We will shorten your life span by three years. All quite regular and safe. Look into the—”
“Shortening—why the hell are you doing that? I don’t give consent, I won’t agree to this, not even in a dream.”
The adjuster sighed, shoulders drooping. “You’re the third one today to request an adverse intake. I’m required to inform you this procedure will happen with or without your consent. With it, you lose only three years; otherwise, it’s double. Please don’t make me call my supervisor. She’s been in such a sour mood lately.”
“And just why do you want to shorten my life? To what purpose?”
“As I said, this is an adjustment. Compensation for something you will do in your future. I don’t have all the details, but whatever happened, it was long ago in our past.”
“That doesn’t sound like compensation to me. It sounds more like a punishment. And what do you mean by long ago?”
“Oh, I see you’re confused. That happens. The compensation is for the human species, for a better and brighter world, if you believe the brochures. Whatever you did will happen in your personal future. Now—”
“Hold it right there, buster! What did I do, or rather what will I do to deserve this sentence? And just how do you make such a precise adjustment?”
The sad-faced being looked at a wristwatch he didn’t appear to be wearing.
“Okay, I’ll give you the condensed version. First, I have no idea what you might do. Perhaps a series of small actions, or one enormous thing, or an unintended mistake.” Reciting a memorized passage, the adjuster cleared his throat. “In your far future, we—your much-improved descendent species—learn to adjust the past by tweaking things a bit, oiling the skids, so to speak, to remove sticking points. Early in human history, our joint proto-species struggled with self-inflicted cultural wounds almost to the point of self-extinction. It wasn’t a pleasant time to be semi-human. The adjustments we make are to smooth the past, making your future—our past—incrementally better. Shall I go on?"
“So, you’re telling me, you zip back in time, changing everything to suit your desires? It seems a dangerous sort of thing to do. Any mistake on your part could wipe you out before you’re even created.”
“Oh, no, you misunderstand. We don’t go back in time—that’s quite impossible. Nothing material can be forced backward. Not being a scientist, I don’t know all the details. I’m told there are energies, particles, or waves which do travel in opposition to our perception of time’s arrow. We manipulate those to make incremental, miniscule changes in our ancestors, removing species stress points … Upgrades if you will.”
“Well then, how do you shorten my life? I’ll bet there’s a way to beat you at your game.”
“Um, no. Not really. The adjustment causes your gene-caps—your telomeres—to recede slightly. Those naturally shorten with each cell division until depleted. When a cell can no longer divide, it dies. After enough of that piles up, your organs fail. It’s a matter of shaving off just a smidgen. Quite simple, actually.”
“So when I wake up, I’ll be aware of this?”
“Oh, no. The memory engrams of our interaction must stay as neutral as possible. You understand, I’m sure.”
“No. No, I don’t.”
“Well, it would do no good for you to know about this. It could balls things up considerably if people started talking about it. My job is tough enough. There will, however, be other effects, such as vague feelings of unease when you contemplate, let’s say, unsavory actions. Though you’ll still have free will.”
“You’re talking about my conscience?”
“Yes, exactly! Like I said, an upgrade. Now you have it. The original homo sapiens weren’t given much of one.”
“Are you even listening to me? A conscience, Mr. Reynolds. Not much of a conscience.”
“How many others have gone through your adjustments?”
“Eventually everyone, sir. Everyone. Now, what will it be? Three years or six?”
Steven hesitated, then said, “Three.”
The next day, crossing the street to his law practice, Steven was killed by a speeding truck.