"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2, Act IV, Scene 2
Steven woke—one of those snap-awake, totally aware things that rarely happen. Eyes still shut, an ominous feeling invaded. The inability to move his torso, arms, or legs was proof enough to him he was dreaming. Eyes cracked open, no crusties. First sight revealed he was floating naked, encased in a glass-like tube. 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—the 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. It’s 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 indicate—"
“Whoa, fella. I’m not signing anything. Just what’s going on here?”
Steven was developing an intense dislike for this annoying little creature. 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 dropping. “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 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 do will happen in your personal future. Now—”
“Hold it right there, buster! What did I do, or 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.”
As if reciting a memorized passage, the adjuster cleared his throat. “In your far future, we—your much-improved descendent species—will learn how 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. Our adjustments are to smooth the past, making your future—our past—incrementally better. Going back to the dawn of sentience, the past of all human varieties has benefited greatly from our efforts. We’ve been doing this for a very, very long time, you see. These adjustments have made the here-and-now a most pleasant place to exist. Yes, most pleasant.” It gave a cheerful smile. “Things get better and better every day—quite a beautiful thing to behold. So, in the interest of all future humanity, if you’ll just—”
“So, you’re telling me, you zip back in time, changing everything to suit your current 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 that travel in opposition to our perception of time’s arrow. We manipulate those to make 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 ball things up considerably if people started talking about it. My job is tough enough. There will 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, “Three.”
In the morning, feeling refreshed and ready, Steven was hit by a truck while crossing the street to his law practice.