Fish darted along the bottom of the pond, insulated from the cold by a thick sheet of ice, with their golden shapes moving like miniature torpedoes. Above the ice-chilled water, the air was cold enough for every breath to be painful, and for every exhalation to plume from him like dragon smoke.
Henry Gates stared into the pond a moment longer and then stood up, brushing the snow from the knees of his once smart but now rumpled Armani suit pants. He shuddered and pulled his thin jacket tighter around his shoulders as he gazed up at the merrily-lit house. Red, green, yellow and blue lights twinkled on an off as they chased each other in a relentless race that performed over and over. A waist-high, gaudy plastic Santa glowed in the waning light of the day, becoming more vibrant in color as the last of the daylight seeped from the sky leaving him in darkness. Other seasonal illuminations became apparent as night set in and he looked over his shoulder to the street beyond knowing that this house was not unique in its festive spirit. If anything, it looked more tasteful than most.
Laughter floated to him from inside the house but it was not the synthetic sound of a television program trying to fool a watcher that it was funnier than in reality. Instead there was a spontaneity about the sound that did not echo awkwardly to his ears. It was a sound he had long forgotten during his drive to the top of his field as he sought to produce the first known device that could control time rather than just mark its passing.
He had almost succeeded, falling short of his goal at the final hurdle when the Maths went beyond his ability. The stranglehold of the secret Government Agency had tightened, forcing him to find another with greater mathematical skills to complete those final equations. Earl Dopler had come to his attention and he had made the mistake of underestimating the weasel, giving him access to all of his hard work. Dopler had cracked the equations that meant they could complete a superior prototype to show to the Government but Henry had paid for his trust when Dopler absconded with one of the watches, no doubt intent on selling it to the highest bidder.
After that, everything went downhill fast though Henry had to admit that it was not all Dopler's fault. He had underestimated the paranoia of the government agents who, on seeing the potential of his discovery, had focused only on the sinister rather than on the benevolent advantages of such a machine. Here was a small time device that could give a surgeon hours to perform delicate surgery while only minutes passed for his patient, lessening the trauma to an injured or sick body. Oncologists could take their time to eradicate all traces of cancerous cells, and rescue services could slow down time sufficiently to save more lives. Instead, all the government could see were incredible opportunities for assassins and thieves... and they wanted those badly enough to try and take his discovery from him by force.
In hindsight, perhaps it was a good thing that Zak Gibbs and his father had destroyed the Quantuni Technologies laboratory as he had never intended his discovery to be used for evil. It had been the naiveté of youth that had been sucked in by the false promises of seeing it used for good.
He chuckled hoarsely, and without humor. The final problem with his discovery had stripped away his youth just as it had aged Doctor Gibbs and Dopler, except they had not realized that the middle-aged man standing before them had been only a few years older than Dopler in real terms. This would be his thirtieth Christmas but he looked as if he had seen more than half as many again.
Henry bit into his lower lip in remorse, knowing he had done far worse to Doctor Gibbs and Dopler, ripping most of their lives away from them and leaving them old long before their time. In truth, he had believed that either Dopler or Gibbs would crack the final set of equations that would send the aging factor into reverse. Without that facility his invention was next to useless for what good was a surgeon who could only perform a single operation before becoming too infirm through old age? Only the expendable could use the hypertime device, and once the government realized this they threw him into a cell while they decided what to do with him.
Months had passed before they made the mistake of letting him back near his laboratory, and he had taken advantage of a momentary lapse in security to grab a watch he had hidden away in a secret panel. Escaping had added another two or three years to his physical age, adding silver to his small goatee and sideburns that would have been distinguishing had he not cried at the loss of his youth.
Henry took a deep breath and climbed the few steps to the front door, knowing he was prevaricating rather than facing up to what had to be done for his own peace of mind. He rang the bell and waited nervously, startling when the door opened suddenly. Laughing dark eyes hardened and the smile fell from the happy face.
Zak Gibbs stared at him malevolently, with his lips drawn into a tight line of anger.
"What do you want, Gates?"
"To apologize..." Confusion and startlement filled the dark eyes and Henry seized the moment to continue with his apology, "...for what I did to you and, most especially, to your father. I never meant for him to stay old."
The door opened wider and Henry stepped back as he recognized Doctor Gibbs' voice.
"Who is it, Za--?"
Henry knew he was gaping in astonishment as he took in the youthful appearance of a man that he had prematurely aged through his selfishness.
"I don't understand... I thought..."
Doctor Gibbs looked younger than he had on that first day they met when Henry and his assistants had kidnapped him from the hotel hosting the Science Fair. It did not seem possible, and yet, the proof stood right in front of him. The doctor's stiff posture loosened and, with an almost resigned air, he held the door open wider and indicated for Henry to enter.
The warmth inside the house sent a painful tingling through Henry's cold cheeks and extremities and he rubbed his hands together, massaging his white-tipped fingers. Zak led him into the front room and Henry frowned at the strangely familiar youth seated next to Zak's sister but he knew who it was the moment Earl Dopler spoke, recognizing the sardonic voice.
"Not exactly what I wanted for Christmas."
"How..?" Henry froze in thought, and then everything fell into place. "You got it to work. You figured out the reversal process."
Dopler exchanged a glance with Doctor Gibbs before grinning wildly. A new thought entered Henry's head.
"Tell me they don't know about it."
"Who?" Doctor Gibbs asked cautiously. "The Government?"
"They think everything was destroyed along with the laboratory."
Henry closed his eyes in relief even though it should have been obvious to him that the Government had salvaged nothing of use for, otherwise, they would have set him back to work immediately rather than leave him in that cold, lonely cell for months. He smiled wryly as he realized that he no longer had to carry the weight of guilt for what he had done to Dopler and Gibbs.
"I have to go now."
"Wait." Doctor Gibbs eyed him strangely, as if only now taking in his dirty, rumpled clothing and unwashed state. "They came here two days back... looking for you."
"They can't find me... or it starts all over again. They want the hypertime." Gibbs nodded wisely, and Henry looked down in dismay. "I only wanted to use it for good... to save lives." He gave a single bitter laugh of self-derision. "For someone so clever I turned out real stupid. Wish I could turn back time and start again... but it doesn't work that way."
"It can... if you want it to."
Henry looked up with confusion vying with hope, and he read the answer in the warm eyes that held his.
"Oh my, isn't he gorgeous! You never told us you were expecting."
Jenny Gibbs proudly showed off the baby in her arms, her finger brushing along one velvet cheek to touch the soft wisps of baby-soft, blond hair. She recalled the terrible miscarriages after Kelly was born, and the creeping realization that she would never have another baby. It had been a bitter blow as they had wanted a large family, and though she had come to accept her loss, she had never truly given up on her dream, hoping to one day convince George to adopt.
Instead, a miracle had happened.
The green eyes opened sleepily, without a trace of memory fogging their brightness, and her eyes drifted happily to her husband. She hugged the baby tighter as she thought of the new chance for a happy life that a machine had brought to both her and a man once known as Henry Gates.
"He's my little Christmas miracle."