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"Sorry I'm late," Saul nodded to the three men who were already seated at the square table as he pulled out the chair at the fourth position. The chair creaked wearily as Saul settled his weight on it; he had a fleeting dread of the chair collapsing and another injury to his injury-prone back, but he was tired and by the time he thought about it, he was already in the chair.
"Sorry don't do me no good," the man directly across from Saul's position responded. He didn't look up--his gaze was trained on a yellow legal pad, upon which he appeared to be swirling circles randomly with a blue inkpen. He was filling up the page with looping circles that overlapped on themselves.
"We're gonna open the portal tonight," the man on Saul's left said.
Saul was relieved a little by the comment; if he could get the men on task, maybe the awkward problem on his lateness would pass and then be forgotten. "Yeah, okay. I've got all the internals set already. What time you want to open the window?"
The man on the left shrugged. "I thought seventy-four, maybe seventy-six."
"Seventy-four is too soon!" the man on Saul's right said. He was turning toward Saul to protest further when his elbow knocked over a plastic cup full of a dark red fluid, the contents of which spilled across the top of the table and started dripping onto the floor. "Damn it!" he said. He reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved a small black box with a round red knob mounted on a shaft.
"Don't do that here, Phil," the man swirling his pen said.
"Shut up." Pointing the box at the center of the table, he twisted the knob and the red fluid responded, animating, gathering back toward his side of the table. It was like watching a film running backward. The fluid traced its steps back toward the plastic cup, collected into a mass, and moved back into the cup, which then righted itself and returned back to the precise spot on the table. The man released the knob and put the box back into his jacket.
At the table next to the men, a woman, her back to the men, sat idly cutting pieces off a doughnut and forking them into her mouth. The boy sitting across from her, perhaps eight years old, had noticed the man's use of the box and stared, mouth agape, and their eyes met. "What are you looking at?" the man said crossly.
The woman, who was the boy's mother, turned around. "What was that?"
"I said, what are you—" the man on Saul's right started, but Saul interrupted. "Please excuse my brother, Ma'am," he said smoothly. "I'm afraid he's mentally disabled, and he's not having a good day today."
The woman's expression of suspicion held for a moment and then softened. "I see," she said. Then to the boy: "Stanley, stop staring."
"But Mom, he spilled his drink and then he made it go backward and—"
"Stanley!" she interrupted, turning back to her doughnut. "Leave those men alone."
"But Mom—" Stanley tried again.
"Don't you but Mom me, young man. I don't care if it is your birthday. That man is disabled, you understand?" Their conversation faded into the background as Saul grimaced at the man
"You should be more careful," Saul said. "That ticktock is supposed to be for emergencies."
"You shouldn't be late!" the man answered back petulantly. "Oh, it doesn't matter," he continued. "This is never going to work anyway."
The man on Saul's left tapped his finger on the table to get the attention of the others. "Who do we have upstream keeping an eye out this time?"
The man swirling his pen on the yellow legal pad dropped the pen and looked up. "Nobody's watching. Nobody ever watches when that idiot—" he nodded to Saul "—goes on a back run. That's why we're in this mess."
"No, no, it's different this time," Saul said. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a folded square of orange paper and commenced unfolding it.
"What's that? Your grocery list?" the man across from his growled.
"No, it's not a grocery anything. It's the code to get us into the White House."
Saul's three companions all swiveled their heads toward him; even the man swirling his pen on the legal pad stopped swirling and looked up. "You got the White House entry code?" Phil asked incredulously.
"Yes," Saul said precisely. Having unfolded the square of paper, he thrust it onto the table where it landed facing the man across from him. "You recognize that?"
The man across from Saul stared down at it for a moment, then reached out, picked it up, and held it close to his face, inspecting it. He flipped it over and then back again when he saw that the back was blank. Finally he threw it back where it was. "Nope. What makes you think that's the code?"
"I'm telling you, it's the code."
"Let me see that," Phil said. He reached out, picked it up and brought it up close to his face, just as the man across from Saul had done. "Connie, this might be the code."
"It's not the code to anything," Connie responded. He had picked up the blue pen and was again tracing circles on the yellow legal pad. "And even if it were the code, I'm not going into any damn White House in the United States of America in the year 2024."
"It's 2020, Connie," Saul said.
"Whatever," Connie returned. "I'm not going anywhere but out of this damn doughnut shop, back through the hole, and back to my condo on Mars for the rest of the summer." The pen had apparently run out of ink; Connie lifted it, tapped the end of it on the tabletop, and shook it. "You go in to the White House if you want to. When they take you to jail, maybe you can get this idiot—" he gestured to Phil "—to make your bail."
"Make my what?" Saul said.
Connie looked up. "I thought you were supposed to be the expert on 2024. You don't know what bail is?"
Phil spoke up. "You two stop quibbling," he said. "We've come this far, and we're in this together, so now the question is, how do we get to Washington and how do we get to the White House?"
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