When Peter steps into the machine for the second time, he sees it all in the blink of an eye and the space of a breath:What has been.What is.What could be.The temptation to linger, to sift and sample through the threads of would-be memories, is distracting. He can't afford to be distracted, not now.Time is short.It's also relative.Walter would appreciate the irony, but Peter can't dwell on it right now. He's finding it difficult to navigate the strands of spacetime; there's no such thing as a map. He needs to find them, Olivia and Walter, at the point where he first stepped into the machine. He needs to find the spot where he made the wrong choice.Before it's too late.
He focuses on the memory of Olivia, and right away, he can feel her. She's behind the wheel of a car he's never seen before, just pulling the keys from the ignition, so he stretches towards her…winds his way down the thread and pulls himself closer, until he's standing beside her on the curb, separated only by the thin veil of overlapping realities. She opens the back door to let a passenger out. They're on a residential street in an older part of town, judging by the size of some of the houses. The yards are big for city properties, neatly manicured by hired gardeners, not a lick of grass out of place. There's money in this neighborhood; these houses belong to the kind of people who wouldn't be caught dead driving a five year old Civic.
He knows right away that this isn't the place he's looking for. The texture doesn't feel right; the light's a little too soft, the sound a little too sharp. Walter had warned him that there are many possible outcomes resulting from their myriad of choices, that he should be careful not to get distracted, but Peter lingers anyhow. Olivia can't see him watching, not until he fully commits and accepts this reality as his. He's curious about the life she could have had without him. For want of a nail, and all that.
Peter's up-close-and-personal experience with children is pretty much limited to Ella, but he figures the girl climbing out of the backseat with the Sponge Bob backpack is younger… four, maybe five years old. The same round cheeks and wide eyes, though. Fair hair and the splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose aside, this kid bears more than a passing resemblance to the little girl Peter remembers begging him for yet another pony ride around Olivia's apartment a lifetime ago.
She takes Olivia's hand as they make up their way up the sidewalk towards a two-story Victorian with a gingerbread front porch, but then the girl stops short. Olivia feels the tug on her hand and turns.
"Why do I have to sleep at Grandma's tonight?" the kid asks. She's not exactly whining, but there's a definite sulk to her voice. Peter watches Olivia's jaw muscles clench like they do when she's trying not to be bothered by one of Walter's less appropriate non-sequiturs in the middle of a crime scene.
She crouches on the sidewalk so she's eye-level with the kid and glances up at the house. The front door is still closed. "Because, sweetie." She brushes a stray wisp of hair behind the kid's ear and lets her fingers linger just long enough for Peter to get the sense that this is more than just the usual sleep-over goodbye. "I have to work tonight, and your Aunt Rachel is out of town." He catches a glint of a pale gold on her left hand as she taps her index finger on the end of the kid's nose.
And that's when Peter notices that she is indeed dressed for work, but not in the everyday FBI habit he's accustomed to. The boots and the sweater are a lot more functional, and he's willing to bet that given the way her sweater bulges at her hip, she's armed. All she's missing is the Kevlar vest and the windbreaker with the bold yellow company name on the front. They're probably in the trunk of the car.
The girl might not know exactly where Olivia's going, but she's obviously smart enough to pick up that this isn't going to be another late night at the office. "Don't go," she says, and sticks out her bottom lip just enough that Peter's sure tears will be next. "I'll miss you so much." He watches Olivia look away long enough to compose herself.
"I have to. The bad guys don't catch themselves." She stands and gives the girl a gentle tug towards the house. "Come on, Grandma's waiting."
The front door is opened by a well-kept woman in her sixties. Peter doesn't recognize her, not even from the few pictures he's seen around Olivia's place, so he assumes 'Grandma' is some relation of the kid's father.
Greeting are exchanged and a minor production is made about story books and cookies, a small con with the intent to ease the child's separation anxiety, followed by the ritual handoff hugs and kisses.
Olivia shoots the girl a little wave and watches as she disappears into the house. Peter can't help but think she looks a little wistful, a little sad, like she's wishing to be anywhere but here right now. She turns to the woman. "You have my sister's number, right?"
The woman, Edna, steps out on to the porch and pulls the door partway shut. Enough that they won't be overheard. "Yes, it's in my book. Why?"
"Just in case," is all Olivia says. She turns to leave, but Edna grabs her sleeve.
"Olivia, what's going on?"
Olivia looks down at her feet for a second, then checks to make sure the kid isn't standing behind her grandmother. She takes a deep breath. "We finally found the men who killed John. We've got enough on them to bring them in." Her shoulders are squared and her voice is frighteningly calm. Edna's fingers flutter to her throat.
Peter knows that tone, that hard squint she's wearing that says If we can't bring them in, I'm bringing them down. It used to make the tiny hairs on his neck stand up.
He turns back to the car and catches the dark hair and aviator sunglasses that belong to one Charlie Francis sitting in the passenger seat, and it's right then Peter's gut cramps because his neither-here-nor-there existence means he already knows how this is going to turn out. The next visitor to the Scott household will be someone from the Bureau, Broyles probably, shouldering the burden of bad news. There'll be phone calls between Edna and Rachel about custody arrangements they'll need to figure out once the funeral plans have been set.
Peter closes his eyes and prays to the god Schrödinger that he hasn't witnessed enough for it all to come true. He hears Edna telling Olivia to be careful, but the sound blurs and fades as he does a mental backpedal up and out, pushing off through the ether to leave the scene as far and as fast as he can. For the first time, Peter finds himself thankful that their marriage had never produced a child to leave behind.
It takes Peter a minute to catch his breath. He feels clumsy, even though he has no body, not really. In a fit of disconnected sentences punctuated by warnings and self-recrimination, Walter had explained the physics behind the machine before they'd left. But theory hadn't prepared Peter for the actual disorientation of sorting through layers of possibility in search of the exact spot he needs to course-correct. He feels shaken and hollow, like he's just lost her all over again. Peter can't let that happen.He plunges on.
He finds Olivia again right away. It's easier now that he knows what he's looking for; she's got a certain pull to her, a magnet whose poles are aligned precisely with his.
This time she's hunched over a metal table in a small, windowless room. The fluorescent lights overhead make her look washed out and pale. Her hair, haphazardly pulled back into a ponytail, seems to melt into the worn blue of her denim work shirt. From there, she fades into the industrial greys of the metal chair and the concrete floor.
Peter doesn't see the shackles until he steps around the table.
Astrid's here too, seated across from her, and looking smart and professional in a tweed jacket, badge clipped to her lapel. Her hair is cropped short and severe, shot with threads of grey, but she still has that same soft voice as the Astrid he's always known.
"Olivia," she prods gently, "you know any information you can give us will only help in your favor with the parole board." Astrid never takes her eyes off her.
"Come on, Agent Farnsworth," Olivia drawls out her name. She leans forward across the table, as far as the chain around her waist will let her. Her lips curve wolfishly. Peter's not entirely convinced it's just an act. "Thirty to life. What's a few months off that? Tell them to make me a real offer, Astrid."
Astrid's not intimidated, but she hasn't let her guard down either. Peter remembers going hand-to-hand with Olivia once. The only reason he'd limped away that time was the damn virus in his system driving him like a herd of wild horses. She doesn't give up easily and she fights dirty. It's not an experience he'd wish on anyone else.
But it turns out Astrid knows how to play dirty too.
She pushes a folder across the table towards Olivia before flipping back the cover. Olivia's eyes flick to the photograph at the top of the file, then away again. There's a stack of pictures under the first. Astrid lays them out one by one in a tableau, covering most of the table between them. Olivia's chains clink together as she shifts to avoid seeing the all the pale, bruised faces being laid out in front of her.
She presses her lips together and squints as she sits back and looks over Astrid's shoulder, across the room and right through where Peter's now standing. Her foot taps under the table without rhythm or timing as she scratches the back of one hand with fingernails that have been chewed to the quick.
There's the crisp snap of heavy paper as Astrid puts down the last picture. A doe-eyed girl just on the cusp of her teenage years. Her features blurred and distorted by the swelling that would eventually kill her. Astrid places it right in the middle of the table. In front of Olivia.
"Olivia," she says in a voice so low that Peter finds himself leaning in to hear. "We think the people who did this…who are conducting experiments on these kids… are the same people responsible for the Hamburg flight. They're the same people who had Agent Francis killed." She lets that hang between them for a beat. "AndI know they are the same people who framed you for it.
"I can't help you Olivia… not if you don't want to help yourself," Astrid says, going in for the kill. "But I can do something for these kids. Something nobody else ever did for them when they were alive. I can stand up for them. I just need you to help me do it."
Peter has always known Astrid was good at manipulating people. Who else could have kept Walter focused and the lab in one piece without being scared off by his on-again, off-again insanity? But as he watches, a calm falls over Olivia, as if all her senses have suddenly tuned in on a single frequency. The subtle tick of her jaw muscles as they clench and unclench is the only clue to how deeply the collection of violated test subjects is affecting her. She drags her eyes first to Astrid, then down to the images spread on the table in front of her.
Chains rattle as Olivia picks up the photo closest to her. She runs her fingertip along the curve of the girl's jaw. Peter mentally tips his hat to a master. And he has known more than a few sharks in his time.
"Help me out here, Olivia. Help me put these guys away."
Peter doesn't wait around to see if she answers. He doesn't need to. This isn't the spot he's looking for anyhow. But he's buoyed by the knowledge that regardless of how the stage is set, there is something about Olivia, about both of these women actually, some sense of justice and goodness that remains true.
He thinks he can control it now, to a degree. It's more of a feeling than an exact science; a sensory memory looking for context. A snippet of music that was popular when he was twelve, bringing with it the memory of hot sand on his feet and the smell of coconut oil in the air that made his mouth water. Or the tang of apple pie and cinnamon on his tongue, mixed with the pungent scent of Gene's hay and damp basement, that brings Astrid's worried eyes to mind. Peter knows what Oliviafeelslike now. He knows the way she vibrates, how she makes his ears hum and his brain flood with adrenaline so that his heart races when he gets near to her, but he doesn't know which timeline, which possibility ishers.Which one of these Olivias ishisOlivia.When he first stepped into the machine, all he saw was her. Every moment since he'd first met her, every memory and conversation, stacked together and shuffled in front of his eyes like a cartoon flip book of their life. It was tangible, and it grounded him. It brought him forward to a future with her.Peter tries to focus on that again. He closes his eyes and tries to picture that last morning with her, before it all started to fall apart. He's experienced an entire decade of marriage to her, more milestones and events than he could ever have hoped for, but this one image of Olivia in the soft pink dawn light is the one he reaches for. He remembers how she smelled of linen and sleep, and how that shirt of his that she'd been wearing seemed to both swallow her up while it suggested so much more was hidden beneath. He remembers the warmth and the stirring in his gut as she'd moved against him that made him want to pull her closer and slip his hands under the shirt, touch the bare skin he knew was beneath. He remembers how, for a few minutes, while the sun edged its way over the rooftops and slanted through the dormer window, she'd seemed free and unburdened.She'd seemed golden.Peter holds on to that memory and lets himself go.
She's in a garden when he finds her. The sun is setting behind her, brilliant oranges petering out into deep reds that leave her standing in silhouette.
'This is close,' Peter thinks. But it's not quite right; the hum is slightly off-key.
Olivia's got one hand on her hip, the other holding her phone to her ear, like he's seen her do a million times before when she's busy disagreeing with the person on the other end of the line. It's hot out, almost stiflingly so, and as he watches, she brushes a bead of sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. He can't see it in the fading light, but he can easily imagine her frowning as the tinny voice reaches him from the phone's speaker.
"… and you realize, Dunham, that that US government spends seventy million dollars a year on the war on drugs alone. Not to mention the cost of troop deployments overseas. This program cannot afford to lose any more funding because your pet scientist likes to indulge in a little-"
"You and I both know that the politics of uncontrolled narcotics is the least of this country's problems at the moment." The answer is muffled as she turns away from him. Her shoulders bunch and rise in frustration.
"I'll speak to him, sir," she cuts the speaker off and flips the phone shut with a snap. She lets out a loud puff of air and smoothes a wisp of hair off her forehead. Peter gets the feeling this isn't the first time she's had this particular conversation.
Olivia turns and pushes open the crooked wire gate, and Peter follows her down the twisting gravel path. The dry stems of heat-wilted daisies and scorched asters grab at her pant legs with their crisped edges as she passes, and it peppers the still air with a shush-shush-shush that seems far too loud for the waning day.
The garden stretches for several hundred yards in each direction, or at least that's as far as Peter can see. It's broken here and there by skeletal hedges that poke sharp fingers at the fading sky and divide the space into secluded little patches. Stunted tomato vines are falling over their stakes here, tight bunches of bleached bush beans over there. Olivia passes them by without a second glance. She's obviously been here before and knows exactly where she's heading.
"Walter?" she calls out, then stops to listen. Peter catches a noise off to his left; shuffling footsteps he'd know anywhere. Olivia turns, surefooted, and rounds the thicket into a small pocket of a clearing filled with tissue-paper flowers. "It's just me Walter. I'm alone."
"Are you sure?" Walter steps from the shadow with a pair of garden snippers pointed at her. "Satellites in geo-synchronous orbit. Sub-dermal implants. They can track you anywhere these days. Triangulating cellular telephone signals. And that's just the beginning. Mind control, that's where it's really at. Virtually undetectable." He thrusts the snippers forward, inches from her nose now, and growls, "If it's even really you."
Olivia doesn't seem perturbed. "Put those away, Walter." She pushes the snippers away from her face with the back of her hand.
"Hmph," Walter grunts. "It is you." He goes back to the flowers he'd been tending.
"Don't sound so disappointed." She wipes the sweat from her temple and turns to watch him scrape at the skin of a bulbous flower pod. "It's time to pack it up for the night Walter. You almost done here?"
Walter dips his finger in the milky sap that oozes from the cut and rubs at it with his thumb, testing its viscosity. He gives it a sniff, and then, just as Peter expects him to do, pops his finger in his mouth for a taste. It's nice to know that some things never change.
"We stopped here because you said you had cucumbers you wanted to pick for supper." Olivia picks up the bag of tools. "I might have been raised in the city, but I know that is definitely not a cucumber. It's getting dark. Let's go, Walter."
Walter turns and glares at her. "We can't go. These are ripe. We need to score the pods now, before the heat dries them out." He thrusts the snippers in her direction again.
Olivia takes them from him and drops them in the bag of tools. "You said cucumbers, Walter, not poppies."
"There aren't any cucumbers."
"Walter." She draws his name out, low and bordering on dangerous. Peter's surprised she's held her patience this long. Olivia's relationship with his father had always been, for lack of a better word, fraught. Some days she'd only tolerated him and his flights of fancy, others, she'd embraced him, ready to follow him off a cliff if that's where he was leading. Most of the time Peter had been there to mediate, to be that buffer that kept the two of them from spontaneously combusting and taking everyone in the vicinity with them.
"There aren't any cucumbers. There probably won't be ever again." He sniffs, and Peter can hear a tremor in his voice. Walter's all over the map tonight, but it doesn't seem to register with Olivia, or maybe she's developed a higher tolerance for his mood swings. She's definitely calmer than Peter expects her to be.
Olivia squats down so she's eye-level with him and touches his shoulder. "Walter, you can't grow opium out in the open like this. It's still illegal."
"And when was the last time you had a drink, my dear? I didn't hear you go up to bed last night. Or the night before that." He narrows his eyes. "I know you've been keeping company with Mr. Beam most nights. I've even seen the two of you having breakfast together some mornings."
Olivia glances away, nerve struck. "If you keep flaunting it, they're going to shut us down."
"And so what if they do?" His voice rises to what Peter has always thought of as his 'drama queen' register. "When was the last time the temperature dropped to anything near freezing? Less than a quarter inch of rain has fallen in the last six months. People all over the world are starving because what the blight hasn't taken, the drought has." He clasps her hand between the two of his, tight enough that Peter sees her flinch.
Walter whispers, "Olivia, we are living the end of days. Our world is dying. It won't be long now. They can throw all the money in the world at us, but there isn't a thing we can do to stop it. Please," his voice cracks, "let me ease my way."
The sun slips below the horizon, and just before it does, Peter sees her close her eyes for a second, like she's finally accepting their fate. She picks up the snippers again. "Okay, Walter, show me what you want me to do."
Peter looks ahead to find that one morning in the very near future, Walter finally achieves that ultimate high he's spent a good portion of his adult life searching for. Olivia will find him, probably dressed in his bathrobe and holey wool socks ("they're religious, son!"), stretched out in his Barcalounger in front of the window where he'd been watching the sunrise. And like the good daughter she has always been to him, she'll smooth his thin hair down and straighten his robe to hide his nakedness, then dispose of the syringe and the rubber tubing. She'll pour herself a drink, (a full three fingers worth from the bottle on the counter), raise her glass to Walter, and then down it in one go, before she finally calls the coroner. Peter shuts his mind to what happens after that. He can't bear to see Olivia trudging on alone as the world slowly falls to pieces around her.
Walter once told him that things couldn't be worse than Olivia being dead, and in his grief, Peter had believed him. But he knows now that Walter was very wrong.
There are some things worse than death.
Memory alone won't help him find her, Peter realizes. It's too abstract, too subjective. Too easy to bend and blur and shape it until it pleases. He needs something absolute. Concrete.He needs that exact moment just before everything changed, not the pleasant recollection with the sharp edges filed off. The memory of the sunrise was beautiful, but he needs to be honest with himself; there was still trouble lurking, just a phone call away.Peter tries to block out the rising buildup of static that feels like it's running from his fingers to his toes and back up again. It threatens to short-circuit his neurons. He focuses again on Olivia.Only on Olivia.Olivia standing at the foot of the stairs, her face pinched and worried, but her resolve strong as she watches him slip his bare feet into the bindings.Olivia with her eyes focused on his, not shouting at him to stop this madness and let them find another way, but calmly willing him all her strength becausethisis the only way, and they both know it.Olivia letting the tiniest sound slip, little more than a gasp, as the last manacle clamps around his wrists and his back arches and his head is thrown back, but who stands firm anyhow and doesn't look away.The tingle of static increases until it's a prickly hum that coats the whole surface of his skin. He gasps and jerks his head forward, and she'sright there.Right here in front of him. Alive and well. She's saying his name, and she's touching him, and he knows beyond all certainty thatthisis exactly where he's supposed to be.But it's not enough. He's got to warn them about the machine and about the Other Side, that much is true, but he also needs to make sure they listen too.He's got to give them the tools to fix things.The static doesn't tingle anymore; it's a full-body burn. Sparks zing along his neural pathways, electrons crackle and pop from the ends of his nerve fibers. He fights it as his muscles pull and contract against the machine, and as he does, the doubled room, along with his two fathers and both Olivias, starts to fade away.
Peter stumbles from the machine and hits the ground with a soft thud. He gasps in huge breaths of humid air as his fingers dig into the loamy soil. Somewhere off in the distance a brachiosaur trumpet echoes through the trees. There's a low warble, like the old, off-balance centrifuge in the lab grinding to a halt, and then silence. The machine has shut itself down.
Astrid looks up from her sketchbook with a start. "Peter!" She spares a second to carefully put her book and pen aside and rushes over. She pushes the hair out of his eyes and tilts his head this way and that, checking him for cuts and bruises with persistence matching Walter's on a bad day. Peter waves her away. He didn't have far to fall this time, and the landing was soft.
"I found them, Astrid. I need to go back." He brushes the dirt from his knees and turns back to the machine. "I know where they are, and I need to get back there and warn them." He climbs back up to the platform, thankful they'd modified the design slightly from that original towering monstrosity.
There's a loud pop and a shower of sparks. Astrid covers her head and ducks. Peter jumps free from the machine.
"No…no, no, no," he all but shouts at it. "Don't do this now."
Astrid quickly pulls a meter from the box of tools she'd been sitting on and hooks the probe ends up to a panel under the machine. She frowns, adjusts a few settings, and frowns some more. "I'm sorry, Peter. There's nothing."
Peter pries open an access hatch on the bottom of the main chassis. Thick oily smoke oozes out along with the acidic smell of burnt electrical wires that makes his eyes water. He waves away as much as he can and looks inside. The housing on the wavesink component – the very piece of the machine Walternate had given him to fix - is cracked and oozing conductive gel all over the inside of the compartment.
And they don't have the spare parts to replace it.
He bangs his forehead against the machine's metal casing once, twice, a third time before Astrid halts him with a hand on his shoulder. "Peter, stop."
He was close. So close. He could have touched Olivia, should have touched her when he'd had the chance. He didn't even know if she'd heard him. His throat tightens and he swallows against it. He didn't come this far, didn't watch Olivia suffer not one, but four possible futures where fate had it in for her, just to lose it when he was so close to setting things right.
He's not going to let her down again.
Beside him, Astrid stands on tip-toe to get a better look. "Wasn't that-"
"The piece that was broken on Walternate's copy of the machine, yeah." Peter rubs at his eyes. "Probably got banged up on the trip through the wormhole and it overloaded." He starts pulling lids off the packing crates they'd used to send the machine parts back in. "There's got to be something we can use…maybe bypass the module somehow."
"There isn't," Astrid grabs for the notebook and pen before they're lost in the bits of packing material Peter's tossing about. "We only brought the essentials, remember? Nothing that might skew the timeline."
Peter keeps rifling through their bags anyhow.
"Peter," Astrid says firmly. He ignores her. She grabs his arm. "Peter, stop this."
Finally, he does. He lets himself drop on to the ground in the middle of their makes-shift camp, and grinds the heels of his hands into his eyes. "All this," he waves his hand around the clearing, "rebuilding the machine… hauling it back through the wormhole… for nothing. We're still here. We didn't change anything." He swallows. He's known Astrid a long time and she's stood by him during some of his lowest moments, but he's still got his pride; he's not going to break down in front of her. She's taken care of the Bishop men enough for one lifetime.
"Not for nothing." Astrid flips through her notebook and holds it open towards him.
Peter can't read the language she's been creating; she'd explained that it was something like 'Latin with a pictogram twist'. But he does know a schematic diagram and a parts list when he sees one. He carefully flips through a few more pages and feels his gut tighten and his pulse speed up at the possibility.
"We know that particular component was damaged when Walternate discovered his copy of the machine, and they didn't have the technology to fix it. That's why they stole our copy." She crouches in front of him, making sure she has his full attention. "Walter couldn't have known that the first time he sent the machine back. He had no way of testing it. But we know this is a failure point now." She points to a spot on the page in front of him, a half-finished sketch of the broken component. "We can leave ourselves a warning. Instructions for a better design. Or at least packing directions. You know, 'this end up through the wormhole'."
"Was this what you were working on just now?" He's trying to wrap his head around the potential paradox. "While I was still in the machine?"
"Mmm hmm." Astrid nods. "I don't know, I just had this feeling that we needed some insurance. Like if this worked, and you reached them, Olivia wouldn't have died and we wouldn't have gone back in time to fix things." She dips her head for a second, sidetracked by the sudden pinch of grief. "But if for some reason you didn't…"
"We leave ourselves a message, some sort of warning." He feels giddy laughter bubble up inside him. "So we get it right this time and we're not stuck in some infinite time loop until we do."
He looks up at her. "Astrid, you're a genius." For the first time in what must be a long time, Peter feels like the future is full of hope again.
Astrid grins. "This time around, we include the repair manual."