It was a dark winter morning. The rain had just stopped and the ground was wet. While getting off the train, Alexander was relieved to realize that he could avoid using the umbrella, although he turned up his collar to keep his neck from getting cold. He crossed the road, heading towards the bus stop. This was the third stage of his commute to work, after driving to the train station.
He was not perfectly awake yet; he had fallen asleep on the train and was still dreaming about the warm sheets he left in his bedroom. The air was getting unbreathable, because of the numerous exhaust pipes that exhaled polluted gas near him. Alexander was waiting for the bus, to complete his daily trip to the office. The cars passed fast, bathing the pedestrians with the spray from the puddles. He stepped back, trying to move away from the road.
Suddenly a driver braked. The unmistakable strident noise attracted Alexander's attention. A powerful black car hit a woman, who was crossing the road pushing a baby carriage. The impact was violent; Alexander saw the lady lifted from the ground. While she was in air, her hand did not let go the baby carriage, which was lifted up with her. From the inside something wrapped in a colored blanket slipped out and fell on the pavement.
«My God please, I hope it is just a doll!» said Alexander, knowing that it was improbable that a lady could have a doll in a stroller.
The woman crashed on the hood, the baby carriage, lighter than the human body, broke against the car roof and fell on the sidewalk. Simultaneously the car halted. A fraction of second before it stopped completely, the wheels crushed the bundle. An enormous stain of blood seemed to explode with a muffled noise on the asphalt. Alexander could not move, he was not able to help. He just though that unfortunately there was not a doll inside the blanket.
The time passed quickly and Alexander stood motionless. Only the cry of the ambulance siren aroused him from the momentary paralysis. He was not able to see the scene of the tragedy any more, because the crowd pushed back on the sidewalk by some rail station policemen, completely covered his view. Following a regular rhythm, the flashing siren colored the railway station wall blue. The voice of the injured lady was clear above the crowd's buzz: «My baby! Where's my baby? Is he...?» while two attendants were carrying her on a stretcher.
Alexander went away, and as soon as he turned the railway station corner, the noise caused by the accident weakened, giving him an impression of normalcy. He was not able to go to the office and concentrating on his work. He wandered around the city streets without a specific destination. He simply wished to go as far as possible from the railway station square.
A car accident like that he just witnessed, could also happen to him, or to any member of his family, a similar violent and unexpected tragedy.
- What can I do to prevent it? - He though.
He needed to fond a solution.
He continued to walk for few hours, until he saw on the other side of the road, the possible solution to his problem. A wide bright insignia flashed, designed to attract the attention of the passing people. Alexander didn't have any hesitation and went toward the door of the office. Entering, he heard the sound of a bell. He looked around for the mechanism that operated it, but he did not have enough time to find it, because a smiling employee came toward him. It was evident that the young girl was trying to be efficient in her job: «Good morning Sir. May I help you?»
«Yes, I would like to have some information.»
«Sit down please. You certainly would like to know how does our insurance company operates.»
«Yes please, I do.»
Alexander already had some ideas of what the company was offering, for the last months there has been an insistent advertising campaign, concerning that peculiar service. He was interested in knowing some technical details, and understanding which was the exact cost of the subscription.
He tried to realize if he was in front of a technically prepared employee, or was she a girl who simply learned the text by rote, the same vague explanations that anyone was able to read on the advertising brochure of the insurance company called "A Step Back".
«As you have seen in our advertisements, the procedure is very simple,» she affirmed, while extracting from the desk drawer what could seem a television remote control. «This is a concentrate of modern technology.»
Above the panel, there were only few keys. One marked with two triangles that had the end turned on the left side and the REW writing; in the center there was a big key with a circle and inside a red dot, marked REC, and finally a square pointed out the STOP key.
«If you will choose the GOLD formula of our insurance, the REC and STOP keys will be useless, because in that case the recording is continuous.»
«Yes but, how does it work?»
«It is very simple. You can choose the OPEN formula, where you will pay just for the real use of the service, and when you wish to enable it, just push REC. From that moment, the recording will be active until you will press the STOP key, or the time limit of the contract expires.»
«I do not understand, how does it work?»
«It is very simple.» Alexander was not sure he was able to avoid screaming next time she would repeat that it was simple. «If something wrong happens, thanks to our fantastic service, you will be able to step back in time, for about 4 or 5 minutes. By pressing REW, you will be in the circumstances where you were 5 minutes before, and you will be able to anticipate or avoid the bad situation.»
«Yes but let's suppose that I am involved in a road accident, and after the crash I faint for 10 minutes. What happens?»
«Nothing, in that case the delay between your present and the moment that you need to come back is too long, above the 4 guaranteed minutes. But let's suppose that your wife cuts her finger while preparing the dinner, you will simply press REW, and everything will be back to normal. No need to run to the hospital, no blood, nothing to worry.»
The girl almost convinced Alexander, but he still had a problem: «How much will be the cost?»
The girl's smiling face changed expression for just a moment. Alexander understood that somebody had taught her that the price table was the last thing to show.
«Do you understand how it works?» she asked.
«No, now I just understand how to operate it, but I also would like to know how it works.»
«Of course, you know the theory of the jumps back in time. In order to make them possible, we need to record the event before it happen. Our company has the most powerful optical computer in the word, from the moment that you press REC, or constantly if you will subscribe to the GOLD insurance, they will record everything.»
The girl stopped, to check if the man was following the explanation.
«It is obvious, that the information can not be stored forever. We don't have enough memory inside our computers for that, therefore we are forced to reserve just the space necessary to record 5 complete minutes of your life, writing continuously above the older data.»
«I understand. So, the sixth minute will be stored above the information of the first one, deleting it.»
«Exactly. The technique is very simple, after the recording of the situation, when you will press REW, the computers will download their data and the "past" recorded in the memories will become your "present."»
«OK it's VERY simple, but how is it possible that all the world returns five minutes back?»
«Yes. Um, actually no... well, I don't know. Anyway it's very simple.» Evidently she found the question unusual and difficult to answer.
Alexander asked: «After my past, of five minutes before, became the present, will I remember what happened?»
«This is another fantastic service, offered by our company "A Step Back". If you could not remember anything, you could not avoid the unpleasant episode that will happen after five minutes. Therefore, our computer leaves unchanged the data that concern your own mind, and transcribes them in the situation of the past, exactly like they were in the future.»
«...and, what will remember the other people involved in the step back?»
«The civil law forces us to let them remember everything. Anyone involved in the action that has been cancelled by the step back, must be able to understand what happened. Of course, by low there are also places where our service is disabled, for example to avoid cheating gambling.»
He had other questions, he wanted to know how the company determined who was involved in the action cancelled, how where they able to reconstruct the complete situation and if the other people, not directly involved in the time jump, would live 5 minutes in advance comparing with his life?
He was not able to express all his doubts because the girl extracted some tables with the prices of the subscriptions; evidently the correct moment had arrived, and she thought it was opportune to speak about money.
«Here you can see the insurance cost. The prices differ from the service you choose.»
Alexander was astonished; he was not sure he could afford that price.
The girl noticed his frightened expression, and immediately switched the paper, showing the SUPER-ECONOMY option. «This formula of subscription, allows you to record one hour a day, weekend excluded of course.»
«Thank you, but I thought the cost was lower. I can not afford to spend all this money.»
«It is not so much, if you consider what we are offering. For the first time in your life, you will be able to make some big mistakes, and avoid paying the consequences!»
«Did you realize that after subscribing, you would be able to save the life of your family member? Avoid painful falls and wounds to your children? How will you be able to live with the remorse of not having stipulated the subscription, if tomorrow something dreadful were to happen?»
The strong words had the desired effect. Alexander thought about the accident he witnessed that morning. The lady was so unlucky because nobody in the crowd around the accident subscribed the insurance, or nobody cared to record that particular time of the day.
He thought about his two young children, who never paid attention when crossing the street. With that insurance, he could avoid numerous weeping, from the fair fall from the bicycle, to a deadly road accident, like the one just happened to the woman with the baby carriage.
«The SUPER-ECONOMY option guarantees the recording of one hour per day. To activate the service you must press the REC key, and to deactivate, avoiding the waste of all your time consecutively, just press STOP. This operation can be repeated until you reach the total of 60 minutes, after that time, the service won't work until midnight, when will begin the following day. Then, if it is not an holiday because that period is reserved for the GOLD insurance, you will have another 60 minutes of recording until the next midnight and so on.»
Alexander got out of the office, with the remote control in his trousers pocket.
He went back to the train station, to return home. The road in front of the railway station was crowded again, if he hadn't noticed the dark halo on the asphalt, and some police white lines of chalk, that underlined the sign of the car brake, he would not be able to see that that morning something unusual had happened.
While he sat in the train, he was staring out of the window, like if he was completely absorbed in contemplate the panorama that darted fast. Instead, he was thinking. He needed to test the device, to be sure of his operation.
When half an hour passed from the moment he left the insurance office, he went inside the small restroom of the second-class train car. He extracted from the pocket a small knife, which he was using to open the envelopes in the office, and he looked at it: «Now, I will know the truth» he affirmed talking to the blade.
He pushed the REC key of the remote control. He was disappointed when he noticed that nothing happen, not even the lighting of a small LED on the panel.
He pressed the blade on the finger's end of his left thumb, and he tried to cut the skin.
The blade was not sharp enough, and he was not able to cut the skin. Alexander pressed stronger, until the skin subsided, opening a large injury, worse than he expected.
The blood squirted everywhere, strained to the floor and also splattered the small sink. He began to tremble. He was afraid; he did not know what to do if the insurance didn't work. How would he cope with the situation? He did not have anything to disinfect the large cut and the train bath was not clean, a perfect place to get an infection.
He grabbed the remote control with the right hand. He immediately stained it with his blood. Trembling, he pressed the REW key. He looked around; he was still locked inside the narrow toilet on the train. He looked around; seemed that everything was unchanged. Unexpectedly he noticed that the sink was not stained of red anymore. He looked at his thumb. The injury had disappeared. He was immediately in a state of euphoria.
- This is great - he thought, - I have resolved all my problems! From now on I'm invulnerable. -
He pressed the STOP key to halt the recording. The insurance subscription was limited to one hour a day, weekends excluded, and he didn't want to waste all the time immediately.
When he arrived at his destination, he ran toward the parking spot where he left his car. After he closed the car door, he immediately felt at home, inside his own environment.
- I am satisfied; my fears are finished - he thought.
He pressed the accelerator, and the tires left a sign on the parking asphalt. He was anxious to give the good news to his wife. That was the beginning a new life, different from everything he had experienced until that day.
He found some traffic; a slow factory tractor proceeded at low speed in front of him. The noise of the slow motor was annoying and Alexander wanted to get away from that situation. His car stayed behind it for a long time, because the roadway was too narrow to overtake the tractor. As soon as the road become wider, Alexander overtook it, but he saw a traffic light in front of him turning immediately from the yellow light to the red.
- My goodness, - he thought. - I have just passed the factory tractor, and now I have to stop here. -
He slowed down and he heard the factory tractor behind him, getting closer. He was about to stop, when he remembered the insurance. He extracted the remote control from the pocket of the trousers, he pressed REC, and he accelerated, going beyond the intersection while the semaphore lit the red light.
- From now on I'm invulnerable - he thought.
A big truck was just passing the intersection, after the green signal on the other road. It didn't proceed fast, but the driver did not expect to see a car, arriving from his right and he did not have the time to brake. The car was in the middle of the intersection when the truck struck his left door. It was dragged for a long way. An elderly man, that stopped his factory tractor at the red semaphore, witnessed the accident.
The plate of the car door curled up toward the inside and the left arm of Alexander was grounded. The blood was everywhere inside the car.
The elderly man went close to the car to try to help the injured driver. The truck's driver was unharmed and Alexander heard his voice: «Why did he pass with the red light? Did you see?»
The elderly nodded sadly. He was not able to understand why young people, who drove the big cars, looked as if they were always in a hurry. The two men saw Alexander's left arm completely ruined. Despite the pain that he suffered, the man was smiling. From the inside of the crushed car where he was still jammed, Alexander extracted with the right hand an unusual remote control from the pocket of his trousers.
The truck driver saw him fumble with the device. He pressed REW, and he leaned relaxed, against the headrest.
What happened immediately after the accident was confusing. Alexander remembered his satisfaction changing quickly to fear, and he fell prey to panic. The two men saw him pressing continuously the REW key of the remote control; they thought that he had gone mad.
Alexander remembered the arrival of the ambulance, a white ceiling of a hospital and some people working franticly around his arm. A phrase: «We have to cut it, Madam. Your husband's arm can not be saved.»
That day, he was furious, heading toward the same insurance office, where the day of the disaster he stipulated the contract. After many days, forced to stay in bed during his convalescence, he was ready for fight.
Why did the step back not work? He used the service only for few minutes inside the toilette of the train, and that day he was still entitled to use almost the complete hour. While he was walking, he looked at the left sleeve of his shirt, dangle tragically empty.
He entered smashing the door.
«I am one of your customers!» he howled to the young girl seated at the desk, and pointing out the missing arm: «I have a small complaint on the failed operation of the remote control.»
«Calm down and sit please, we will try to understand what happened.»
A side door opened, and a strong-looking man entered. He wore the uniform of a local private vigilance company. Probably the employee activated an alarm, hidden below the table. With a head sign, the girl asked the guard to stay. The big man crossed his arms across his chest and leaned against the wall. His presence was noticed, despite his staying still and in complete silence.
«Please, give me your remote control.» The young lady turned the black object, and typed on her computer keyboard the long series of numbers that were written on the rear. After she pressed some more keys, without moving her look from the video she asked: «When did the accident happen?»
«Two months ago. I did not come here before, for obvious reasons.»
«I can see that you activated the step back only twice since you signed the contract, and both on the first day that you become our customer.»
«Yes, this is correct. The first time it worked, but the second it did not. I held active the recording button active for just a few minutes.»
«In fact,» the girl affirmed satisfied, «I can see that from the computer database. Also your request for the second recording arrived correctly to the GICC, Global Insurance Control Center, but it was refused because of overbooking.»
«Overbooking? What is that?»
«Like you will be able to read in your copy of the insurance contract, you choose the SUPER-ECONOMY service. It is the best cost saving contract. In the past, when the space available to record the data was fully booked, and a customer requested a recording, we use to send the data to the Global Insurance Control Center located in Australia.»
Alexander looked at her perplexed.
«You know,» continued the girl lowering her voice; Alexander had the impression that she was confiding an important secret. «When we have daylight here, over there is night time, and during the night not a lot of people use the insurance service.»
«I know that they have a different time zone over there! What are you trying to tell me?»
«Calm down, Sir it is all clear now. Our insurance company does not use the long distance transfers of data anymore, because it very often happened that, when the customer requested for a step back, the information arrived with too many errors.»
«Yes, mistakes caused by the lack of information. The situation, present five minutes before the request, appeared to be incomplete or partially wrong when recreated. People with different physical characteristics, with memories they did not have before and other similar small mistaken details.»
«Which different physical characteristics were present?»
Alexander was worried while watching the girl.
«I do not know exactly, people with three eyes, something like this. But you do not have to worry; this is not your case. To avoid all these problems, our company has included a smart clause in the economy contracts. You can read it also on the copy that you keep at home.» She read loudly and clearly the clause number seven: «In the cases of an exceptionally high request of recording, that usually happen during the peak hours, the company has the right to refuse the recordings. This contract is in the list of the recordings that could be refused. For this reason we are cheerful to grant you a special 10% discount on the monthly rate, not to be added with any other offer or promotional discount.»
«What does it mean?»
The girl was smiling again: «I am happy to confirm that everything is correct and under control. The remote control works perfectly.»
«But I didn't know it, I did not notice the clause.»
«What are you talking about, Sir? Can you see what is written in the lines above your signature?»
In the first line above his signature, there was clearly written in bold letters: The insured party declares to accept the present contract and to have red and approved expressly the clauses number three, six, seven and ten.
The interview was finished. The strong man of the security stood out from his place close to the wall, and he slowly walked close to Alexander.
While Alexander was escorted out, he though he was cheated the first time he entered in that insurance office:
- Nobody can make some big mistakes and avoid paying the consequences. -