Jennings is an engineer who agreed to work for two years for Rethrick Construction and have his memory erased afterward to protect company secrets. Instead of the money promised at the end of his contract, however, Jennings discovers his pre-erasure self asked to be paid with a collection of odd items: a code key, a ticket stub, a parcel receipt, a length of wire, half a poker chip, a green cloth, and a bus token.
As Jennings tries to unravel why his earlier self would request such items, he uncovers the truth of Rethrick Construction—also known as The Company—and the secret project Jennings worked on, a time travel device. Each pay item proves useful in this quest, as Jennings realizes his earlier self was able to see into the future, predict what his questing self would need, and provided accordingly. Jennings also discovers the scope of The Company’s work and suspects its intention to mold the world’s future.
Jennings uses Kelly, a receptionist at Rethrick Construction, to hide the evidence that he uncovers. However, Kelly is the daughter of Rethrick, which she reveals when Jennings tries to blackmail his former employer. Jennings demands that Rethrick let him become The Company’s next leader but is refused by Kelly, who holds the parcel receipt that will lead to the evidence. A hand descends to grab the ticket from Kelly, a nod to the literary motif of the deus ex machina—the god out of the machine, who changes the course of a drama in an omnipotent fashion. If anything, “Paycheck” and its time travel puzzle is the story of how one person takes control of his life in an unexpected fashion and becomes his own deus ex machina, forced to trust his own judgment even when that judgment is obscure.