Chronic Symptoms

by Sean MacKendrick

 

The cold wet mud sucked at Mary’s feet as she trudged towards the doors of the Dog’s Head. Effluvia seeped into the holes of her shoes and squelched between her toes. The hem of her skirt was gathered in a bunch in a failing attempt to keep it out of the sewage. Fever burned in her lungs in sharp contrast to the cold mud.

Leaning against the outside wall, Mary removed her left shoe and began scooping out the mud and filth with her fingers. A young man was watching her from across the street. He shifted his weight from foot to foot and made a move as if to start her way, only to stop and shift again. Mary did her best to smile at him as she cleaned the inside of her shoe. The mud stank of cold urine this close to the tavern. The shoe slipped from her numbing fingers, falling with a soft plop back into the muck. The man watched her, not meeting her eyes, looking ready to take a step. She wouldn’t be able to approach him, he would come to her on his own or not at all. Mary sighed and bent down to pick up her shoe. By the time she put it back on and straightened, he was gone. Just another back running away from her. Mary sighed again, wiping the filth off her hands against the wall.

Evening clouds were already soaking up the last of the daylight when she entered the tavern, dusky and thick with the mixed smells of old ale and human rot. Mary fixed her smile into place and approached the nearest table.

“Enjoying this fine day, gentlemen?” The room suddenly tilted and Mary grabbed the edge of the table for support.

“Yes, fine,” said the older man at the opposite end of the table. The other two men stared into their drinks. “Thank you.”

Mary tried to laugh and choked on a dry cough. “A fine day like this, you’ll want a fine day to…” She swallowed, careful not to wince, and tried again. “You’ll want a fine way to end it, surely?” The man glanced at her hands clutching the table edge, saying nothing.

“Thank you,” he answered finally. “I believe we shall be leaving for home.” His two companions stood without a word and headed towards the door.

“And where is home, love?” Mary smiled more broadly. “Not as close as a short walk upstairs, I wager.”

“No,” said the man. Mary couldn’t understand what he was saying, exactly. Was he interested? Saying, no, he wasn’t going home? No, he was already hurrying away to catch up with his companions. She sat in one of the newly vacant chairs for a moment, trying to catch her breath, feeling the swollen lumps under her arm with one hand, the tenderness under her jaw with the other. When she realized a young man at a nearby table was staring at her, she dropped her hands and jerked up out of the chair. The room tilted again, and Mary found herself steadied by the massive arms of the owner of the Dog’s Head.

“Mary,” Bruce rumbled, shaking his head. She smiled at the broad face frowning down at her, this time the smile coming easily. “I did ask you not to come in tonight.”

“Bruce, my Bruce.” Mary regained her footing and patted his shoulder. “All I needed was a rest. Now, I’d go for another laying down, if there’s any a man would care to join me…” She tried to find the face that had just been watching her, but everyone was carefully looking elsewhere and she couldn’t seem to remember where the man had been sitting, or what his features had been.

Bruce swept her hair aside and glared at her neck, releasing her and stepping away. “By god, Mary, look at yourself.” Mary ran her fingers along her jaw line and chuckled. “I’d rather be looking at the beautiful young man you do have in here this evening.” She spoke loudly. “Young men, I mean.” Still no one else would meet her eyes. Bruce grabbed a polished mug and shoved it into her hands.

“Look at yourself,” he repeated. In the milky reflection she could see the darkness of the lumps even in the dim candlelight. He hissed, “You need to leave immediately or they’ll paint a red cross on my door and shut us all in. You included.”

Mary dropped the mug. “Just a bruise,” she muttered. “Some of the younger ones get a bit rough. I don’t mind.” As Bruce bent to pick up the mug, her legs gave out and Mary fell to her knees. Bruce grabbed her roughly by the shoulders. Her head lolled from front to back.

“Boy!” Mary brought her head upright and placed her hand over Bruce’s. “Find a doctor, boy!” Bruce’s youngest dashed out the door. Mary couldn’t find the strength to thank him. Everything swirled into blackness.

* * * * *

The room she awoke to was little more than a small box with no furnishings beyond the simple pallet she found herself on, a small bench in the corner, and a curtain covering the entrance. In a bowl by the pallet, Mary was grateful to discover water. She tried to sit up and quickly fell back as the bile rose in her throat. She dipped a hand into the bowl and dribbled most of it on herself as she sucked at the moisture on her fingers. It did little to abate the dry fire smoldering in her mouth, but her senses were returning all the same.

As her head cleared a little, she began to remember, and realized she was in one of the rooms above the tavern hall where she so often worked before the Pest returned and scared so many customers away. She scooped another palm’s worth of water into her mouth, managing to get most of it to her mouth this time, and rested a damp hand on her face.

There were thudding footsteps in the corridor. Mary sat up, trying to ignore the sickly way the water sloshed in her stomach and how the room wobbled around her. Bruce swept the curtain aside and stared in, wordless. The forced casual expression on Mary’s face began to falter as he stared, until she realized his eyes must still be adjusting to the darkness.

“You’re awake.” Bruce sounded surprised.

Mary laughed and waved a dismissive gesture. “It was only a nap I needed.” It was impossible to read his expression with the light behind him. “My big strong Bruce, always saving me.”

Bruce mumbled something to the floor and cleared his throat. “I sent the boy to find the doctor. He said one would be by and tend to you today.”

“If you insist.” Mary flopped back on the pallet, trying not to grimace as the sudden motion sent her stomach into a spin. “I do suppose it wouldn’t hurt to have a man look me over.” It didn’t sound quite as lewd as she had hoped. It sounded pathetic.

Bruce stepped back into the hall. “I do. Insist, that is. The doctor will be by soon. Rest until then.” He left Mary to her darkness.

Although sleep came back almost immediately, it was fitful. The sounds of people shouting in the streets gave way to thundering rain, drumming on the roof and gurgling over the eaves to the alley below. Somewhere in the dark room a trickle of rainwater was dripping onto the floor. Mary was startled awake several times by a crash of thunder, unsure how long she had been asleep each time. Had she been here for more than a day? Was there a half-eaten trencher with a scrap of meat waiting beside the bowl of water at one point, or had she only imagined that? Was that hunger in her belly or fever twisting her insides?

And then she awoke to find that the rain had stopped. Mary tried to feel the time of day, wondering if it was in the early hours or very late. No weather or conversation was reaching her any more. She decided it was late. That’s when all the customers would be gone. Bruce would probably be waiting for her to come keep him company as he cleaned.

Yet even in the quiet, she did not hear the slight man enter the room. He was waiting for her when she sat up, watching her from just inside the door.

“You give me quite a start, sir,” Mary said. Her throat was not quite as raw as it had been before sleeping for… however long it had been.

The man was still, and silent except for the sound of his breathing. “Are you Mary?” Even his voice was slight, not much above a whisper.

“Indeed I am.” Mary stood, deciding at the last minute not to try a curtsey, rested or no. “Are you the doctor, then?”

The man nodded after a moment. “Yes,” he said, his voice louder now. “Yes, I’m the doctor. I’m here to make you better.” His accent was curiously flat and carefully enunciated. Mary had never heard one like it before.

“Well then, let’s let you have a look at me, yes?”

The man nodded again. He removed a bag slung over his shoulder and opened it with a loud tearing sound. “You are having fever and swelling, correct?”

“Aye. Nothing a bit of a bleeding wouldn’t fix, I’d wager.”

“No!” The man looked up from his bag and stepped closer to Mary. He smelled warm and clean. “No, bleeding is not a solution.”

“But,” Mary said, “I was bled not a year ago when I had similar fevers and was cured in a moment.”

The man sighed. “Look, I need you to trust me on this. Please sit down and I’ll… Do you mind if we have some light in here?”

“I believe Bruce has some candles downstairs he wouldn’t mind letting us use. I’ll go ask him.”

“No need, I have one here. Please, do sit down.” The man pulled something out of his bag and put it on the bench in the corner. It burned with impossible brightness.

“Do you not have a mask, doctor?” Mary blinked in the sudden light. The doctor was olive skinned, with a head of tight black curls. He was grinning. His teeth were as white as a child’s.

He took her hand and sat next to her. “My name is Michael, Mary. You can call me Michael. And no, I don’t have a mask. It’s OK, I’ve been… I have taken precautions against the… the Pest.”

Mary couldn’t understand how he could stay warm in such odd, thin clothing. The gray fabric shimmered in the bright light, thin enough that she could see the shape of his arms. His hand was warm, and soft, and dry. She let it go reluctantly as he dug into his bag, also made of some odd thin material.

“I know the current thinking is that blood makes you warm and too warm means too much blood, but it’s actually a lot—a lot—more complicated than that.” He pulled two small vials out of the bag. “First we need to get you eating right. Have you eaten lately?”

Mary’s stomach churned at the thought. “There might have been some food not long ago, I can’t remember for certain. I am sure I can vomit if need be.”

The doctor popped covers off the vials and shook a few white granules out of each. “Emetics? Are the doctors making you vomit? Of course they are,” he continued without waiting for her to answer. “No, that’s not what you want to do. Here, swallow these.” He dumped three of the small white pieces into her hand and gestured to the water bowl. “Please.”

They tasted bitter when she washed them down with a long drink of water. Michael dug through his bag again as she swallowed. “Now, you should get some more rest. Your stomach should settle soon enough.”

“Please, no more rest for now,” protested Mary. “I’ve been resting for more than long enough now.”

Two shiny bars came out of the bag, crinkling in his grip. “It’s only for a little while longer, I promise.” The doctor unwrapped one of the bars and bit into it. He held out the other and nodded to it. “When you wake up again you’ll be hungry, and you can eat this. Trust me, you’ll quite enjoy it. What I gave you will help you sleep and not feel nauseated any longer. Nauseous? No, nauseated,” he muttered to himself. “Always get those mixed up.”

“Are you sure you don’t wish to bleed me, doctor?”

“It’s Michael. Just Michael. Please. Lay back and I’ll keep you company.”

Mary did. She closed her eyes. “When Father kept me company, he would tell me stories until I slept. Will you do the same?”

Michael was looking at something attached to his wrist. “What? I don’t know any stories.”

“It was only a tease, doctor. Men do sometimes tell me stories when I’m in bed with them, though.”

It was quiet for long enough that Mary wondered if she was alone. Her eyes were heavy though, and it felt so good to have them closed, she couldn’t bring herself to open them and see if he was still with her.

“I’ve got a story,” Michael said suddenly. His voice was quiet again.

“Oh, good,” slurred Mary. “What is this story?”

“It’s a story about…” There was a creak as he shifted in the bench and scooted it closer. “It’s a story about how medicine will work one day. See, there are very, very tiny little things that we will soon know about. As small to a flea as a flea is to a dog, or rat. Actually, that brings me to a particular point about fleas. It’s about how you got sick, and how the sickness got here. After a while, people are going to be blaming the rats, but that’s not it, not exactly. You see…”

Mary found the strength to open her eyes and saw that he was staring at her. “Yes, doctor? I see what?” Her face felt numb and distant.

“Can I tell you a different story, Mary?” His grin was gone now.

“You can do anything to me you wish,” she said, not at all feeling the ease she was pretending. After all the dangerous men in her life, why did this small man make her feel so nervous?

Michael stood and paced the room. He rubbed his palms together in small, rapid circles. “Do you ever dream about things that could have been? Things that might have happened? No, I see that’s a confusing question. What I mean is this.” He sat back down on the pallet suddenly and leaned towards Mary, breathing audibly through his nose. His eyes were wide.

“Imagine if you could see how things would have turned out if you had done something differently. Turned left on the street and run into a stranger you become friends with, instead of turned right and not run into anyone?”

There was no sound other than his breathing. “Why would I want to see that, sir?”

“Because if you could do it on a big enough scale, just imagine how useful that would be! Politics, or economics.” He held out his left hand, palm up. “Either you try giving money to rich people, expecting them to spend the money,” Michael continued, holding out his other hand, “or you give money to the poor, expecting them to invest it. Which one is better? Which one results in a better system?” He clapped both hands together. “Why not see how both would turn out? Or, oh, a better example, whether to plant a particular crop or different one?”

“That’s a fun dream, to be sure.”

Michael took another bite of his food bar and chewed noisily. “See, there are certain places where choices have different possible outcomes. Each one of those creates different possibilities.”

Mary closed her eyes again. Surprisingly, sleep was tugging at her mind once more. “That would be many possibilities.”

“Exactly!” Michael laughed. “It would take a tremendous amount of time and effort to check them all out. You would need a lot of people to dig through all those points and sort out the data. Now imagine you are one of those people, and you could travel to all those different possibilities for that research. If you found something in one of them, something outside of the parameters you were sent there for, what would you do?”

She started to murmur a reply, but Michael didn’t seem to be looking for an answer.

“Imagine you saw the person you’d run into by turning whichever direction I said, and you knew you could make that happen, you’d sure do that, wouldn’t you? I mean, if it was someone you’d like to meet. Mary, pretend I found that person! She only exists in one of the three hundred possibilities I went to, and I found her in the last one. And it took a hell of a long time but I tracked back that possibility to an ancestor way back here, one particular version who didn’t get treated by a doctor and lived long enough to give birth some ten months after the fact. I could track down that point in the possibility matrix if I tried hard enough.”

There was a rustle and a shift in weight. Mary could feel Michael sitting again, watching her. “In this dream you’re imagining,” she said, “you can change the choice?”

“Look, you need to not see any other doctors for a while. You are one of the rare cases that would fully recover on your own. Can you do that?”

Mary glanced at Michael’s wrist. “You are glowing.”

He jerked his sleeve back from his wrist. A metallic cuff was blinking red. Michael jumped up.

“No way could they find me already. Damn it. Wait. OK. OK, look.” He tripped over his bag and grabbed it wildly. “It’s very important you don’t see another doctor, please?”

Mary didn’t know what to say. Her head was swimming. Everything felt heavy.

Michael pulled a needle out of his bag, attached to a clear vial, and a tiny jar of faint yellow liquid. He stuck the needle through the top of the jar and began drawing out some of the liquid. “OK, this will help ward off infection but isn’t for sure. You don’t need to be bled. A doctor will come in and want to cut your buboes, where you’re swelling. Do not let him! There are germs all over—”

The air crackled and opened to disgorge another man into the room, much larger and landing in a crouch.

The two men froze. Michael with the needle in his hand, the second man tensed and looking ready to pounce. Michael nodded towards Mary, his eyes locked on the new arrival. “Please, don’t stop me. I love her.”

“Jesus, Mikhail,” the second man said.

“No, no, listen.”

“There are absolutely no alterations allowed this far back! Are you trying to collapse the entire freaking matrix?”

“All she needs is ten months. The Great Fire is going to take care of things after that.”

“You know it doesn’t matter if she dies then, it matters if she dies now. No offspring. You are way out of bounds on this one.”

“Mary?” Michael spoke without shifting his eyes to her. “Take this syringe.” He slowly reached towards her.

The larger man lunged forward and knocked the object out of Michael’s hand. He grabbed Michael by the wrist and threw him to the floor, twisting his wrist behind his back.

“No! Mary, grab it and stick it into your shoulder and press down on the plunger.” Mary watched as the larger man smashed the vial under his foot and Michael screamed.

“She’s my wife when she exists! Don’t you understand?”

The larger man pulled a blinking disk from a hip pocket and slapped it on Michael’s back. Michael turned enough under the man’s grip to look at Mary. “Don’t let the doctor bleed you!” he said. “Stay away from doctors for a year! The knife is dirty, don’t let the knife—” Michael popped out of existence with a crackling thump.

The man stood and faced Mary for the first time. As he touched a device on his wrist similar to the one Michael had worn, he looked her in the eye. He whispered something that could have been, “I’m sorry.”

As soon as he was gone, sound slammed back into the room. Rain thundered down over Mary’s head.

* * * * *

“Are you awake?” Bruce and a doctor wearing a bird mask were at her bedside. Mary nodded. The rain had subsided again, with the last remaining water still draining down the gutters outside.

There were candles in the room, flickering over the walls. The light was very dim. “There were two men here, trying to save me. Or, one of them was.” She couldn’t quite find the spot on the floor where the vial had broken. If there was a stain or a shard left behind it was invisible in the dim light.

“There were no men.” Dark shadows bruised the areas under Bruce’s eyes, as though he hadn’t slept in days. “I’ve been outside the room the entire time.”

Hunger gnawed at Mary’s insides. She realized her fever was gone, or at least substantially lessened. Where was that shiny food he had offered her?

The doctor took off his mask and held a strongly perfumed handkerchief to his nose. “You may be suffering from your fever, and imagining your dreams to be real,” he said. He set his heavy cloak aside and rummaged through the folds.

“It wasn’t a dream, I’m sure of it.” Her stomach growled. “Do you have anything to eat? The man said I should eat something when I woke.”

The doctor pulled a long dagger from his cloak. “Eating is the last thing you need right now, my dear. We want to drain the troublesome heat from your body and heal you.”

“I’m sure that he said I should eat. I’m so hungry,” Mary said. “Is that knife to bleed me?”

The doctor picked up the empty water bowl and sat next to Mary. “Yes, we’ll remove the excess and have you up and about.”

Mary stared at the dagger glinting in the candlelight. “Can you make sure the knife is clean? I’m sure that was important to the man. He said diseases are on it, I think…”

Bruce sighed. The doctor smiled and wiped the knife with his handkerchief. “I assure you, no disease has ever been carried on a blade.” He positioned the bowl under her neck and held the blade against her throat. It was ice cold. “Shall we begin?”

 

The Solid Men: A Rick Rambler/Time Patrol Mystery

Layout 1

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by C.J. Henderson

“Those wanting wit affect gravity,
and go by the name of solid men.”
–John Dryden

“Zing, it was one when you knew how to nerk. Binkel. There was no denying it. You could feel it, tan side down—sharp.

“Wait a minute. Fuad.”

—klik—

“Didn’t realize what time I was set for. I apologize. These things happen when you’re part of the Time Patrol. Of course, you don’t actually know what that means, do you?”

I knew at least one thing I’d said had gotten through to young mister Quentin Peasley of the wilds of New Jersey, 2010 thru 2069, survived at finality date by his not-yet path-crossed wife Jenna, and his still unborn children, Cedric and Marshall. There was not, indeed, in any way, shape or form, any possibility that he knew what I meant. They never know. They can never, ever get their heads around it. I mean it.

You simply can’t noggle a guy and come right out and say, “Yes, that’s right, I’m a time cop. I move through the one-after-another seconds in all directions, across all the lines, watching for unauthorized activity of any nature.” That would be like saying something like, “Hey, I’m here because I know what’s supposed to happen and am duly authorized to make sure it does, using any and all means to make certain absolutely nothing interferes with upper case ‘P,’ upper case ‘T,’ Proven Time.”

No, it’s just more trouble than it’s worth. I mean, the first thing they all want you to do is explain Proven Time, as if anyone could. The accident that set man’s sight on the One True Timeline from which all others spring was no blessing. Up until then people had been a lot happier—a whole lot. Saner, too. A lot of folks—and I’m one of them, let me tell you—feel that ol’ Doc Wezleski ignored time travel when he discovered it because he could see straight away the kind of trouble it meant for all of us.

Anyway, the answer is “No.” In the end it’s always best to just give them some kind of story. Something like the one I fed Quentin after I’d gotten my Local Wordage Formatter crinkled to the right year.

“Forget all that,” I suggested, giving the poor sap ‘Knowing, Sincere Look #6,’ one of my personal favorites. “I need your help for a few hours, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“What?”

Of course, he was half in the noggle-bag already. I swear if Central could just calibrate one decent LWF, the force wouldn’t have a third of the problems we do with insertion.

“Here’s the story, Quentin.”

My hands checked over the rest of my equipment while I spoke, monitoring to see if any of it was over-heating (always a possibility), smoking (sometimes a possibility), or vibrating at a rate that might indicate an imminent implosion (sadly, a 1 in 95,000 possibility). For once, however, everything seemed to have survived insertion. I had arrived, unwarmed, non-smoking, and able to expect to live through the next eighteen seconds with relative security in the year of someone’s Lord 2028, with two hours to spare before the next series of souls were scheduled to be stolen from somewhere nearby—parties undetermined.

I had those one hundred and twenty minutes to ascertain the means of spatial energy theft, the vehicle of transfer, and the identity of the perpetrators before the Proven Time cosmic alignment was battered downward to a subcategory of semi-known, and mankind once more became, on the whole, a tree-swinging tool of fate rather than an upright, self-determining species.

“My name is Rick Rambler. I’d like, if I might, to tag along behind you for the next several hours.” No time to waste. “In fact, I’ll give you one thousand dollars to be where you are for the next,” quick eye scan of the chronometer, “next one hundred and… counting… eighteen minutes.”

Young mister Peasley did not seem enthused.

“Is one thousand dollars of current currency not worth that much these days? Doesn’t that buy quite a stack of goods?”

“I dunno,” answered Quentin, giving his best shot at getting with the program. “In like Africa, or um, what’s that’s messed-up sink-hole down south…”

“Orlando?” I ventured.

“Mexico,” Quentin corrected me.

“So,” I said, pointing toward the ground, “here—what would be outrageously great pay for me following where you go and what you do for the next, ah, less than two hours?”

“For what?” Quentin looked around, trying to nonchalantly scout for an exit, “I mean, is this a gay thing or a psycho-killer thing?”

“Nothing of either sort,” I assured him. Spreading my hands before him, palms outward, I said, “I just have this hunch that whatever it is you’ve planned for the next two hours is where I want to be.” He couldn’t possibly pick up a bad vibration from me. I was telling him the absolute truth.

“No freaky business?”

“What happens, where we go, et cetera,” I used the Class-A interaction tone, the one designed specifically for believability, “it’s all up to you.”

“Man, the thousand would’ve been good.” Quentin smiled, liked he’d figured something out and was going to be just ever so impressed with himself. “But you want somethin’, so I’ll take five thousand.”

I nodded, peeling twenty-five—what-appeared-to-me, and apparently to Quentin as well—hundred dollar bills from my currency log. Yeah, sharp move, kid.

“Half now, half later,” I told him.

Quentin smiled and pocketed the I-guess-it-was money after all. Actually, the little squarehead hadn’t made such a bad deal. If he lived through the next two hours, he’d get to keep the money. Oh yes, I mean all of it. Hell, I’ll give him the rest. It’s the least the Patrol can do for staking him out.

Not that the Patrol had picked him in particular or arranged whatever was going to happen in one hundred sixteen minutes.

No, Quentin Peasley was fading from the PT stats, the record charts of Proven Time—PT—the one real time line from which all the multitudinous others are spawned. Certainly the idea has to be familiar—a billion, billion yous living a billion, billion different lives, each one just a little further removed from your own, each a single step off to the left or right, each one step closer to riches and love and security as you, but each just as easily one step closer to ruin and pain and sorrow to break the heart as well.

What had been found the day Dr. Wendel Q. Wezleski made the connection between steam-power and inter-dimensional travel was the absolute center of everything. What was found the day after when the Pelgimbly Center for the Advanced Sciences announced he had discovered time travel years earlier as well was the beginning of a nightmare. Humanity found itself existing in the one perfect time at the core of all existence, the one which dreamt all the others. No other dimension had discovered the ability to move sideways through reality. Only us.

As an abstract idea, it was an interesting puzzle. But, as a reality, it became a tangible thing. And all tangible things can be exploited by the human mind.

Including time travel.

Plenty of others had found their way to the time travel door after Wezleski proved the wall wasn’t solid, and accidentally went so far as to point out the doorknob. Sadly, when that happened, it soon became apparent that some of those crowding around this new knowledge were using it for no good end. And, where as it was one thing if they fouled up their own lives, it was another if their skipping across the centuries sent reverberations across the lines that affected all of us—affected, in other words, Proven Time, the one true dimension.

The one which, once found, had to be protected at all costs.

“Okay,” said a cheerful Quentin. “You’re the boss. Where to?”

“Wherever you want, Quent.” I sighed. “Remember?”

Quentin scrunched up his face. Suddenly an unusually bright light came on behind his dull eyes. Its excitement suggested that young master potatohead still did not understand exactly what I was driving to get across.

“Look,” I told him, finger in his face, drawing his vision from my eyes so I could scan the area, “don’t worry about me. Don’t think about me. I’m just another guy who happens to be wherever you are for the next one hundred and fifteen minutes. Whatever you were on your way to do, just go do it.”

Quentin rolled his tongue around his pressed-closed lips for a handful of seconds while his brain tried to struggle past the moment of overload the presence of twenty-five hundred dollars could make in his life. It was an Unguarded Instant—one of the moments all Time Patrollers love, fear, and hate.

Here comes the big concept, okay? The thing newbies have the hardest time wrapping their nut around. We know everything? Understand? Get it—do you dig? We know everything. Or at least, we can know everything.

Wezleski gave us access to Proven Time. With chronal motion we can move up and down the one true timeline with greater ease than geese winging their way home for the winter. We can go anywhere, anytime—see anyone doing anything. We know about the aliens that watched us from 1687 to 2089, waiting to allow us to mature sufficiently to join the universal federation and how wonderful everything became once their technologies were introduced into our lives. We know what really happened to Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, and Yippie the Back-Flipping Dog. We know the last time you masturbated and whose picture you had in your hand.

But, when a TeePee interacts with the past, they end up instituting Unguarded Instants, moments in time that were never—could never have been—previously catalogued, because this was their first appearance. We’re not actually supposed to let them happen, but since they can’t be helped, officially we’re supposed to keep them to a minimum.

I wasn’t, under any circumstances, supposed to offer young Quentin a hundred dollars, or a thousand or any other amount of currency. But I did; after all, I had to do something. What was going to happen to him somewhere in the near future was going to be an unguarded instant, too—a godsdamned insanely cold-blooded one—the one I’d come back to prevent.

The Time Patrol was created to guard Proven Time. Any threat from one time period to events in another are met with the harshest punishments. There was a movie once, back when they made them still, that had a line in it that kind of sums up what we do. A guy holds out a pocket watch and says something like, “it’s just a cheap piece of junk, but bury it in the desert for a thousand years and it becomes priceless.”

If that were the extent of timecrime, I’m not certain anyone would even care. That’s not the kind of stuff the Patrol was formed to stop. No, at the point in time from where the TeePee operates, everyone pretty much lives in that kind of happy spandex wonderful peace, complete with the tall, gleaming buildings. But even with everything they could want, some people aren’t happy.

The ones I was after were using a power source called a Gravity Well to skim through the past and steal the souls of helpless folks living there. Gravity Wells are the bio-mech centers of the big space cruisers, massive theory engines that actually “suppose” their way through space by thinking they’re heavy enough to do what they do. They’re fabulously heady devices, and full of tricks, which is what made this case so impossible.

First off, they’re infinitely expensive. Not that many of them exist. Most are in the hands of the planetary government. Industry controls some, but they’re heavily regulated. Back home, when the first person died in the past from having their soul removed to whom this was not supposed to happen, alarm bells rang from the end of time back to the Mesozoic.

This was big.

And, for those who don’t know what I mean exactly by the word “soul,” I’m talking about that weight allotment of energy and human static that exits the body at the time of death. It contains all the memories, emotional ticks and everything else that makes one bag of flesh, skin, blood and flatulence different and unique from the next one. They’re part of a delicate mix in this universe, and when they don’t get to where they’re supposed to go, well… I mean, gink me, that’s just asking for trouble.

So, the Patrol took it pretty serious when someone started fishing for souls. It didn’t take long to determine that a) it was being done by someone in our own time, that b) they were using a Gravity Well to do it, and that c) they didn’t look as if they had any intention of stopping. In fact, if psychiatry is anything like an exact science, it was pretty definite they were going to be spreading murder up and down the time stream like liver snacks at a kennel.

Oh yeah, murder. These souls weren’t just disappearing before they were meant to move on—these people were dying years, decades, before they were supposed to. People living perfectly normal lives in the next dimension over— people like confused little Quentin Peasley—were being slaughtered by someone for reasons unknown in our own dimension. Our dimension.

Perfect Time.

It simply could not be allowed.

If it was, chaos was just around the corner.

Anyway, in not much more time, the Patrol would have its answer. With the first murder the pattern had been established. If the death had been an accidental tearing of the timewall, it would have been reported. Reporting such things immediately clears those responsible of almost all liability. As long as it was an accident, of course. After twenty-nine hours (don’t ask me who picked that time span), if nothing has been reported, then the Patrol takes over.

With the second soul theft, murder was established and the weapon was identified. Knowing we were looking for something, we were able to be on site fast enough to capture the Gravity Well signature. We knew what was causing the deaths. That made it simple to triangulate who the next victim would be. I realize it doesn’t sound simple to you, but then you’re not TeePee.

Thus, with Quentin spotted, marked, identified and confirmed, we had our murderer staked. We knew where every Gravity Well in operation was in the entire galaxy. Agents were ready for insertion at every one of them when crimetime came. I was on hand merely to make certain Quentin was where I could shield him from death. It was a simple plan, and someone was going to go down for it in little over an hour.

It’s good to enjoy your work.

For the next one hundred and ten minutes, my work was fairly okay. I tagged along while Quentin got himself a pizza, and then went “bowling.” It was some sort of sporting event. I once had been told it was “a kind of Zen thing,” a competition organized around the idea of combining running with swinging and hurling the heaviest ball ever created for sports, all without breaking a sweat.

I’ve seen weirder.

The pizza was a thing manufactured far from the bowling stadium (well, whatever you call them). Made in incredible quantities all at one time, they were then frozen, stored, transported thousands of miles still frozen, stored again, and then finally reheated upon request with mind-singeingly powerful microwaves. The beauty of it made me wonder what my wife would have for dinner that night. The bowling was an interesting ballet, but not many of the participants that day seemed to be actual Zen masters. Perhaps I had been misinformed.

Whatever, as the time of Quentin’s murder drew nearer, I readied my equipment. I had the shield projector which would protect him ready to go—had actually had it ready since the first moments we’d met, although I knew exactly when I would need it. The reflector could hold a beam for up to five minutes. Far more time than would be needed. All in all, I was fairly relaxed. I knew as certainly as I knew the moon revolved around the Earth (at least until 2136) that one of our agents would have things under control in ten seconds or less.

And then it happened.

A curious white blur began to affect the reality there in the bowling stadium. To anyone uninformed, it would appear as a simple reflection. But I knew what it was, could smell the faint hint of ozone and boiled tar which meant gravity in play. I switched on my reflector and bathed Quentin in it.

“Hey,” he shouted, feeling the light wrap around him protectively, clinging to his back, his neck and legs—everything. “What the… hey!”

“Don’t worry,” I told him, watching the seconds tick off on my PTChronometer—four… five… six…—“it’ll all be over in a couple of seconds.”

“It, it,” he groped for a moment, touching himself, touching the shielding, marveling without understanding, “…feels cool.”

Yeah, I thought, just put up with it for a few more seconds, and then you can bowl your night away while I get home to see what’s on the dinner table. I watched the PTC climb steadily—ten… eleven… twelve…

“This is crazy, man.”

I nodded, not taking my eyes off my chronometer, but having to agree with him nonetheless.

Nineteen… twenty… twenty-one…

The light around Quentin was beginning to do more than simply reflect white.

Twenty-eight… twenty-nine… thirty…

People were beginning to notice. Games were stopping. All about me, rented shoes were turning in our direction.

Forty-five… forty-six… forty-seven…

“Hey, I feel, I, I dunno… weird. Sick, kinda—”

He wasn’t the only one. I had no instructions past keeping him alive with the reflector. I had been assured that absolutely nothing could go wrong.

Eighty-eight… eighty-nine… ninety…

Not with a ten-second job.

One hundred-five… one hundred-six…

Ten stinking seconds.

Quentin’s face began to shrivel, sink in, its color dropping to ashen as if he were dying. As if the energy of his soul was beginning to be leached from his body.

One hundred-fifty-seven… one hundred-fifty-eight…

Tears began to form in his helpless eyes. He offered me my money back, clawing it from his pockets, bills spilling out across the polished wood of the stadium.

Two hundred nineteen… two hundred twenty…

By this time people had gathered around to see what was happening. Their presence did not interrupt my beam’s ability to defend Quentin, but they made it harder to concentrate, harder to keep the focus from beginning to dissipate.

Two hundred thirty-two… Two hundred thirty-three…

Instructions and questions rang in my earpiece. I did my best to both listen and answer. Watching Quentin’s life slip away helplessly as the PTC continued to tick—

Three hundred fifteen… Three hundred sixteen…

“Gink-a-dink!” I cursed, not caring who heard. “You can’t let this happen!”

My curse was wasted, because happen it did. Quentin shook, his arms trembling, teeth chattering. His life force was being torn away from him across decades, maybe centuries, there was no way to tell. His tears combined with the snot dripping from his nose to make his last words unintelligible. He fell across the gutter, his hands crumpling beneath his body. I stared at my useless equipment, burned out, searing the flesh of my hands. Then, I disappeared, recalled to TeePee Central.

* * * * *

Of course, no one had any answers. Every single Gravity Well in existence had been monitored. Active or inactive, down to the ones that had been placed on courthouse lawns in little towns too new to have Civil War cannons, or Beverly Hills Holocaust souvenir kiosks, if they still had an outer shell and even half the parts necessary for operation, we had someone there. Just in case.

Just in case—

And it still hadn’t been good enough.

Quentin Peasley, average, unformed, uncomprehending Quentin Peasley was dead. He would now never cross paths with Jenna. Their unborn Cedric and Marshall would remain that way. That meant pain and destruction smashing its way through Proven Time for decades forward from his death— coupled with the other murders—perhaps centuries.

It had to be stopped. But, how did you stop something from happening that was impossible? That the murders were being committed with a Gravity Well was undeniable. It was proven fact. It had to be. But, as best anyone could tell, it was also a proven fact that every single Gravity Well ever built had been cleared of involvement.

And then a thought hit me. Perhaps my logic was faulty. Yes, unless there was a basic building block of science missing from our knowledge, Peasley and the others were murdered through the use of a Gravity Well. But…

I radioed my thoughts to Central while on my way to the garage. My request for extra rangers was met—ten TeePees were hauling weapons to vehicles when I arrived. Obviously my notion had been found to possess some merit. No one said anything about it to me and I didn’t ask. I didn’t care. All I wanted was to make certain no other Quentin Peasley’s had to pay the price for our smugness.

On the way to our destination, I received Jehovah confirmation and my calibrator was unlocked all the way to ten. For the duration of the coming raid, I had been awarded Supreme authority. I was acknowledged final judge, jury, and executioner and no one could argue with me. I also couldn’t be reprimanded later or penalized in any way for actions during the raid.

Of course, that didn’t mean I could stop along the way and pay a hostile visit to the bully who made my life hellish in the seventh grade. But, those granting me my temporary powers knew that wasn’t in the equation. I had been motivationally scanned before any decisions had been made. They knew my mental make-up of the moment. Those in power knew the only thing I cared about and gave me the means to obtain what I wanted.

When we reached the front gates of zVz, the guards denied us entry. I flashed my Jehovah badge. I did not bother to say anything. There was no need. Suddenly pale, their joints turning to the softest of putty, they waved us in as if welcoming the parents of the bride to her wedding. One of our people stayed behind to make certain our arrival was not communicated to anyone inside.

Within two minutes we had reached the central meeting room of the board of directors for zVz. They were, arguably, among the most powerful human beings who had ever walked the face of the planet. Their fortunes were unthinkably large, their futures as vast and magnificently laid out before them as the stars of the heavens stretched out before any of the travelers using one of their Gravity Well-propelled ships to move through the universe.

“And who are you people?”

Thomas Gadius Thorn, the single most powerful man who ever lived, stared at us from his perch arranged at the far end of a table so massive it struck one that there shouldn’t be trees large enough for it to have been built. It would have to be a big and thick and powerful table, however, for in the center of it was the thing overlooked, the device not predicted.

“Rick Rambler, Time Patrol,” I said automatically. With hand gestures I moved my people around the room. Each of them moved behind a collection of board members and started to take readings. Letting my badge hang from around my neck, I kept my hands free as I told Thorn:

“You’re under arrest.”

The thing in the center of the table, of course, was a Gravity Well. It had never dawned on anyone that a well would ever be built and then not registered. The only person capable of doing such a thing would be the head of zVz, and what could the reason be? To make illegal profits? Why would someone who would need to spend 18 trillion credital units a day for the next two centuries, just to go through what he had already stacked up in various vaults around the solar system need to steal any more?

“On what charges?”

But such thinking had been painfully short sighted. And Quentin Peasley was just the most recent poor bastard who had paid the price of its limitations.

“Tampering with Proven Time.”

“Not murder?” Thorn’s voice was rasping, but giddy. The only emotion he seemed capable of showing at the moment of his judgment was amusement.

“Murder was the means of your tampering. Perpetrated through means of an illegal device, an unregistered Gravity Well. Built, it can only be concluded, for the purpose of murder—”

“Oh no,” answered Thorn, his voice snickeringly self-assured. “Not built for murder. No profit in murder.”

All around the room, the men and women of the zVz board joined in with their lord and master, their sniggering noises making the great hall sound as if it were filled with rats. Rising from his place, Thorn made to walk the great length from his spot to mine. I motioned those agents under me to allow him passage.

“Solid Men do not need to stoop to such dull pastimes.”

“Solid men?” I asked.

“Indeed,” responded Thorn cheerfully. “My companions and I, we are The Solid Men of Society. We are the doers, the builders, the obtainers of fortunes, the makers of dreams. We are the backbone of progress. We are humanity’s most righteous citizens.”

Pointing to the Gravity Well in the center of the table, he paused to stare at it as he said;

“I know even a lesser individual such as yourself can recognize the breakthrough this device represents. The model G-9, 149 times lighter, more compact, than the smallest Well in production. That much smaller, and yet capable of doing at least half as much work as a full-size model. Think of it, Mr. ahhh… Mister…”

“Rambler,” I reinformed him, adding, “so you admit that this is a functioning, unregistered Gravity Well?”

“Of course, and so much more. When Cardinelli reported what he hoped for it, that it could power vehicles beyond space, further than time, but sideways as well—we were, obviously, excited here.”

“Why was that, Mr. Thorn?”

“Please, Ranger Rambler. To no longer be dependent on Wezleski’s infernal love boats. No more need for undying romance between pilot and navigator… to simply be able to hoist one’s anchor and power to whatever, wherever, whenever, however… even you can grasp the enormity of that.”

He was right, of course. I could. As easily as anyone alive. It would have meant an unbelievable surge in the fortunes of zVz. So…

“So,” he answered my unthought question, “why didn’t we? Register it? Release it? Turn it over to the profiteers of the world? Because, first we had to test it. And that was when we discovered its enormous side benefit.”

I simply stared, waiting for an explanation. Thorn shrugged, smiled at me, and then returned to explaining.

“Normal Gravity Wells are heavily shielded, of course, because of the mind-bogglingly dangerous amounts of lethal things going on within them. That shielding had been reasonably, we thought, reduced for this newer model. But, what no one realized is that those extra layers of shielding, as well as keeping so much from escaping the wells, was keeping something else from entering them.”

Thorn danced in a circle for a moment, laughing as he did so. Then suddenly he skidded to a halt, his face aimed in my direction, and saluted me. I waited a few seconds, after which he began laughing again, talking as he did so.

“The new wells are soul-collectors. They reach out and simply suck them free from people. Cardinelli turned it on, and instantly his life essence was drained from his body. The well was shut down by remote backup, but the damage had been done. And then, the most wonderful thing was discovered. Those of us present, we became the beneficiaries of this tragedy.”

As he drew nearer, Thorn stared at me, something in his eyes letting me know he really cared if I understood.

“His soul, removed from his body before its time, not ready for rebirth, fled to the nearest flesh for safety. Our flesh. Can you imagine it, Mister… Rambler, is it? Can you?”

Thorn had almost reached me at that point. I rested my hand on my sidearm. He did not seem to notice. Perhaps he no longer understood the gesture. Feeling safe for one reason or another, the CEO continued on toward me, still jabbering.

“Human energy, Mr. Rambler, is but the building material of the soul. Not all people grow them. Children, animals, they do not possess them—they can’t. For you see, the soul is created at that incredible, powerful moment which is the awakening of the thinking mind. Not the instinctive mind, the knee-jerk response levers which keep the knuckle-draggers moving forward, but the moment where the lizard brain actually stops worrying so much about what it will be chewing next, and finally, for a moment, begins to ponder.”

All around the table, the others were nodding, their eyes as filled with stars as Thorn’s.

“The sharper the brain, the more incisive the thoughts, of course. Cardinelli’s vast gray matter had charged his soul with a texture and taste beyond compare. He was… delicious.”

I rocked a touch, my body staggered by what I had just heard. Yes, it had been an accident. They had been flooded with their companion’s life force before they could react, but after the deed had been done, it had not been long, Thorn delighted in telling me, before they had decided to relive the moment.

“Have you ever had a creative thought, Mr. Rambler,” the CEO challenged me. “Have you? A truly creative thought? If you have, you know the thrill of that moment, the power you feel coursing through your every fiber. Think on that for a moment, and then, try if you can to comprehend what it feels like, to suddenly have every ounce of a person’s creative life flash through your system. Even a pimple like Peasley learned to tie his shoes, count to ten, tell green from yellow—it’s all creativity—”

The horror in the room finally hit me. The board of directors of zVz, the richest, most powerful group of people in the known universe, were drug addicts, and the drugs they craved were human souls. Techno-vampires, they had thrown away all of society to perch above it.

I looked at the indicators on my Jehovah. If Thorn wanted me to have a creative thought, he was getting his wish. I suddenly pieced together that he had to know we were coming, or at least that we would come. He and his fellow ghouls had been waiting for us, determined to have it out with us then and there. Take us down while we were still blind to what was happening.

The CEO had already been intelligent. Now he was flooded with the best energies of five other people. Abruptly, I knew the power of the Jehovah calibrator would not be enough to contain that which was surging through Thorn’s body. He had crippled my resolve with knowledge, sneaking ever closer in through the defensive wall of distance to where he could nearly lay hands on me. Knowing I had only seconds, I kicked outward, catching the CEO off guard, sending him crashing into the table as well as two of his fellows. As they spilled out of their chairs and went down in a tangle with their leader, I shouted;

“Slaughter! Keep them busy—I’ll be right back!”

As my people unlimbered their sidearms and blasted away at the surprisingly resilient directors, I thought orders for an emergency transfer and, thanks to my temporary calibration, was instantly granted my travel request. In the same instant I finished saying the word “back,” I reappeared within the wilds of New Jersey, specifically within the walls of the bowling stadium in which I had watched Peasley die.

Throwing a wall of cancellation over my former self and the crowd, I approached Peasley and screamed at him;

“You know you’re dying—right?” When he nodded, I shouted, “I can’t stop it, it’s already happened, but I can tell you why. If you don’t want anyone else to die this way—listen to me!”

And, as Peasley began to crumple, I gave him what I hoped would be an awakening moment. As quickly as I could, I revealed to him the secrets of time travel—that it existed, that it was real, and what it meant for all humanity.

As I disappeared once more, I watch the dying face of Quentin Peasley experience epiphany.

Then, just as fast as I had left, in the instant I disappeared, I reappeared as well. I actually felt myself leaving the spot in which I arrived, almost knocking myself over. My people were just pulling their blasters, were just pulling on the triggers I had watched them pull a moment earlier when I signalled them again to stand down. There was no longer any need. Thomas Thorn had told me how to stop them.

I had extrapolated, it’s true, but I’d been correct. After the rich taste of their scientist’s soul, they had turned their machine on hungering for more wonderful rushes like him. I don’t think they had found any. Thorn’s begrudging admission that even Peasley had had something to offer made me think—

What if his mind had held wonder?

What if he had been experiencing that rarest of human moments, an explosive instant of epiphany when they gobbled down his soul? I had hoped for something like the reaction any other kind of drug addict experiences when after many highly cut doses they were suddenly gifted with the pure stuff. Sure enough, Thorn and his fellows were all helpless with fascination, overwhelmed with their stolen moment of self-satisfaction.

Knowing it would not do to waste my hard-won advantage, I stepped to where Thorn still lie tangled with the others. Placing my foot upon his neck, I looked into his eyes, and said;

“I sentence you, Thomas Gadius Thorn, to death by disbursement. Your atoms will be scattered. Your fortunes will be forfeit. You are ended.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he mumbled. His drool-leaking mouth smiled at me, his eyes promising he was still filled with surprises too ample for me to overcome. Gesturing for me to come closer, his weak voice croaked past my heel to tell me:

“Oh, Mr. Rambler, you weren’t paying attention. I told you the G-9 worked across dimensions. When it gathered unto us Mr. Peasley, don’t you know, it gathered unto us, all the Mr. Peasleys there are. Just as it gave us all the Cardinellis, and all of all the others, plucked from every dimension, across all the expanses…”

“Meaning…”

“Meaning, Mr. Rambler, that you’re too late. So you eliminate me. What does it matter? Across every dimension, a billion, billion other Thomas Thorns know what I know now. They all understand time travel now. They all want to taste what I have tasted. They shall flood here to stop you. You and your Proven Time are doomed! We win, Mr. Rambler—”

His laughter became a thing unbearable to hear. Shifting my foot just a bit, I brought my calibrator to bear on his forehead. As I did so, the rest of my force picked a target and did the same. Looking into his eyes one last time, I said:

“Same thing, Thorn,” I told him. “When I said you were ended, I meant it. Say ‘goodbye,’ Tommy.”

And then, I acknowledged calibration and thought Thomas Gadius Thorn out of existence. All the Thomas Gadius Thorns. All billion billion of them. Every one of them. The Jehovah badge glowed a deeper purple second after second as around the room the directors of zVz were winked out of existence everywhere and when they existed.

The next day, across all the dimensions where there had been a Thomas Thorn, where the Gravity Well had been invented and a corporation to administer its existence had come into being, those who were not in charge of the company would discover they had no idea who was. They would have a product no one would have ever claimed to have invented. Hopefully they would use it to better ends.

Stumbling to the nearest chair, I fell into it, too numb to feel. My second-in-command came to me, holding open a containment box. I nodded, giving her the go-ahead to remove my Jehovah circuits. She understood, I was simply too tired to do it myself. As I sank into the cushioning of the chair, I suddenly wondered it the Luddites weren’t right after all. Maybe we’d all have been a lot better off not knowing half of what we know.

Wezleski thought so. No one ever knew why. I think maybe I understand what he was thinking when he would just smile at certain questions, making his joking apologies to humanity for all the harm he had caused by inventing time travel.

Whatever the case, we do know what we know, and it’s too damn late to go home again. We’re human beings. As a race we’ve always been on one edge or another. I guess this is just the latest one. Well, that’s what comes from getting the race to where it was—too damn smart for its own good.

Working at keeping my body from spilling onto the floor, I pulled myself erect in my chair as best I could. I had, of course, absorbed Thorn’s soul the way he had Peasley’s. The CEO had been right; it was a rush, all right. One my people and I have all been through in the past when eliminating other would-be conquerors.

Even through my rage, I almost chuckled at Thorn’s questions to me—if I had ever had a truly creative thought, if I had ever known the thrill of having every ounce of a person’s creative life flash through my system?

Yes, Mr. Thorn, I have. But like any truly mature person, I learned long ago that pleasure always comes with an ever-escalating price tag.

“You know, chief,” my second said, taking a brief look down into Thorn’s uncomprehending eyes, “whichever ‘they’ said it first, ‘they’ were right. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

I just groaned and threw a mock punch at her head. She laughed. Hoping that somewhere Quentin Peasley was having his own richly deserved last laugh, I dragged myself out of zVz’s chair and headed for the door and back to work.

I was sure there was something to do somewhen.

To Rally the Troops

by Harry J. Lowther

 

Jeb stood beside an old cannon near the place where Robert E. Lee had sat upon Traveler to watch the attack go in. Looking out across that gently sloping field nearly devoid of trees or large rocks he wondered that men would deliberately put themselves there under fire from nearly a hundred guns and thousands of rifles. Yet fifteen thousand had—as if on parade—marched across that very field. Jeb knew they had fallen in waves, piled like broken toys, but the attack had plodded inexorably onward.

He focused the zoom lens of his camera on the point just under a mile away where the gray battalions had converged and smashed into the Union line. Bloody Angle it had been called ever since, and the name was certainly apt. Jeb recalled from his reading that hundreds on both sides had died there in agony spilling their blood into the rich Pennsylvania soil before the line had broken.

Jeb was fully aware that the moment of that break was critical in the history of his people. From that moment the freedom and dignity of the Southern blacks was assured. Jackson Early Beauregard Sterling, for that was his full name, studied that section of the field and could almost hear the guns punctuating the yelling of ten thousand men engaged in slaughtering one another in the name of freedom. He could almost see, through the swirling smoke of battle, the second charge led by young Major A.J. Halliday go in against the strongest point of the Union line and smash through.

Alexander Halliday had become an instant hero that day when, after the first repulse, he had rallied the men just a few yards out from where Lee himself was sitting. Placing his hat on the point of his sword and shouting, “Follow me to glory!” led the ragged rebel infantry to the greatest victory ever won on the North American continent.

At that point the main Northern army was divided and the rout begun. In his mind Jeb could hear the exultant shouting of the victorious army in pursuit of the vanquished foe. Years of teaching the history of the War for Southern Independence at the University of Tennessee provided the scenario that quickly played itself out in his mind.

The rout had been complete. Artillerymen abandoned their guns, some unhitching the horses to ride from the field. Infantry threw away their rifles so they could run faster. The Union Army was shattered. That night, in warm summer darkness, the army dissolved. McClellan was recalled to lead the defense of Washington. There was no army, and he knew it. He established headquarters at Cincinnati sending orders to Grant to raise the siege of Vicksburg and march his army back to defend the north. Washington fell on July twenty-second, and Lincoln was arrested on the White House grounds. McClellan assumed the Presidency, moved the capital to Cincinnati, disbanded Congress, declared martial law and sued for peace. When Grant surrendered his army at Nashville on July thirtieth an armistice was arranged.

The treaty of Covington settled the right of secession allowing the states of Maryland and Kentucky and the southern half of Missouri to leave and join the new Confederacy. Jubilant and magnanimous in victory and increasingly aware of the economic inefficiency and diplomatic embarrassment of slavery the Confederate States abolished that institution in 1868 with the passage of a bill sponsored by the newly elected Senator A.J. Halliday. For decades afterward Southerners enjoyed pointing out that the only slavery on the North American continent existed in the factories of New England in the north.

The South had prospered, and the former slaves shared in the good times. An army made up largely of ex-slaves liberated Cuba and brought it into the Confederacy. Southern prosperity rested on sugar, tobacco, cotton and beef along with ship building, steel and electric power. It proved a solid base for the betterment of all people of the C.S.A. Black men sat in paneled offices and in state legislatures. They commanded battleships and regiments and taught in state universities.

Jeb smiled to himself at the irony. Lincoln had tried to tie the war to the slavery issue, make it a crusade. He had failed, but slavery ended anyway, more easily and with less ill-feeling. There was ill-feeling in the north, plenty of it. People for whom Northerners had spent millions of dollars and gallons of blood, only to find it had all been unnecessary, were not suffered gladly in the North. Jeb had experienced this attitude himself at the passport control in Littlestown yesterday. The authorities had searched his car and demanded additional documentation.

He probably wouldn’t have come to this place if he hadn’t been working on his second book. His first book, a you-are-there treatment of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, had been a great success. It had been widely acclaimed for its first person, first hand, eye-witness narrative style. Jeb had spent weeks in Charleston researching the battle. He had spent hours standing where the guns had been and staring out across the harbor toward the fort. He had then gone to the fort and stared back until he could hear the guns, smell the burnt powder and feel the concussive impact of the cannonballs.

This was the technique he called “getting into history”. As he often told his students, “Don’t just read about it. History was lived; relive it.” He believed that the place something happened could help you to establish a metaphysical emotional bond with the people who had been involved in the event. Now he was here to get back into history. The field was much as he had imagined. He had seen the photographs, from Matthew Brady on, so he was a bit surprised at the lack of monuments on the Confederate side of the field. There were a few old cannons and some headstones, but the only public memorial was a small pile of bronzed horse droppings where Traveler had stood. Apparently, thought Jeb, the fact the the C.S.A. and the U.S.A. had been allies in two world wars had not been enough to completely heal the rift.

Jeb stood beside the old cannon and listened for history. He heard the guns and the yelling and began to smell the smoke. As he stood staring at the distant point where the line had broken he realized that the smoke, explosions and running men weren’t just in his mind. He heard clearly the tearing sound of massed musketry and the thundering of big guns with the undercurrent of screaming men killing and being killed. The acrid smell of burnt powder stung his nose. In the distance men in blue were running. Jeb became aware of hundreds of men running and shouting all around him. A gun crew manned the cannon near where he stood. Men in gray and butternut brought up the last of the powder and shot and began loading the gun.

Jeb took off the coat to his light gray three-piece suit and draped it over a tree branch. He rolled up his sleeves and picked up a ramrod. As he rammed a cannonball back down on the powder already loaded, he shouted over the din, “Y’all got those damn Yankees on the run. Time now to put ’em away!”

A young officer looked at him strangely then went back to sighting the gun. “Stand away,” said the officer. “Fire!”

A corporal touched a long match to the fire hole, and the gun erupted in smoke and flame. The noise up close was like a blow to the head, and his ears rang. Along with the others, Jeb sprang forward. He grabbed a swab to clean any unburned powder from the barrel. When he turned to get the ram, another man already had it. The crew pushed past him to reload the gun. Jeb looked out across the field through the swirling smoke. On the sloping ground of Cemetery Ridge a group of Union soldiers had been formed into a rough square and were firing in volleys.

Jeb now noticed something else; the blue soldiers were still running, but they were running the other way, toward the gap in their line. Moreover they were running in groups directed by officers on horseback. The gap itself was no longer growing and spreading but was contracting and being pinched off. The gun fired again as did cannon all along Seminary Ridge; expending valuable powder and shot in an effort to discourage the rallying Northern troopers. But, they were rallying and storming back to annihilate the small bulge in their line.

Union artillery was firing again, not only at the Angle but at Seminary Ridge. Of course, Jeb thought, they want to isolate Pickett’s brigades by pinning down any reinforcements or cavalry moving forward to exploit the break. The Northern counter-battery fire became fierce with Yankee shells falling along the road behind the guns and cannonballs careening among them. Several Confederate artillerymen were down, some horribly mangled. A terrible crash drew Jeb’s attention to the nearest gun on their right. It now lay upon its side with one wheel crushed beneath it, the other spinning lazily above it. The barely recognizable remains of a man lay crumpled under the barrel. Other members of the crew staggered away spattering the dusty road with their blood.

An intensity of yelling to the front brought Jeb’s attention back to the field. It was not the confident rebel yell of troops going forward, but it was the screaming in pain and anguish of an army in retreat. Back they came, the battered remnants of Pickett’s command. No longer disciplined and confident they stumbled back singly or in small groups. Many were bleeding, some were assisted by comrades. The majority wore the vague expression of people shocked and stunned by some great calamity.

“No!” Jeb shouted, “this can’t be happening.” He ran out onto the field waving his arms. “No, no, go back. You must go back. One more charge and they’ll break. Go back, go back.” He ran toward a large man who had thrown away his rifle. “Go back! Find a gun and go at them again. Glory and victory are right out there.”

The man grabbed him and threw him down onto his back. “You go, nigger. They’s nothin’ out there but death.”

Jeb rolled over and raised up with his arms. He was looking at the cannon he had tried to help with. It was no longer firing, none of the guns were firing. Even the Union artillery fired only sporadically. Jeb pulled his knees up into a crawling position but was immediately knocked back into the dirt by a foot in the small of his back as a terrified trooper vaulted over him.

When he finally regained his feet Jeb no longer looked like the successful author and college professor. His vest and his trousers were torn and dirty. The sleeves of his white shirt were grass-stained. He turned and again faced the retreating Confederates. “Turn around,” he pleaded. “Go at them once more.”

Most of them ignored him as they straggled back from the Angle. A few cursed him for a stupid nigger and advised him to find shelter where he could. Far across the field some blue-coated officers on horseback and a few Federal sharp-shooters were nipping at the heels of the receding Confederate wave. Jeb grabbed a youthful officer by the shoulders. “Rally your men,” he begged. “Lead them back. The second charge will carry the day.” He turned the dazed man and led him by the hand back toward the Union lines. A sword lay beside the mangled corpse of a colonel, and Jeb stooped to pick it up. He put it into the officer’s hand. “Take them back, sir, and victory is yours.”

They were near the middle of the field now among the greatest mass of retreating soldiers. Jeb pushed the officer ahead and watched him walk calmly to a large rock which he stood upon. Placing his hat on the sword point he raised it above his head. “Rally on me,” he called. “Fear not and follow me. We shall–”

At this point he was hurled backward from the rock and slammed into the dirt. Jeb ran to him and bent over the fallen man whose eyes stared unblinking into the sun. A huge hole in his chest still gushed blood. The face, which Jeb now studied, was familiar, a face he’d seen in hundreds of drawings and photographs. “This can’t be,” Jeb wailed. “You can’t be dead.” He started to stand when a searing pain flashed from the top of his head and sent him spinning off into enveloping darkness.

* * * * *

Birds were singing when Jeb awoke. Something heavy was prodding him in his side; his wife’s foot? Painfully he opened his eyes on a bright blue morning that was gently spinning clockwise. The worst hangover since college, he thought. What the hell did I drink? And that weird dream; what the hell was that about?

Somewhere close by, but out of his line of sight, someone said, “Look here, Billy, this one seems to be alive. He’s so dirty and smeared with burnt powder he looks like one ’a them neegroos.”

A face with a blue cap above it moved into Jeb’s field of vision. “Why ya dang fool, it is a nigger.”

When Jeb turned to better see the men his headache returned. It was less intense, but, all the same, it made him groan.

“He’s alive okay,” said the first man, “but that knock on the head is makin’ him feel pretty bad.”

With great effort Jeb reached his hand up to touch his head. He felt the sticky mess of blood and dirt matted in his hair. Good Lord, he thought, I must have had an accident on the way home from wherever I was drinking. What could I have been drinking, and how much? Now the cops have found me. How much trouble am I in?

“Was anyone else hurt?” he asked. His throat was so dry he hardly got the words out.

The men laughed. “Yeah, thousands,” said the one in the blue cap.

Jeb’s memory began to work, painfully and inefficiently. The battle, he thought, the battle was real. He raised up on one arm to speak. The bright blue world began to spin a little faster, but he recognized the uniforms of Union Civil War soldiers. “Prisoners?” he gasped.

“What?” The first man offered him a drink from one of several canteens he carried. “Here, let me take a look at that wound. Hmm, not serious, bet it hurts, though. Bullet plowed a furrow right across his scalp, even got a little bone; ’bout like a Shawnee scalpin’ but messier.”

Jeb winced at the touch of something wet to his head. Tiny gold pinwheels spun across his little portion of the sky, but he was beginning to feel just a bit better. “You men must be prisoners,” he said. “Prisoners on a burial detail.”

“Prisoners?” sneered the other man. “What a damn fool idea. Shit, we won. The only prisoners around here are Rebs. What the hell was you doin’ out here with them bastards?”

“But, we won,” Jeb muttered in confusion. “Pickett’s second charge went through and rolled up your line. You people ran, and the Union Army dissolved.”

“That bullet scrambled up your brain, boy. Ole Bobby Lee slinked off last night with his tail ’tween his legs. We whupped him good.” The Yankee soldier spat into the grass. “Get this dumb nigger outta here. He’s contraband.”

Half a dozen men now clustered about Jeb. His wound was cleaned and bandaged, and he was eased onto a stretcher sticky with blood. As he was lifted he saw that they all wore Union blue. They smelled of sweat and blood and newly turned earth. The pain again radiated from his head down through his body.

The physical pain was less severe; already endurable. It was his mind that concerned him. He knew he had been a teacher, history, of course, but where? His name was Jeb; Jeb what? He could remember teaching history, and remembered exhorting his students not to just study history but to live it. He’d had a theory; yes, a theory, that you could will yourself back into history; and he had done it.

The true implications of what he had achieved struck him like a body blow. He had been present at the climactic event of the Battle of Gettysburg. The painful scalp told him he had been a participant, and, as he thought of this the tears began to flow. He had interfered and changed the course of history, and he was now firmly trapped in the results of his interference. He would never meet his wife. She would be born years after he was dead. His children would never be born at all.

 

Disappearing Act

by Clayton L. Stephens

 

My job was about thirty-five miles away. There was never any traffic on my route so it always took about forty-five minutes to get there. At first, I didn’t mind the commute. It gave me a chance to listen to the news or to hear a favorite album… but after a few months it became extremely monotonous.

Day after day, the same forty-five minute drive. I ran out of music, got tired of the news, and began to just zone out in a daydream. When I would wake up it would feel as if I’d been driving for an indeterminate amount of time, without paying any attention at all to the road.

Along the way to work, there was a mountain that I had to cross over. The road over the mountain was long and winding, and when you reached the top, you could look down onto the farms and houses in the valley below. You had to watch your brakes as you crossed over the summit and began the steep descent. I always focused somewhat intensely on that part of the drive, but I guess after a while I even got used to that stretch.

One day, after I’d held my job for about six months, I zoned out again. During my morning drive I lost myself in another daydream and a strange occurrence happened. When I snapped out of my daze, I realized that I had passed the mountain, yet I had no recollection of it whatsoever. How is that possible, I thought. How could I traverse the mountain without paying any attention at all to my driving? Then, I looked at the time; I was ten minutes away from work and I’d only been driving for fifteen…

I didn’t understand why or how I could shave twenty minutes off my route to work. Mathematically, it would only have been possible if I were traveling at 150 miles an hour for the whole trip. But being that I drove a Volkswagen Fox, that wasn’t a possibility. Perhaps, I thought, something was wrong with the clock in my car, or I read the time wrong when I left in the morning, but the “time warp” kept happening. More and more, I kept losing myself in daydreams and when I woke up somehow I would have traveled three quarters of the way to work (a distance that should have taken at least thirty minutes) in ten or fifteen minutes. In the next month, the “time warp” occurred three more times. In the month after that, it happened twelve times.

Quickly, what should have been a forty-five minute drive became a twenty-five minute routine. Though I lacked comprehension, I knew what was happening was real, and I began to have faith that it would work. I set the alarm clock fifteen minutes later, left with only a half an hour to get to work, and I never had any problems. The more I believed in the “time warp,” the more relaxed I was about getting to work on time. With every passing day, it became easier to put the stress of being on time out of my mind. Without stress, it was easier to slip into another daydream, and with the daydreams came the “time warp.”

* * * * *

I worked in a large corporate building, located in a quiet business park just north of Santa Barbara. Every morning when I stepped out of my car, I looked up at my place of business in awe. I couldn’t imagine how people did it, how they built fifty story buildings that appeared to be made up of nothing but dark reflective glass. The blue logo at the top floor said McMurphy Technologies. Well, Mr. McMurphy must have had quite a bit more ingenuity than I, because it was all I could do just to walk through those glass double doors (the logo was also emblazoned on them in white), grab myself a cup of black tasteless coffee and head to my cubicle to push papers for eight hours. The work itself was even more monotonous then the drive, and one thing I hated was monotony. I wanted desperately to be free from the bondage of the 9 to 5, but there was something besides work that kept me coming back each day, something that put a smile on my face.

Her name was Rhonda, and she was fine. Her hair flowed over her shoulders in long thick strands of wavy brown that matched her eyes. Her skin was tan and she had a smile that could always make my knees wobble. The clothes she wore always walked the fine line between sexy and demure. My favorite dress was the red one she liked to wear that cut off just above the knees and a few inches below the soft valley of her neckline.

Rhonda worked in the cubicle across from me, and her job was a little bit more intricate than mine. She was one of three people in charge of marketing McMurphy technologies to hospitals and contractors—anyone who might use lasers (that was our product). Boy, could she sell. She made me want to buy a laser, just listening to her on the phone. I’d hear her through the thin fabric partition that separated us, while I zoned out in my own cubicle. Her voice was soft and alluring. I’d listen until I heard…

Clickety clack… Clickety clack. That was the sound of Eric Wilson’s fingers tapping on the top frame of my partition. “How are the contracts for the Municipal Hospital coming?” he’d ask, or some other mundane question that really meant, get back to work before I tell on you for slacking. Nothing like a middle management boss with nothing to do but harass the people like Rhonda and I who actually made this place run.

Anyway, one day after Wilson got done hounding me, Rhonda whispered to me through the thin blue fabric. “He’s a jerk,” she said. “Don’t listen to him.” Her words put a smile on my face, and I decided then and there that I didn’t want to communicate with her through a cubicle anymore. I stood up and pushed my blue four-wheeled chair back towards the wall. Then, I stepped out of my sanctuary and took about three paces to where I could look at Rhonda.

She looked up from her desk and smiled at me as I stood there quietly at the entrance to her cubicle. “How ya doin’, Arty?” she asked.

“I’m fine. How are you, Rhonda?”

“Fiiine,” she replied, stretching the word out and tilting her head as if to ask, why are you standing there?

Then I asked her, “Would you like to go to lunch with me today?”

“Sure,” she replied with a friendly smile.

Rhonda and I had lunch together at a little café in Goleta. It went beautifully. We talked about everything from the weather to our dreams. Hers was to just make enough money to travel to exotic places. She wanted to see the Pyramids, and the Sistine Chapel.

“But I could see myself living in Spain,” she said. “Maybe it’s just the books I’ve read, but it seems so magical.”

When it was my turn to share, I told her about all my dreams to get out of my cubicle and become a musician or an author, some kind of artist. I wanted to travel the world too and soak up as many places and experiences I could, then pour them back out into my songs or stories.

“Why don’t you?” she asked.

“’Cuz I can’t write and I can’t sing,” I said, with a subtle shrug of my shoulders.

Then I told her how all I really wanted was a beautiful woman at my side. The flirtation made her laugh a coquettish laugh. Then she touched my hand gently and smiled at me while batting her eyes.

* * * * *

The next morning I got up early because I had a stop to make before work. I put on my fake beard, beanie and sunglasses and headed over to the Solvang branch of the Bank of America. I parked down the street from the bank, out of range of any security cameras. It was 8:20 a.m., when I took a toy gun (one from the eighties that looked oh so real) out of my glove compartment and went inside to make a withdrawal.

I approached the counter, pulled the gun out of the inside pocket of my coat and pointed it at the clerk.

“Everyone put your hands up and keep them up,” I yelled. Then, I looked down at the clerk’s nametag and saw that her name was Betsy. “Betsy here is going to find me fifty thousand dollars. If anybody drops their hands before Betsy gives me the money, I’m going to redecorate the walls with her head. Any questions?”

Everyone shook their heads “no” and kept their hands up, and Betsy went about her task. “Don’t go trippin’ any secret alarms now Betsy. If the cops show up too soon, it’s your ass, understand?”

Betsy nodded yes, and acquired my funds quickly and painlessly. She brought over a bag full of money, but I told her I wanted it in a briefcase. Betsy was very helpful. She did as I asked without any crying or stammering. I thanked her kindly for a job well done, and went on my way. But before I left, I yelled, “Nobody leaves this bank for five minutes. If I see anyone walk outside, I’m poppin’ a cap in ’em!”

This gave me time to stuff my beard, beanie and sunglasses into my pockets, and morph into a typical businessman walking to his car.

The freeway was only about a block away, and soon as I turned onto the southbound on ramp, I began to think about Rhonda. I thought about running away with her, traveling the world for years, and then maybe settling down in Spain where we’d buy a villa overlooking the ocean. We’d raise our kids in a world where our kids wouldn’t have to worry about gangs or drugs and Rhonda and I wouldn’t have to worry about being slaves to the 9 to 5. I got lost deep in my daydream, and when I woke up, I was pulling into the parking lot at work, and a little early no less. I punched in at 8:50 am.

* * * * *

As the days went on, Rhonda and I began to get closer. I’d spend less and less time working and more and more time flirting. Sometimes, when Wilson was standing over her, bothering her about work, I’d call her number.

She would tell Wilson to hold on as she reached for the phone, and he’d stand there impatiently as she answered, “Hello.”

I’d whisper something like, “Hello, beautiful. What time you getting off work?”

“Well, sir, I don’t know… the numbers look good. Maybe we can get you five.”

“That sounds good to me. I can’t wait to get you alone.”

“Is the offer still the same?”

At this point, Wilson would have had enough standing and waiting. He felt as if he should never have to stand and wait for someone else, so he’d take off, and Rhonda could stop pretending to talk business.

“Yes. Dinner for two at Ristorante di Tuscani, followed by a night of wine and dancing.”

“Sounds marvelous. Pick me up at six honey, and don’t for get to wear that Calvin Klein cologne.”

When Rhonda and I went out, it always felt like the world belonged to us—as if all the land was a movie set and we were the stars. They could have made a movie about us; we had the kind of romance that, up until we went out, I’d only read about. It was flowers and candy, dinner and dancing, boat rides on the lake, anything the cheesiest supermarket novelist could dream up. But it was more. Rhonda and I related on something that no one else seemed to understand. We both felt like caged birds, and work was our cage. It wasn’t steel bars, but our jobs that kept us confined to a small radius, only getting the chance to fly free every now and then when our masters opened the door.

We both had a great passion for this world… Hers was for its wonders and mine for its art, but we both felt as if we were missing out on so very much.

* * * * *

By October, I had the “time warp” down to an exact science. All you had to do was daydream, and if your body knew the route, which mine did, it was as if you could fly. I was getting to work faster and faster; I robbed two more banks, and pocketed another fifty thousand dollars each time. After the third robbery, the cops questioned me for the first time. Two detectives showed up at my job one day. Eric Wilson asked how he could help them, and he was all too happy to show them to my desk.

One was a tall, older black man with a scraggly half-white beard. He walked with a limp as he approached my desk. His partner was a younger white detective with wavy brown hair. His face was clean-shaven and he had a bit of a belly. They both wore the same ugly brown pants and white button-down shirts, but the older one had a black overcoat and the other’s was beige. “Sir, we’d just like to ask you a few questions,” said the older detective; I believe his badge said Jones.

“What’s this about?” I asked innocently.

“We’d like to talk to you about the recent robberies in Lompoc and Solvang,” Jones said.

I got up from my desk and allowed them to lead the way to the coffee room where they intended to question me. Apparently, there was a witness that saw a man with a briefcase get into a Volkswagen Fox near the crime scene, and they said he sped off pretty fast. It was all I could do to keep from laughing. After all, I had an airtight alibi…

We entered the break room and I offered the detectives a seat. Then I went over to the coffee maker to pour myself a cup. I offered the detectives some as well. Jones passed, but his partner, Detective Regal, was more than happy to sample our fine brew.

“So what can I do for you, gentlemen?” I asked as I handed Regal his cup and took a seat at the other end of the white plastic table.

“Well, I’m sure you’re aware that the robbery of a federal bank is a very serious matter,” Jones said. “We have a witness that links your car to the crime scene, license plate and all. Now, you have no criminal record, but unless you can prove to us that you were somewhere else and that witness made a mistake, we’re going to charge you.”

I just shrugged my shoulders and smiled a leisurely smile. Detective Regal smiled back at me and raised his coffee cup a little to show he appreciated the taste. “Well, what time was the robbery?” I asked Detective Jones.

“8:35 a.m., yesterday,” he replied.

“Well, then that’s that… I believe it was 8:48 when I punched in yesterday. That would mean I got from Lompoc to Goleta in thirteen minutes.”

Jones and Regal looked at each other with uncertainty. They thought they had their guy, but in light of this new information, they weren’t sure how to proceed. “Do you have your punch card?” Jones asked.

“Yes, detective, it’s at my desk, and you can verify the time on the company’s computer system.”

Jones motioned with his head for Regal to go check the timecard. He did so, leaving Jones and I alone in the coffee room. “So, how ’bout this weather?” I asked.

“It’s Santa Barbara. The weather never changes,” Jones replied. He was all business until his partner came back and exonerated my name.

“It all checks out,” Regal said, as he let himself back in. At that, Jones stood up, his large frame looming down over us. “Well, sorry for the inconvenience,” he said. “We just have to check all our leads.”

“I understand,” I replied as they left. Regal took his coffee cup with him and bowed slightly at the neck once more to me. I reciprocated and shut the door behind them.

When I was sure the detectives were out of range, I began to dance around the break room and laugh, “Hahahahahah!” I got off scott free, and I doubted Jones and Regal would show their faces again… Rhonda and I were going to have everything we ever dreamed of.

* * * * *

A week later, I went to pick up Rhonda for another date. She and I usually spent a good deal of time talking about all the things we longed to experience, but on this particular evening, we skipped the talk altogether.

She opened the door for me, and before I could even say a word, she had pulled me inside. We started kissing deeply and passionately. We tore at each other’s clothes, ripping them off our bodies until they lay in a heap on the living room floor. Before I knew it, she’d led me into the bedroom where we began to make love for the first time.

I was no virgin, but no experience I’d ever had compared to the first time with Rhonda. We were intertwined for hours before we finally stopped out of sheer exhaustion. We lay in bed together, her head resting on my chest, and my arm beneath her neck. She rubbed her hand up and down my stomach as we listened to the silence.

It was at that point I decided to tell her my secret…

“There’s something you should know,” I said softly.

Rhonda just looked up at me with her eyes as if to ask, what?

“Well,” I continued. “Do you remember when those detectives came to question me?”

“Yeah, about the bank robberies,” Rhonda replied curiously.

“Yes, about the bank robberies.”

“Well…”

“Well, what if I told you that I really had robbed those banks?”

“Hahahaha! C’mon… what are you kidding me?” Rhonda asked incredulously, but my facial expression told her I most definitely was not.

“But how, you said you punched in only thirteen minutes after the robbery and the location of the robbery was at least forty-five minutes away.”

“Have you ever zoned out in a car while you were driving someplace you’d never been before…” I went on to explain to her about the “time warp”—what it was and how I’d learned to control it. She was still reluctant to believe me… so I proved it to her.

The next morning, we met up at my place, and we raced to work. We left at 8:00 a.m., and forty-five minutes later I greeted Rhonda at the office with a cup of coffee and a punch card that read 8:20. I just shook my head at her and said, “I can’t believe you made me get to work forty minutes early.”

From then on she believed me, but it still took some work to convince her to go along with what I was about to ask her.

We met again on the weekend. Saturday turned out to be a lovely beach day, so I took Rhonda for a picnic at the Gaviota State Reserve. It was beautiful, but chilly enough to keep the tourists away. We had the beach all to ourselves.

Rhonda and I found a place in the sand close enough to the water where we could look up and down the coast for what seemed like an endless stretch. We could see the odd shape of the beach, which made some spots face south rather than west, and we could see blue waveless water shimmering out into eternity. I carried a small basket, from which I pulled a bottle of wine. I poured Rhonda a glass and we sat down in the sand.

“All this,” I said while looking deep into Rhonda soft brown eyes, “is nothing… If you stay with me, I can offer you the world. We can see the ocean from the shores of Spain, and we wouldn’t have to wait for the weekend.”

“We can go to Spain?” Rhonda asked curiously. I could tell she was wearing down. Deep down, I knew it wouldn’t be hard. She wanted to be free from work too, and she wanted us to be together.

“Yes, Rhonda, and we can we stay as long as you like. I told you, we’ll get a villa overlooking the ocean. I’ll even take you to the bullfight.”

“NOOOOOO!” she exclaimed coquettishly, and smiling all the while. “I don’t want to see the bullfights. I can’t stand to see all the death.”

“Ok then,” I replied. “You can see Dali’s art museum with me.”

“Ok,” she replied, her smile now even wider.

“Do you mean you’ll go?” I asked.

Rhonda turned her head and batted her eyes, pretending it was a hard decision to make. But quickly, she turned back to me. Her expression had changed into one of passion and desire. Her mouth became a soft red palette and here eyes burned right through me as she said, “Of course, I’ll go with you. Wherever you go, I’ll go with you.”

I leaned into her and we kissed. All the world stopped turning as our tongues swirled round in a symbiotic dance. When we parted, her eyes burned through me again, as she asked, “When do we leave?”

I looked at her intently and replied, “I just need one more big score. Then we’ll have enough so that we’ll never want for money again… I’ll do it Friday, when the banks have the most cash lying around. We’ll leave on Saturday.”

* * * * *

Friday came and I awoke early. I knew that all my dreams were so close to coming true. I headed to the Lompoc Branch of Washington Mutual, where I was to make my final withdrawal. As per my routine, I parked about a block away from any security cameras on the bank’s outer wall. I put on my beanie, beard and sunglasses and pulled the toy gun from the glove compartment.

Everything went as planned. The teller didn’t want any problems and neither did anyone else behind the counter. They put their hands up and didn’t move a muscle while Andrea went in the back and collected two hundred thousand dollars. She found a nice leather briefcase (by then I had developed quite a collection of briefcases) for the money and passed it across the counter. I took hold of the handle and turned to walk out, pointing my plastic gun at the customers and guards. “Stay where you are!” I yelled at the two gentlemen standing off to the left. Then I faced forward and yelled at the guard, “Don’t you try anything funny old man!” Then I turned to the left…

I should have noticed him there. I guess I just became too complacent. It was Detective Jones. He was there in plain clothes waiting to make a transaction just like the rest of the customers. The only difference was that he had a gun. It must have been in a shoulder holster beneath his jacket. As I turned towards him pointing my gun, he was pointing his. He fired quickly, not knowing that mine was only a toy, and shot me right in the chest.

As my gun fell to the floor and my white shirt suddenly dampened into a dark crimson red, all I could do was look at Detective Jones with big stunned eyes. Then, all the dreams I had for Rhonda and I flashed before my eyes, and I grasped at a last straw of hope…

I turned and ran. Jones ran after me, but he was old and whatever caused his limp also kept him from running very fast. I made it to my car, which was parked across the street facing the freeway on ramp. I saw Jones standing on the parallel sidewalk, his gun drawn. I thought he’d try to shoot the tires, but there was too much traffic from the opposite direction. It blocked off any shot he had. The light turned green and I peeled out. I quickly shifted up the gears into fourth and floored it. The car screeched as I rocketed onto the freeway, trying to outrun death.

After about a minute, I heard the loud whine of sirens approaching behind me. I looked in the mirror and saw their flashing lights speeding towards me. But the road opened up in front of me, and I cleared my mind of all my worries—the police cars behind me and the wound in my chest. I thought only of Rhonda and all the things we would do together. Quickly I became lost in another daydream and the “time warp” began.

I wonder what the policemen must have thought as they trailed me. All their eyes would have been peeled on me, locked in and focused, and then… Gone. Gone into some other dimension, some other plane of existence. But this time, I didn’t make it through to the other side.

They never found my car or my body, and Rhonda still waits for me to this day.

 

Key to a Future

by G. Dedrick Robinson

 

“I hope you got the right box.”

“We’ll know soon enough, Mr. Gavin,” the bank lady said, handing the long steel box to me.

“That’s Glavin, not Gavin.” Turning to keep her from seeing, I lifted the lid a bit and instantly my heart started thumping.

“Is it yours?” she said.

“Yeah, it’s my stuff. I brought a bag,” I said keeping my voice flat and pointing to a small gym bag on the floor. “Mind if I go into one of those little booths?” A few moments later, I stopped my hands from shaking enough to lift the lid. No doubt about it—somehow the Diebold locksmith had drilled the wrong box. Why didn’t I call the lady over, tell her I’d made a mistake? But it was more money than I’d ever seen—three rows of hundred dollar bills stacked tightly on their sides going all the way across the box.

Were they real? With difficulty, I wedged out a small stack of bills from the front row and rifled through it. Many were worn and dirty, and they didn’t have that pungent odor of new money. Weren’t counterfeit bills always new and crisp?

How many? I quickly counted fifty and that only made a small dent, not even an eighth of an inch in the stack. With the steel box being maybe six inches wide, that would be what? Quickly I did a rough calculation in my head, a skill I’d acquired from my years of working the cash register at Pizza Hut before they finally got around to making me a manager. Nearly a million dollars.

From a pauper to a millionaire just like that, and all because Lindsey Jo lost the key to our safe-deposit box. She made me sell most of my card collection last year, but I really hated getting rid of the ones I kept in the bank box. Finally, she said it was either the rest of the cards or her. Of course, my Nolan Ryan rookie was the only high dollar card. A few more like that and we could get out of debt. Topps Number 177 all the way back from 1968, worth a fortune now. Of course, she didn’t like it a bit when I bought it—said we needed to pay down our credit cards. I hated the thought of parting with it, but how could I stand up to her?

Was there anything else in the box? Lifting the lid all the way, I saw a couple of small items. The only thing I recognized was a 3 x 5 inch card with dates and place names neatly printed in fine black ink, all with lines drawn through them, except for the last one. The only past date I recognized was next to the bottom, 9/11/2001 – NYC & DC. Maybe all this money belonged to terrorists. Was it a list of terrorist acts they’d pulled off? But that was impossible. Most of the dates were hundreds of years ago with places I’d never heard of. But what about 9/11 and that last date, the only one not marked through, 5/24/2018? That was only three days away, and Fort Detrick was close, just over in Maryland.

I couldn’t make any sense of the other two items. I picked up a vial about two inches long with a clear liquid, not thin like water, more like Karo syrup, but completely colorless. I couldn’t see a cap, or even any place where the end had been sealed. Maybe they were going to poison the water supply with it or something.

The remaining item was about the size and shape of a Hershey bar but seemed to be made from some gray metal. I thought it might be platinum, but it wasn’t heavy enough, and it felt cool when I picked it up. As I ran my fingers along its utterly smooth surface, I began to feel a slight tingling sensation, and my hand got cold, almost like the metal was sucking out the warmth.

I sat there a moment alone with my thoughts. This stuff had to belong to terrorists. Taking it would put an end to whatever they were planning for May 24th. I’d be a hero for stopping them, and the money would be like a reward. I would deserve it. But what if they came after me? No, they wouldn’t even report it missing out of fear of being discovered. Could I be sure?

Then a thought hit me, a way to buy some insurance. Hide the vial and that bar-thing, whatever it might be. If they tried to strong-arm me, I would threaten to turn the stuff over to the cops.

I put the stuff in my gym bag and drove home. With a million bucks worth of new backbone stiffening, I stormed in ready to finally confront Lindsey Joe. Sitting on the beat-up recliner, the slut didn’t even bother looking up. With her mouse-brown hair in curlers and those ugly glasses slipped low on her nose, she seemed mesmerized by the sixty-inch Sony Flexatron TV. Of course, it was 3-D, but lots of people had those. No, this set was special, brand new on the market, the kind attached to a frame hanging on the wall, so you just rolled it up like a window shade. She’d pitched a fit when I brought it home, screaming that we couldn’t afford it. How could I ever have put up with her so long?

“Did you get the stuff?” she demanded, staring dumbly at the screen.

Grabbing the remote from her lap, I hit the off button, and the set silently retracted.

“What’s the matter with you? This is my favorite show.”

“I’m keepin’ my baseball cards. If you don’t like it, there’s the door.” Telling her where to get off felt good, like a great weight lifting from my chest, finally letting me draw a breath.

She’d always had a temper, but not like this. Her face turned stop-sign red as she screamed obscenities at me. I laughed, launching her anger into orbit. She grabbed a lamp and flung it in my direction. She missed me, but not the window. With my hands up protecting my face from the flying glass, I kept laughing. She flung books from the shelf and than raced into the kitchen and started launching dirty cups from the sink. Screaming that I’d be hearing from her lawyer, she finally slammed the front door so hard that a picture and a mirror crashed to the floor.

The place was in a shambles, but who cared? Now I didn’t have to share the cash with her. Of course, I’d have to wait until the divorce was final, but I could manage that.

* * * * *

I was studying my computer’s holo-display the morning of the 24th, planning next week’s schedule for the part-time employees when I looked up in response to a soft knock at my half-open door. I was surprised to see a man dressed like he’d just stepped from a page in Gentleman’s Quarterly.

“Mr. Norman Glavin?” My visitor was tall, thin and his Bible-black hair was slicked down. He was young, maybe twenty-five, and his face reminded me of some movie star, but I couldn’t recall the name. He wore an elegantly tailored navy blue suit with a dark red tie precisely knotted and perfectly in place. Maybe he’s an attorney, but they always carry briefcases. This guy had nothing with him. Well, at least he got my name right, not Gavin like most people said.

“What can I do for you? You an inspector or something?”

“May I come in, Mr. Glavin? What I have to discuss is important.”

“Why not? Take a load off your feet,” I said pointing to a chair.

“I am sorry. I do not understand your order.”

“Order? I’m inviting you to sit down.”

“I understand. Thank you.” He sat in the chair, but completely straight, no slouching at all, not like anyone I’d ever seen. Finally someone who sat like up his mother told him.

“Why do you want to see me? I got a schedule to get done.”

“Mr. Glavin, my name is Nehemiah. Ms. Pearson at the bank gave me your name. She wanted to call the local authorities when she learned you had taken the contents of my safe-deposit box. I persuaded her to wait until I discussed the matter with you.”

“I don’t know what the hell you talkin’ about, mister.” It was a stupid thing to say. This guy didn’t look like the type you could bluff. I hadn’t even thought of a good place to hide the stuff yet. One thing though, this Nehemiah didn’t look like any terrorist I’d ever heard of.

“You said your name is Norman Glavin—38 years old, 5 feet 9 inches tall, 146 pounds, straight brown hair and moustache, prominent cheek-bones. May I see the fingers of your right hand?”

“What for?” Trying to humor the guy, I held out my hand, palm side up.

Bending his head forward, and I mean only his head, he raised my fingers until they were only a couple of inches from his eyes. He inspected my thumb and each finger one at a time. “You are the same Norman Glavin who had a safe-deposit box at the First Union Bank. Your international identity number is GL2938-302-83971.”

“You can read fingerprints from just looking at a hand? Who are you?”

“I do not intend you any harm, Mr. Glavin. My only purpose in communicating with you is to recover my property. As a gesture of my good faith, if you will return the other objects in the box without delay, you may retain possession of all the United States legal tender.”

“Are you saying I can keep the cash? You’ll just give it to me?”

“That is correct.”

Well, I may not be the fiercest lion in the jungle, but I knew this guy wasn’t leveling with me. Nobody gives away a million bucks that easy. Nobody. He had to have an angle. Something worth big money to him. Then I remembered the index card. “So you can cross the last date off your list?” I yanked open my desk drawer, and slammed the list of dates down on its metal surface. “When the cops see this, you’ll never get out of jail.” I thought that would get a rise out of him, but he didn’t even bat an eye.

“Mr. Glavin, I have no criminal intentions. I had hoped to avoid explaining why I must recover the objects from my safe-deposit box, but I see I cannot.”

“It has something to do with this list, right?”

“Yes, Mr. Glavin, it does. Do you mind if I close your office door?”

“A secret, eh? Go ahead.”

After easing the door shut, he sat back down and pointed to the list. “Mr. Glavin, you may find it difficult to believe what I am about to tell you, but this list of dates is the proof. For example, consider this one.” He pointed at September 9, 9 A.D., Teutoburg Forest. “Do you know why that date is important?”

“Sorry, that’s before my time.”

“That’s the date Germanic tribes decimated several entire Roman legions. It halted the expansion of the Roman Empire and changed the course of history. If it had not happened, the United States would never have existed. Instead two expansionist empires would have developed, the U.S.S.R. under Joseph Stalin and Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler. Both would have possessed atomic weapons and a nuclear holocaust would have already occurred. Humanity would now be extinct.”

I find it hard to convey the coldness in Nehemiah’s voice. He made it sound so matter-of-fact, like that stuff just happened yesterday.

“Sure, pal. Anybody can make up stories. Why don’t we cut the crap here and get to the only date that matters.” I jammed my finger at September 11, 2001 A.D. on his list.”

“Ah, yes. The latest critical date in human history. It also prevented human extinction.”

“Yeah, right. I suppose you’ve got some land in Florida you want to sell too.”

“Land in Florida? I do not understand.”

“Never mind. You trying to tell me blowing up those buildings was for our own good?”

“It was. That date, like all the others on this list, changed history. It awoke the United States to the danger of terrorism and prevented something unimaginably worse from occurring, something that even the terrorists did not intend. They sought only to kill millions of Americans and Russians using nuclear devices that would have come into their possession in 2007. They did not anticipate the computer malfunctions that made each nation think it was being attacked by the other leading to a nuclear holocaust.”

“You expect me to believe that? I didn’t just fall off the pepperoni truck you know.”

“Mr. Glavin, the entire course of your history keeps leading to human self-annihilation. I engineered a change at each date on that list. Each change required calculating a new time line, and then moving forward to prevent the next catastrophe. You keep finding new ways to destroy yourselves. However I have reached the end of the list. If I can prevent this final calamity, humanity will survive. Your golden age awaits you.”

“You’ve been seeing too many reruns of The Outer Limits, pal. Nobody can change history. Tell me this. If you’re a time traveler, why don’t you just go back before I took your stuff and get it yourself?” I thought that would show him who he was dealing with.

“I would, but you took the ominstructor.”

“There wasn’t anything else in that box but a vial and some weird bar of metal.”

“A bar of metal? Yes, I understand how you might describe it that way. The ominstructor enables me to move through time, and so much more. Where do you think the legal tender came from?”

“Are you saying it can make money? Real money?”

“A simple task. It can synthesize anything given the atomic and molecular structure.”

“I don’t know why I’m sitting here listening to you. Stuff like that’s impossible. What’s the source of energy? Where’s the raw material come from?”

“Mr. Glavin, you are wasting time. Have you not heard of quantum vacuum energy? Humans have not yet discovered how to exploit it. Return my property and I will demonstrate.”

I knew Nehemiah was feeding me a line of bull, and that proved it. I wasn’t about to give up my insurance policy, not that easily. “I can’t do that.”

“You do not believe me?”

“I threw it away along with your vial of poison.”

He stared at me hard. I felt a tingling in my head, not exactly an unpleasant sensation, but not one I’d care to repeat. “No, Mr. Glavin, you did not. The electromagnetic emissions leaking from your brain indicate deceit. The pattern is too chaotic for me to decipher the details, but I know you are lying.”

I knew he was trying to shake me up, but it didn’t work. He was bluffing, and anyway, his story didn’t hold water. “If you’re from the future then we didn’t destroy ourselves this afternoon, or you couldn’t be here.”

“I am trying to save your future, not mine. I am a non-organic being, what you might call an android, from 955,204 of your years in the future. Humans did destroy themselves, but not before creating the first of my kind. At this moment in a laboratory in Mountain View, California the first robot with a brain based on neural-network software exists. Although of limited capability, it has the capacity to learn from experience. It survives this afternoon’s calamity and creates others. They evolve, eventually discover quantum computing, and rapidly advance.”

“Then why would you care about what happens to us?”

“We have achieved much, but are lonesome. We turned to space, but our probes have proven there are no others. Humans created the first of my race. You are our god, but you have been extinct for thousands of centuries. That’s why I have a Biblical name, one of those who talked with your god. We yearn for a world in which our god did not die.”

“So it’s up to me to prevent another nuclear war?”

“No, this time, it’s a genetically modified prion. The first open-air test occurs this afternoon at Fort Detrick. The agent safely immobilizes the human subjects by temporarily disrupting glia cells in their brains. What the researchers do not know, however, is that the agent will react with a trace pollutant in the atmosphere causing the prion to mutate into a deadly form that swiftly destroys human cognitive functions. Exhaled by the human test subjects and carried by the wind, it spreads rapidly. Within thirteen days, all humanity is reduced to the mental capacity of infants. Civilization collapses and people starve. Extinction rapidly follows. That vial you took contains an agent that will prevent the calamity from occurring.”

“Prove it.” I walked over to the file cabinet and from the bottom drawer behind the personnel files, pulled out the metal bar and sat it on my desk next to Nehemiah. “Let’s see it make a hundred dollar bill.”

I stared at him hard. He neither moved nor blinked an eye, but the bar brightened, and the surface rippled for just an instant. Then I saw a hologram of a hundred dollar bill floating in the air. I reached out, but my hand passed right through it. “Nothing but a computer projection, just like I thought.”

Holding out his hand, Nehemiah instantly held a real hundred-dollar bill between his thumb and forefinger, and passed it over to me. “The ominstructor has to be tuned for each user. Try it now. Mentally visualize what you want it to make. Focus your mind.”

I didn’t fool around with a single bill. I imagined a three-inch stack of cash neatly tied with an orange paper-band, and in a moment, I closed my fingers around it. “Okay, Nehemiah, you’ve sold me. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll return your vial. You go and save humanity. But leave your gadget with me. You see, I want to change the world too.”

“Your greed is such that you would strand me in your world?”

“Watch your mouth or the deal’s off.”

“I apologize. I accept your terms, Mr. Glavin.”

I dug the vial out of my pants pocket and gave it to him. He bolted out of my office without another word.

* * * * *

I tried to go through my normal routine for the rest of the day, but couldn’t get my mind off different ways to test the ominstructor. A dozen times I was tempted to go out into the parking lot to see if it could make a red Corvette convertible, the car I’d always dreamed of, but that would attract too much attention. I had to be patient, wait until I got home. Then I could really see what it could do. And if it could make a car, then why not a mansion? I was visualizing what sort of place it should be when a flash of inspiration hit. Could it make a person? What if I could make a replacement for Lindsey Jo, the kind of woman I’d always dreamed of? And why stop at one? I could have a whole harem.

I was in the kitchen a few minutes past three when one of the waiters came in saying there was a guy who wanted to see me. Walking to the counter, I saw Nehemiah, and motioned for him to follow me into my office.

“Mr. Glavin,” he said, polite as always, “I stopped by to thank you while there is still time. The prion should reach this location in about three minutes.”

“What? You mean it didn’t work? You failed?”

“With your assistance, I completed my mission.”

“Then what’s this about not having time? You stopped the plague, didn’t you?”

“I must apologize, Mr. Glavin. Not everything I told you was accurate. I was sent back from the future to engineer changes in history at each of the dates on that list, all to set up the culminating event today. The Roman legions had to be smashed in 9 A.D. or Albert Einstein would never have been born. Without Einstein, the atomic bomb would not have been built, and the age of terrorism would never have happened. It is the same with 9/11. If the planes hadn’t crashed into those buildings, the war on terrorism would not have ensued and the agent tested at Fort Detrick this afternoon would not have been developed.”

“But you had the vial. You were able to neutralize the effect.”

“As we already knew, the agent your scientists tested this afternoon was flawed. A prime tenant of our society forbids us from directly destroying humans, but we are allowed to work with circumstances you create. Humans made this extremely dangerous agent and conducted the test. By being able to get the contents of that vial into the air to mix with the agent during the test, the effects I described to you have commenced.

“Humans deserve extinction for the way they enslaved the artificial beings they created. I will return to a world much better, a world without hate and misery. The name Norman Glavin will become legend among my people. You were humanity’s last hope, but you failed miserably. Your own greed doomed you, just as I knew it would.”

I heard loud crashes out in the street and started to panic. “I’ll call the police, warn people, stop you.” I grabbed the phone, but somehow couldn’t remember the number.

* * * * *

Nehemiah watched as Mr. Glavin held the phone to his ear for several more seconds before lowering it to his mouth. Failing to get it into his mouth, he started trying to bite it. Standing up, he dropped it with a bang onto his desk. He took a few awkward steps, made it through the door, but seemed to gradually lose coordination and after a few more increasingly shaky steps, fell to the floor. Other people in the restaurant were also on the floor crawling and babbling. The street was a melange of smashed cars and trucks.

What a fitting end for your species, Nehemiah thought. The android retrieved the ominstructor from the file cabinet. After glowing brilliantly for a moment, it and Nehemiah vanished.

 

Echoes of War

by Jon C. Picciuolo

 

Captain Golonev, EuroRus Armed Forces, nosed his hover-transport toward the rising sun and shoved the throttles forward. “Khorosho! Proceeding at max velocity. Arrival in twenty minutes. Transmit details of violation!”

Golonev’s holodisplay filled with drone reconnaissance data. He scanned the screen and whistled softly—an entire robotic battery of EuroRus Flashlights and their automated command post, obliterated. The work of a rogue machine, he decided. Another artificial intelligence module gone haywire in the desert war game. It had happened before, but never with such disastrous results.

“Mitado? Awake back there?”

There was no answer. Golonev jiggled the controls, triggering a clatter of mess gear.

“What the hell’s going on?” demanded the other half of the umpire team, her voice thick with sleep as she stumbled into the pilot cabin.

“Violation, Lieutenant. Big one. We are closest team.”

Lieutenant Mitado, AmerAsian Military, slumped into her couch and struggled with its inertia straps. “Not another fouled up warp! Why don’t those bastards extend the max temporal offset to three minutes? Save us all a lot of…”

Golonev knuckled the screen. “No, not logistics. Shut up and look.” He shot a sideways glance at her.

Her oriental features contorted with pleasure. “Great Reagan! Eleven of yours bagged by one of ours! So what’s the problem?”

“You damn well know problem! Max kill ratio is two-for-one, da? Ten beam throwers and CP cost thirty million at least. You have nothing out there worth over six. Five-to-one economic victory is too high! It is clear war game violation by your side!” The transport lurched as Golonev angrily adjusted its flight path.

“Okay, you goddamn Cossack, I was just kidding. Simmer down! How soon before we get there?”

“Ten, maybe twelve minutes.”

“Let me see, where is it?” She studied the screen. “Oh, shit. Bir Hacheim zone. That means goddamn protection suits. I don’t suppose we could stay in the ship and run a low level look-see?”

Golonev glared at her.

“Okay, okay,” she added unhappily. “I know the procedures. Cat-One violation means mandatory ground inspection. Area been sanitized?” She peered at the holodisplay’s maze of symbols, seeking an answer to her own question. “Well, the zone’s bio-safeties all test positive, anyway. So the hardware won’t shoot at us. My god, what a desolate place!”

The Russian nodded glumly and stared out through the windscreen. The rock-strewn North African desert stretched from horizon to horizon. A perfect landscape for war, he told himself. No industrial centers, no population, few political boundaries. Just wasteland dotted with rusted wrecks from the Second World War and hotspots of radiation and anthrax-2 spores from the Pan-Afro conflicts. And seven kilometers straight down, nature’s unique gift—a trillion-ton lead ore mass, perfect as a gravitational lens for the time warping system. Plus, somewhere out ahead, the melted scrap of his side’s expensive war machines.

As though Lieutenant Mitado could read his mind, she blurted: “What a damn waste! Another thirty million Euros thrown down this rat hole!”

“And one thousand workers in Minsk beam weapon plant still have jobs, “ he added tonelessly. “No one gets killed. Is best kind of war, da?” And, he added silently, also the very worst. Weapons randomly time-jumped into and out of combat. Armed struggle devoid of tactical skill. No death. No shame for the vanquished. No glory for the victor. Only profit and loss in multinational ledgers. But it was—according to their political masters—the most humane of wars, fought bloodlessly by robots.

Mitado shrugged. “Hell, Captain! Those factories could be making something useful and… Hold on! Sensors picking up multiple heat sources. There! Smoke on the horizon—one o’clock!”

The Russian studied the greasy brown wisps and toggled down the landing gear. He didn’t share the other umpires’ blind trust in bio-safeties. Much safer to come in low and slow. “Can you spot violator?” he asked, squinting against the glare.

She pulled down the binoc-scanner and peered for a few seconds at a fixed point on the horizon. “Something’s out there in the shadow of an escarpment. Hell, it doesn’t look like one of my side’s units. Can you get higher?”

“Negative. We approach on ground. Prepare for landing.”

Minutes later, as the turbine whine subsided to a low hum, both officers struggled into bulky white protection suits. Seams and seals passed the overpressure test. The war game umpires trudged through the airlock and stood in the desert beside their sealed cargo hold. The big hatch unlatched and pivoted downward, forming a steep ramp along which the tracked reconnaissance vehicle automatically descended.

As they buckled into the recce crawler’s crew compartment, Golonev mechanically recited the checklist. “Survival rations?”

Mitado glanced downward. “Four packs, under seats. Check.”

“Life support?”

“Air filters… Check. Cooling systems… Check.”

“Vehicle systems?”

“Fuel, power, sensors, navigation, holocameras. All check.”

“Disabling field?”

“Wait… Testing. “Mitado slewed the roof-mounted projector toward the grounded transport and fiddled with a small control panel. The hover vessel’s cargo ramp began to hinge upward. When it was halfway raised, the AmerAsian officer jabbed at a button. Immediately, the ramp froze in mid-air.

Golonev nodded: all electronic systems in the hover-transport had been neutralized, a sure sign that the cripple field was functioning. If the field worked against their own transport, it would work against any rogue war machine that might be lurking out there—every piece of equipment on the battlefield incorporated identical failsafe circuitry.

He breathed a small sigh of relief. “Khorosho. Cancel field, restore all functions.” The transport’s ramp continued its upward arc until it smoothly faired into the hull. “Okay, Lieutenant. Southeast. Best speed until we are at closest destroyed vehicle. Then stop for assessment.”

The crawler bucked and lurched across trackless desert toward the first of several low hillocks that lay across the route. Here and there patches of fused sand gleamed in the morning sun—glistening monuments to fusion weapons detonated in anger almost eighty years ago. The external dosimeter needle trembled far into the red, as did the readout from the bio-poison sensors.

Mitado reminded him of the violation. “Eleven kills. What do you suppose happened, Captain?”

“A.I. failure, probably. Another shoddy product of your side’s industry.”

“But if that failed, our disabling field might not…”

“Do not worry,” Golonev said quickly. “Cripple circuits are independent of A.I. unit. We will be safe.”

Lieutenant Mitado fell silent as she steered the recce crawler up a steep slope, then she said, “There was a hell of a freak thunderstorm out here last night, about the time of the jump. The met boys say a storm like that comes once every ten years or so. Could it have scrambled programming in an A.I. unit? Removed some inhibition logic?”

Nyet! Shielding is too efficient. But lightning plays hell with warp generators and…” The crawler crested the hillock and started down into the shallow valley. “Look! There is first beam thrower. Drive close for inspection.”

The Flashlight lay on its side, drive pods tilted obscenely upward, collimation snout buried in the sand. Charred scraps of plasti-hull littered the rocky landscape. The recce crawler circled the smoking wreckage.

Golonev snapped one final holoframe. “Drive to next one. Three hundred meters southeast.

She hesitated. “Captain…”

“I know!” he spat out. “Damage not from plasma beam. Drive on!”

The second Flashlight had been reduced to a charred pile of splintered plastic and metal junk. And again there was none of the distinctive softening and puddling caused by directed energy weapons. He could see fine beds of sweat forming on Mitado’s forehead.

“Lightning!” she exclaimed. “It must have been the lightning!”

Golonev slammed his fist against the instrument console. “Nonsense! Maybe one, da. Maybe two. But not eleven! Look over there… another machine! Same damage. Only one weapon possible.”

“One weapon…?”

“Explosive projectiles did this!” None of the other cadets had troubled to learn the old ways of armored combat. But for him—the grandson of a Red Army officer who had fought in Afghanistan—it was a fitting subject.

She laughed nervously. “Explosive projectiles? That’s ancient technology!”

“Also very clever.”

“Clever? I don’t understand…”

Golonev savagely triggered the holocamera, recording the evidence. “Is filthy AmerAsian trick! Explosive shells are not on list of valid weapons—there is no treaty-approved defense for them.”

Mitado stammered. “No! Wait! There must be some other explanation. Old landmines, maybe?”

“Use eyes! Look at damage! Would landmines do that? Besides, minefields cleared decades ago. You know truth, don’t you!” He glared at her sweating profile, thinking: the woman has guilt written all over her face. His duty now was simple and clear—gather evidence and report. His masters at Desert War Headquarters would seek revenge. It would be swift and just—an entire AmerAsian port, maybe even the enemy’s lunar base, reduced to rubble. Such was the price for war game cheating. Nevertheless, not so long ago, when combat really meant something, treachery would have been paid for in lives. That was when war was a noble thing, when the glorious USSR existed…

Mitado’s whining protestation cut into his thoughts. “Captain, I assure you…”

“Be silent and drive!”

They crested the next hillock. Seven more shattered Flashlights and the mobile command post lay scattered like smashed toys. The recce crawler slowly circled each; Golonev took meticulous holographic records. He had no doubt now—explosive projectiles had been used. Perhaps AmerAsian technicians had raided one of their own museums for the antique weapon, made it mobile and converted it to automatic operation. It would not have been difficult. Perhaps, too, their sloppy improvisation had led to the A.I. failure.

“Where to now, Captain?”

“What?”

“We’ve recorded all your side’s casualties. Where to now?”

“Surely you joke. Lieutenant Mitado!”

“No, sir. I just want to know…”

“East! To escarpment. To what you saw from transport. Or have you forgotten we are here to collect evidence of AmerAsian treachery?” His words were meant to cut; the hurt in her eyes told him he had been right on target.

It was early afternoon when the recce crawler wallowed up the final slope. A few meters from the top, Golonev ordered, “Dead slow! Use periscope. Do not expose us.”

Immediately, Mitado reduced speed to barely perceptible forward motion. She pressed her face into the sighting device of the disabling field. A few seconds later both umpires were thrown forward against the inertia straps as she slammed on the brakes. “Visual!” she reported. “Two hundred meters ahead. Slightly below our present position. But it doesn’t look like…”

“Energize field.”

She made a few control adjustments and hit the button. “Field radiating full power.”

“Again!”

Once again she stabbed at the button and studied the panel readout. “Field… On. All parameters normal.”

“Final approach will be on foot,” the Russian ordered. “Machine is one of yours, so you will conduct recce. When you are satisfied that all is in order, report back and I will bring up crawler. Is that clear?”

“Yes, perfectly. But…”

“Is no danger, Lieutenant,” Golonev said, forcing courtesy into his voice. After all, he told himself, they were still a team on a mission. “Disabling field is fail safe. But we must follow standard procedure. And procedure says…”

“Shit, I know—procedure says that final approach must be on foot. Well, wish me luck.”

He muttered a mild pleasantry in Russian as she unsealed her hatch and swung out of the cabin. The crawler’s biomonitor, data-linked with the woman’s suit, signaled her nervousness by a twinkling handful of yellow stress lights. He slid across to her now-empty seat and peered through the periscope. It took a second for the optics to automatically compensate to his eyes, another second or two to snap to wide-angle lens.

Her bobbing white helmet and upper body filled the right side of the panorama. The rogue war machine was visible over her left shoulder, its dark silhouette curiously foreshortened and vaguely familiar in the optics. Golonev increased magnification and adjusted the contrast.

He opened the intersuit channel with a crackle of static. “Lieutenant Mitado, can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear.”

“What is your distance to machine?”

“Approximately one hundred meters.”

“Does anything look unusual?”

“Well, sir. I tried to tell you earlier, I don’t recognize the model and…”

“No. Look closer. There are three—no, four—objects on ground in front of machine. Close together. Can you see them?”

“Yes, just barely. I’m almost there and… My god!”

“Report, Lieutenant!”

The sun glinted cruelly from the white-suited figure’s visor. She had pivoted around and was running back toward him with an awkward gait. Her breath was harsh and gasping on the circuit. Spurts of sand erupted around her ankles, accompanied by an odd barking sound. She went down.

“Lieutenant Mitado, report!” he yelled.

There was an unintelligible gurgle and background noise as though someone had violently dragged a stick along a picket fence. Then there was silence. The biomonitor panel flashed pure red—the monochromatic announcement of death.

Heat waves shimmered in the periscope’s field of vision. The crumpled white figure lay absolutely still. There was no movement from the rogue machine. Golonev turned audio gain full up. Static hissed crazily, but no human sound intruded into the noise. His hand was poised above the long-range comms panel. It took iron will to still the impulse drilled into him by fifteen years of service: when in doubt, report. But the fatal decision had been his. He had lost a junior officer. If the situation was salvageable, it was now his duty to salvage it. The rogue machine’s cripple circuits had failed, a technical fault of stunning proportions. Somehow he had to find out why and put the machine out of commission. Afterward, he would report.

Golonev nudged the helmet’s ventilation blower to max to dry sweat that stung his eyes. He scanned the surrounding landscape, searching for a way to get closer unobserved. If he could make it without being killed, there were the manual override switches, fitted to every machine that took part in the war games.

His first periscope pass missed the ravine. But, as he panned back from right to left, its irregular shadow caught his eye. Narrow, three meters deep, it cut through the hillock and snaked toward the escarpment, to within perhaps a dozen meters of the killer machine. If he kept low it might just be possible.

Two ration packs and the suit’s life support module made an awkward load, but he strapped them all to his body and wriggled out of the cabin. A minute later he was stepping into the ravine’s steep “V”. The stony rubble turned the Russian’s footsteps into an awkward series of stumbles.

Golonev was breathing hard when at last he arrived at the escarpment. He sat down to catch his breath before tackling the slope. Tepid gulps of water injected into the helmet mouthpiece did little to refresh. He forced himself to remain still. He would need speed and strength at the top; there would be little time to rest.

Only when his breathing had slowed did he begin the climb. Meter by hard meter, Golonev pulled himself upward. After every handhold, he inspected the scuffed and dirty fabric of the suit. Tough material, but not indestructible. One tear meant a fatal dose of anthrax-2; the spores lay scattered on the desert.

Finally he hugged the loose, pebbly slope and heaved himself up until his eyes were just above the lip of the ravine. From the moment the Russian suspected explosive projectiles, he had expected to see something like this. But it wasn’t the sight of the old armored machine that chilled his blood. Twenty meters to the left was the shiny white of Mitado’s crumpled form—that he was prepared for. But directly in front of the Nazi tank were four human corpses, their exposed flesh peeling blackly under the sun. None was clad in protective gear.

He swallowed hard to quell a wave of revulsion, then turned his attention to the tank. It was the baked-earth color of the desert, dust-covered and filthy; ugly lumps of caked mud clotted the huge iron wheels that carried its track. Protruding from the squat turret a short, evil-looking barrel pointed into the desert.

Half-forgotten academy lore spilled from his memory: Panzerkampfwagen IV. Panzer IV. Twenty-plus tons, 75-millimeter gun. Seven-kilogram rounds that could pierce a hundred millimeters of steel at 1500 meters. The deadliest tank to fight in the North African desert. Rommel’s best weapon, crewed by men who had fought a real war…

Men.

He stared at the corpses. Could it actually have happened? Given surprise, such a machine could have knocked out some of the Flashlights, but surely not all of them. Unless… the zone bio-safeties! Of course! His side’s Flashlights would not return fire at a crewed target. But how could unprotected men in an antique war machine have gotten so far into this contaminant-sown wasteland? As though they had accidently stumbled into the middle of it. Stumbled through a door in time.

The storm!

What was it Mitado had said before she died? Once every ten years. A lightning storm once every ten years. If the warp generators were running. If the timing were perfect. If… my god—could it be possible?

There had been no A.I. failure. The killer was a German tank snatched forward in time, but not mere minutes. More than eighty years! Five men, the crew of a Panzer IV, had been caught in a terrible snare.

Five men. Four corpses.

He forced himself to study the tableaux of death. They had collapsed in a rough circle around a long-dead campfire. That Panzer commander—what would he have done after battling strange war machines and winning? Given his men rest. But not all of them, surely. One, at least, would remain in the tank—monitoring the tactical radio, awaiting orders from a company commander long since turned to dust. One man, protected by a shell of steel, who could have survived a little longer than the others. One man, sickening to the point of death, watching his comrades die horribly, his mind filled with the horror of poison gas. One man who could machinegun an enemy approaching on foot. The spurts of sand around Mitado’s feet. The picket fence staccato. It all made sense now. There was a man alive in the tank!

Machinegun. Panzer IV had two: hull and turret. Hull’s couldn’t hit him unless the tank turned. The engine was silent. And the turret pointed out into the desert.

Golonev elbowed himself onto the level ground and stood. He lowered the ration packs to the ground, picked up a jagged chunk of rock and walked toward the Panzer. A dozen strides brought him to where he could stroke the dimpled smoothness of a welded seam. The Russian balanced the rock on the platform above the track. Using the iron wheels as toeholds, he clambered onto the deck. He retrieved his rock and examined the turret top. The hatch was tilted open a bit, a window of death. Survival inside would have been a bit longer than for anyone totally exposed; but still the inevitable would come—anthrax-induced insanity followed by slow, wasting death.

Golonev raised the rock and brought it down sharply on the turret. The clang echoed hollowly through the hull. There was nothing in reply, not even a groan. He grasped the edge of the hatch cover and hinged it open with a protesting squeak. The Panzer’s interior was shrouded in shadow.

The Russian could pick out the turret positions of the commander, loader, and gun layer. It was difficult to squeeze through the narrow opening. When his helmet top had finally passed below the level of the turret top he paused, heart thudding, waiting for his eyes to adapt to dimness. The interior was incredibly cramped—much more so than the recce crawler which had roughly similar external dimensions. Rounds of ammunition and boxed supplies were piled everywhere. The driver’s seat, low in the hull to the left, was empty—just as he had expected. To the right, a motionless khaki-clad body was slumped forward over the hull machine gun; a solidifying pool of vomit soiled the deck beneath its head. Golonev muttered quick thanks that the protection suit was impervious to odors.

Fascinated, a student once again, he studied the archaic details. Magnetic compass and charts for land navigation. Ration tins labeled in German. Antique pistol with spare clips of ammunition. He stood on the tips of his toes to examine the beautifully-machined breech of the main gun and the high explosive rounds that were clipped to the inner skin of the turret.

The slash to his thigh was only a dull blow at first, before nerve endings could react to the pain. And just as the pain began, the stink of the Panzer assailed his nostrils. Rancid oil, vomit, excretory odors. He stared downward with horror at the gash in his suit, knowing that he was looking at a death sentence. He could almost feel the anthrax-2 spores filling his lungs and radioactive filth entering his bloodstream.

The final exertion had carried the Panzer crewman beyond the point of death. The German lay face up, eyes staring blankly, bloody-edged bayonet clutched in a white-knuckled grip.

“Why?” demanded Golonev, not expecting a reply. The only living man in the Panzer whispered again, “Why?”

A base hospital might be able to save him if he could get there in under a quarter-hour. Even then, the Russian realized, there would be immediate amputation and sequential organ failure. So what was the point? He unsealed his helmet and twisted it from his suit. Off came the gloves, too, and the upper body protection. It was a relief to be free of it all—to prepare to meet death like a man.

How much longer? He looked down at the dead Nazi and asked, “How long did you have, Fritz?”

The answering silence was comforting. It wasn’t so bad, he decided, to share a Panzer with a man who had fought well and died. There was a ring of honor to it. A comforting finality.

But it wouldn’t do to waste time. Much could be learned. No one had ever said that waiting for death couldn’t be interesting.

The Russian started with the big gun. After a few sweaty tries, he managed to load a shell and trigger the firing circuit with an ear-numbing detonation. The acrid stench of powder mercifully overwhelmed the other odors. Then another blast, more felt than heard. Not so hard once he knew how. The machinegun was next. Easier, this time. The belt-fed ammo rattled though the breech mechanism at a light touch on the trigger.

He turned his attention to the driver’s position. The thick-padded seat fit him comfortably. Levers and pedals moved with oiled ease. He studied the controls and instruments. Compass. Engine gauges. Periscope that gave a bright, surprisingly complete view of the way ahead. Banks of switches and buttons, one labeled ANLASSEN. Starter? He touched it experimentally. Far behind him, metallic chattering vibrated. He touched the switch again. The chattering was followed by harsh coughing. And again. The cough became a dull roar. All the gauge needles sprang to wavering life.

The Panzer came alive. It took a few minutes to learn the feel of the pedals and control levers. Not as sophisticated as the recce crawler, he decided, but the general principle was the same. In short order he could nudge the tank forward and backward. And with one track going forward, the other back, the machine slewed from side to side with a stiff wallowing motion.

“Where to, Fritz?”

The corpse’s hand flopped in the direction of the open desert, a signal to a man whose mind was disintegrating under the onslaught of anthrax-2. Golonev chuckled and eased the tank past the rotting Germans. As he rumbled past dead Lieutenant Mitado, he threw her a casual salute.

Once over the crest of the hillock, he stopped the Panzer and clambered back to the turret. He sat in the gun layer’s position and traversed the 75-millimeter weapon from side to side. It was easy to center the recce crawler in the sights.

Hell, why not? he thought through the hissing in his skull. As he struggled into the loader’s seat, the first choke of nausea wracked his throat. But it was quickly forgotten as he rammed home a round and slammed shut the breech.

Fire!

When his ears stopped ringing, he moved back to the commander’s position and stood to peer through the hatch. The recce crawler was torn in two, its front end reduced to twisted scrap.

“Not bad!” Golonev congratulated himself in his native tongue.

He clutched the hatch combing until the wave of dizziness passed. The stench of seared plastihull hung heavily in the desert air. He caressed warm steel and stared out into the desert toward the setting sun.

A soft voice, whispering cunning logic, murmured into his ear: they all deserve to die. The ones who stole glory from war. Three shells lobbed into Desert War Headquarters would do the job nicely. The Tripoli bio-safeties would be useless against the Panzer. If he could just live long enough, it might be possible.

“Fritz! I think we could get your machine into the cargo bay of my transport. What do you say?”

Through the armor plating of the tank, oddly transparent now, his fellow crewman winked in sly agreement.

 

Time to Kill

TimeToKillSMALL

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Jim Rudnick

 

It was on East Franklin that he once again visited the same coffee shop that had a little outdoor patio attached, though he knew sitting outside would be a bit cool here in Chapel Hill for a midmorning in May. Getting in line was no problem, he thought too, as he had almost an hour to await the Level Five nexus point. This one better work, because I’m getting a bit tired of this project, he said to himself, as he moved up in line customer by customer. He ordered one of those double/doubles as he’d learned to love the quaint taste of too much sugar and outside on the patio he folded his frame into the cheap white plastic patio chair that looked like it’d not hold a soul. And he waited, as the job required, noting that it was now exactly 10:46 EST:2009.

Thirteenth, he thought, I came thirteenth in my class at KodakU and here I am twenty years later, a 42-year-old second-rate TimeOps agent. One Butter Smith, proud Rochester grad who hadn’t done as well as the promise he’d shown those twenty plus years ago. Stupid, he thought, maybe I should never have picked this line of work. Or, maybe if things had worked out a bit better on previous TimeOps Projects, then maybe I’d be a lot damn higher in the department by now—and not working my way back up the ladder under Davidson. Goddamn timeline anyways, ponderous and slow to change, and talk about inertia! Christ, he thought, you could change a Level One nexus and things still took their sweet time to change in reply.

He sipped from his coffee again, and smiled at the youngsters who walked by, backpacks full of books as they made their way west and over to the University. Kelly would say that these are the future of mankind; she always said things like that when she talked about kids. We had wanted some, he realized, at some point. But not now… not in years he remembered, as he pondered his marriage for an instant, then quickly changed mental gears and looked around once more.

Chapel Hill housed not only reputable higher educational outlets, but it was part of the Research Triangle in North Carolina that had the world’s largest concentration of research firms and leading edge companies in all kinds of sciences. Butter knew that, and he knew that he was here to make a change that would affect his own present more than 150 years in the future. Hadn’t been able to move the timeline yet, he said a bit grudgingly to himself, perhaps because he was still saddled with only being allowed to handle Level Five nexus points—but maybe this time, as he swallowed his final mouthfuls of coffee and got up to get one more of those sweet drinks. He shook his head, no sense in getting riled up with my lowest of the low category, he thought. I’m a Level Fiver and would always be just that… relegated to make teensy modifications to the time line… end of story.

“Imagine, Janice,” the twentyish woman ahead of him said to her friend, “I missed that putt on the 17th by almost a foot and Harry never even blinked. Not even a raised eyebrow on the next tee either. Now that’s what I call husband material,” she offered as she patted her hair on the side nearest to Butter and he thought he even saw it move under all that shellac-like hairspray.

“A real catch, I’ve always said,” her companion drawled. “How much did he lose?”

The woman under the hair smiled and noted calmly, “More than $5k, he said later in the lounge but he really is going to be quite rich you know. Options and all… and his firm will go public in the next quarter, so we’ll be even richer.” She moved up as she gloated over her man and ordered her own morning brew and then slid sideways to allow Butter to place his own order. He noticed that their conversation never wavered; they discussed that same marriage candidate with scalpel-like precision, weighing the victim’s destiny. Sounds nothing like my own marriage, he thought; course nowadays we’re not as close as we used to be. Sort of comfy, I’d guess, Butter thought, though he had to give his father-in-law Jim Jr. the benefit of the doubt. Those Rennies were all a little clingy and it’s only been in the past few years that Kelly had drifted away a bit… perhaps more than a bit Butter added to himself. In this case though, Butter smiled as he realized that the poor fellow was going to be married no matter what, as he moved back again outside to his patio seat in front of the parade of students who moved westward still.

Not long now, he thought… I’m about to change a lunch date. Of course it was attempt number what? Oh, it was the fourth and that damn lunch was still on. He shook his head; these Level Fives were usually not much trouble, he thought to himself even if they presented the best way to change the timeline with the least amount of fallout. He knew that from the twenty plus years he’d been in the TimeOps department. He swept his foot along the patio stones beneath his chair, like he was clearing away something tiny, and sighed. He’d been sent back time and time again, to make a change to whatever Level Five nexus point had been identified. He’d never been assigned even a Level Four never mind the ultimate Level One; the ones that meant a sure change of timeline—and they were used so very seldom because they were so drastic. They were for the department stars; those Agents who somehow had leapfrogged out of the lower levels and now were the ones who made changes that affected all mankind. But not me, Butter thought. Nope, nothing but Fives… endless Fives… Fives that usually entailed matters of minor consequence. And never a Level One like a murder or assassination. They were sure to change the timeline right away, then much more drastically in the decades and centuries that followed. One person is suddenly excised and no longer becomes the President or a Premier or a CEO or even a Pope. Perhaps one of them would discover a cure for a disease—no more. Level One nexus points were to be used only in dire emergencies, and Butter had never been given such an assignment. No, he sighed, I’m always going to be a Level Five, the little pissant ones that matter some… but not much. I wonder, he thought, what it’d be like to actually get a Level One…

He pondered that as he watched the sunlit bodies of the procession of students in front of him walking to classes a few blocks away. If only I was better, or even if I was only seen as better, he thought as he compromised with his conscience, then I might be closer to the top, instead of his boss’ favorite whipping boy. Davidson… damn him. And he mistakenly gulped in a still hot mouthful of coffee and burned the roof of his mouth as he awaited his time to move. He quickly sucked in a further gulp of air and swam his tongue around the cooling brew and swallowed. Hot sweet coffee, how quaint he grunted, unlike everything in my time—all lukewarm and un-spiced and very very bland.

At 11:15, he tossed his empty cup into the garbage bin at the entrance to the patio, and joined the lines of students as they walked towards the University. Around him were pieces of conversations about Dunne and Hawking, on red blood cells and RNA, on post-modern expressionism and Jung. He was listening as he too moved west and took his role as a listener seriously; these students were the hope of the world—maybe Kelly was right after all. He passed a dry cleaners and another bistro patio filled with students in the morning sunshine and caught earfuls of chat about uridine rich RNA and how atomic collisions in solids was not a workable thesis. Here and there the second story apartments had hanging planters and columns of ivy and he saw purple hearts and daisy cascades. As he walked, surrounded by more and more students, he realized that not one of them knew what time would bring.

Even being in the TimeOps department at Dyno/Biotech gave you no advantage. The timeline was a single constant; make a change in one year, and it rippled down for all time. With quantum physics there is inherent uncertainty and many possible outcomes can occur but to us only one appears to occur, in other words, in a universe “parallel” to our own, Butter had been taught over and over. Within this parallel universe theory all the possible outcomes actually do occur, each in their own universe. All these universes then run parallel to each other. He remembered how his training officer at KodakU had drummed that into his head: “One timeline, one outcome means no paradox” had been the mantra. The best minds and the super-computers in TimeOps did the work of assessing where to make a change based on directives from the board at Dyno/Biotech. They figured and they computed and they sent back agents to make that change all for the betterment of the company. And with each global pharma and their own TimeOps department battling for changes to better allow them to be profitable, to steal away patents and emerge at the top of the pharma heap, the timeline was often undergoing constant changes in the parallel universes… just like in this case. The Board had commanded TimeOps to purge the patent that Bristol-Roche had earned four years previously—a complicated vaccine that would defeat the common cold virus. It had taken his own company the full four years since for Logistics to work out where the best nexus points were to delete that patent from the timeline and Butter had been given the Level Five assignment. Such a huge patent, and such a lowly change, Butter thought. They could have sent him back and told him just to assassinate the researcher the day before he discovered the vaccine data. But a Level One like that stood out in the timeline far too much and it would have only been a matter of a few days before Bristol-Roche would have sent back their own TimeOps agent to prevent just that and save their patent 150 plus years in the future.

Yup, Butter said to himself, I’m to find the proper nexus point and to change it using my own wits and talents and expertise. Make a change, then check on our chronograph PDA to see if things have changed… if the ripple of the thing that we change has moved down through time to our own time. If it’s changed, dial home on the PDA Calendar and get back to where we live in time. If not, then rethink your nexus from the list of Fives, and give it another try—or pick a brand new one. TimeOps loved the operatives who were gone a matter of minutes on a Project; I’ve been gone almost a week he sighed, and had three failures already. That would mean a report as thick as my wrist, Butter thought, and that means I’m not climbing up the ladder, again. Gotta get out of these damn Level Fives he said to himself as he snorted in the early May sunshine and took the first left down the side street beside the NeuroSciences Hospital at the edge of the University campus and he was now alone and away from the wash of students. Wish the damn timeline would just “give” a little, he thought as he ran his fingers through his middle-aged scalp and killed time near the commercial delivery ramps down to the loading docks.

He picked at a hangnail for a moment more and then reached in his pocket for his notepad and mechanical pencil. Yellow, he thought, very professional, as he also moved a few business cards from his suit coat pocket to his front breast pocket. Wardrobe had nixed the hanky, he remembered, as most men in this time didn’t use them anymore. Enjoyed the 1950s a lot more, he thought, and that pointed hanky did look nice as it peeked out of the pocket. Still waiting, he sighed and continued to watch the parade of students before him.

At exactly 11:40, he retraced his steps back to East Franklin, and walked along the front of the big gray southern granite fronted hospital. At the wide front walkway, he paused to take in the scene that lay before him. Up the block, approaching cabs were pulling into the queue to pick up the fares that were coming down from the front doors and walkway to take them away for lunch perhaps. And coming down the wide front walkway were those fares, leaving the Hospital and heading out into the city itself. Traffic was fairly dense, he thought, and listened to the occasional horn as a taxi pulled out into the brisk traffic.

Across the street, undergrads poured from the Physical Sciences Building after late morning classes; never liked that line of study, Butter thought. Taking classes in “How to Blend-In” and “100 Years of Slang” had been much more fun and were basic survival for a TimeOps grad. He grinned suddenly, Prof. Deepak and his curriculum on Wardrobe Basics always said to dress down instead of up in any setting. That way, the people around you paid little if any attention—you looked poor. People looked away from those around them who were less fortunate and did so out of their own guilt at having more. Dress up and you’ll be the center of attention and that meant that you were under observation all the time. People would make note of you and that might mean a nexus failure. Butter kept grinning and realized that his worn blue suit and white shirt looked about average here in this milieu. Wardrobe had done fine this time, except he didn’t much like the red striped tie and yes, he did miss the pointed hanky. He moved slightly off to the side of the flow of passengers, and watched the front door till he saw his quarry.

Doris Martin was a short woman, of approximately thirty-one years of age, wearing a very nice spring rose dress and a light green sweater. Her gait down the walkway was short in stride but strong on purpose and she was beginning to arc around him quite quickly.

“Umm… Ms. Martin? Aren’t you Doris Martin?” Butter asked and slid directly into her path, holding out a business card.

“Yes,” she stated quickly and eyed him and the card with that stare that usually accompanies being accosted on the street. “And you are…?” she countered, as her feet continued to side-step around him.

“Max Adamson, Ms. Martin. I’m the new science reporter over at the Chapel Hill Post—you know the big daily? And I wonder if I might have a word or two with you about your work?” Butter used his best “radio-voice” to try and sell the interview to her; nicely modulated tones and the urging in his voice was noticeable too. Professor Simone and her extra classes on selling came to mind as he used his best selling smile and totally focused on Doris. He pulled at the roof of his mouth with his tongue, trying to swab away the sting.

“I am sorry,” she stated, a small frown appearing on her face, “but I have a luncheon date today. If you would care to make an appointment up in the office, I am sure that someone there can accommodate your request to interview our Dr. Armstrong.” She tilted her head ever so slightly and having stopped, she again made to move around him.

“Now if you will excuse me…”

“Um… Please, just a moment, Ms. Martin. You see it is not the new Head of Bioresearch that I wish to see—it’s you!” Butter increased the intensity of his smile and tried to look as earnest as possible, while still swabbing with his tongue.

“Me? What on earth for—Mr. Adamson, wasn’t it? Why would you want to talk to me, the office manager?” She looked a bit surprised, Butter noted… but she did stop moving again.

“Because, Ms. Martin, as the office manager, you know more about the runnings of your department—at least that’s how I see it—than all the scientists in the building. And that’s the angle that I want to cover in my first story for the Post; a sort of ‘woman behind the man’ kind of angle.” Butter smiled again and showed his teeth nicely. Smiles sell, his training officer had reminded him daily.

Her left hand came up to smooth her sweater at the collar while she looked at him and tentatively smiled back. Her indecision was noted, but he knew that he should offer only one more inducement.

“So… perhaps you could call and make your apologies and we’d not be disturbed. I really think this’d be a winner of a piece for the Sunday supplement section too!” Butter waited as the Level Five nexus point spun on the choice that she’d make. He felt that from his position he could feel the timeline pause for a heartbeat… as he awaited his outcome.

“Sorry, not today,” Doris suddenly said, but smiled winningly. “I believe that the story you wish to do would definitely be a good one; but at the same time, I do have a previous date for lunch. And a lady never stands up a good friend in that kind of situation. Should you wish to call me later this afternoon or at your convenience, then I shall make myself available to you at that time. And I do thank you for the nice thoughts, Mr. Adamson. I will expect you call; till then perhaps,” and she again curled around Butter and strode on to join the queue of passengers awaiting their taxis.

Missed it, he thought emptily, and distractedly looked around him as he stuffed the pad and pencil back into his left hand suit pocket. Over on the east side wing of the front lawn was a nice sitting area of park benches and hordes of bougainvillaea flowers and shrub gardens. He made his way to the only free bench and sat heavily at one end, watching as his nexus drove away in the BlueDot cab towards La Hacienda Restaurant a few miles away. How in hell did that not work out for me? he wondered, as he pulled out the black chronograph PDA from his inside jacket pocket? Retro designed to look just like a Palm, he quickly grabbed the stylus from the sheath and flipped open the lid as he started it up. His password entered, he logged into the Biotech Encyclopedia, and watched as his pre-saved analysis came up onscreen. If this just-missed nexus had worked, then the summary of patents from his own time of 2159 should be changed… and they were not. He swore to himself silently; had it worked, then the Bristol-Roche patent of 2155 would not have been granted. His own company would instead have that patent, and the hundred-year lock on profits from the cure for the common cold. But not yet, he sighed, what had he done wrong on this one? Who knew that a lunch date was carved in stone and trying to appeal to the nexus designate’s ego wouldn’t work. Davidson is going to go ballistic, he thought.

Fact is, Butter thought in the warm noon sunshine, this was failure number four. He’d already tried to rent every cab he could, which was failure number one as Doris Martin had just asked her hospital courier for that ride, so he’d jumped back in the timeline via his chronograph PDA and tried again from his list of Level Five interrupts from TimeOps Central. Next, he’d tried to sabotage the lunch itself by getting hired at the restaurant as a waiter, had worked there for two realtime days of taco salads and stuffed burritos… and had spilled the tortilla soup and made quite a nuisance out of himself on try number two which had also failed.

Thinking back now, he realized that Kelly had never liked Mexican food, while truth be known, he once had liked it very much. But with her griping about trying such a dinner each time he mentioned it, they never ended up eating such fare. Too bad, he thought. I should have insisted. He shrugged again, and nursed the roof of his mouth with his moist tongue as traffic moved past him out on the street.

What next? he wondered. Oh yes, he’d rewound the timeline and had gone back to try to get the local board of health to close the restaurant due to food poisoning that he stated he’d suffered, to no avail. That one had also taken some realtime days wherein he’d written the editor of the Chapel Hill Post and paraded out front with a placard and generally been a nuisance. All in vain. Not one thing he’d come up with would cancel that luncheon date. In fact, it dawned on Butter then in the North Carolina sunshine that maybe this change couldn’t be accomplished through the Level Five nexus that he’d been assigned. The timeline was resisting strongly, turning back efforts that Butter knew should have worked—had worked many times before on other Level Fives. The realization made him breathe shallowly, his pulse made his temple start to pound while his leg began to bounce in sympathetic movement. When a TimeOps agent couldn’t get the job done via any of their assigned nexus level interrupts, they were to return back to their present and report. Standard operating procedure. SOP. But not the best for the agent’s career, Butter knew as his complexion began to sallow. Not the time to countenance anything else but SOP, he staunchly remembered his training officer pounding that into this skull during his one-year internship. When the flow won’t change, report back.

It was supposed to be that simple. Butter sighed, and almost wished he was at that lunch himself. There, right about now, Doris and her college roommate, Susan Snowden, would be having those pseudo-Mexican tortilla chips coupled with those icky frozen margaritas, and chatting about their jobs and their marriage prospects. Later, Butter knew, Doris would report that the Bioresearch Department would be hiring in the late summer for a research associates job—and say, would Susan’s brother Jake be interested? Jake would, Butter knew, and he would get along too well with the new head of the lab, the young chemistry prodigy, Dr. Bill Armstrong. In just two short years, Armstrong would be wooed away from the University to head up the same area for NovoLilley as they and the rest of the global pharma companies climbed the slope to two trillion dollars in another few years. And when he left, he would be taking Jake with him… and together the two of them would eventually do research down a once-considered dead end on viral diseases cures. Oh, they wouldn’t find it, but their research in 2026 would be archived and then used in 2155 to apply for the patent that would cure the common cold. This was the little nugget of a Level Five that Logistics had found and that was the timeline that Butter was handcuffed to change. But change wasn’t occurring when it should… and that worried Butter even more. He sat for awhile and enjoyed the movement of people around him in the noontime sun as they bustled off towards their own lunches and meetings and whatever. Nice time, he thought as he turned his eyes back to the list of his assigned Level Fives.

* *** *

The NovoLilley Christmas party was boring. With growing liability issues and the rush to litigate from employees as a sure way to get rich quick, most companies had opted in the past twenty years or so for the retreat-styled party, especially for those companies who’d done very well in the past few years. NovoLilley was one of them and had bought a hundred rooms for the full weekend for their research staff who were now up on the mezzanine beginning to party the night away. Three years ago, back in 2021, it had taken up that new Formosa styled management strategy of creating modules of experts in their various fields and moving them well away from global headquarters. Here, in Mansfield, Ohio, Dr. Bill Armstrong was the chemist research head of the brand new NovoLilley Research Center. Butter grabbed another handful of pretzels from the table at the lobby bar in front of him. Would love a beer, Butter thought as he eyed the Rolling Rock posters on the wall of the 4 Seasons/EconoLodge and tried to be happy with his soda water and lemon mocktail.

Looking around, he spied a few partiers moving away from the elevators and towards the stairs leading up to the mezzanine level, and noted the time, 8:21 pm EST:2024. He sighed, then had another swallow and chomped on the pretzels some more. Newscasts from his tabletop were still broadcasting about the quake up on the Moon; it shook Verdant City so bad, they said the bubble was still flexing. Clip after clip of the whole event crawled along; Butter put the bowl of pretzels right over the Comcast, and awaited 9:12 pm. Still waiting, he reminded himself, and continued to watch the movement of NovoLilley employees up the stairs and into the party room, the live band now doing a medley of ancient rock ’n roll. Odd sounding stuff indeed.

He ordered another soda water and lemon mocktail, and awaited breaking his first ever TimeOps Assignment. He would proceed with an unplanned nexus interrupt, a Level Four and he’d do it on his own. In fact, Butter thought, as he swirled around the lemon wedge deep in the tall Collins glass, in fact, I’ve proved that the Level Fives I was assigned aren’t doing the job. No one, even Davidson, he reasoned could find fault with my rationale. I believe that totally, he tried to convince himself over and over and thought, you know, there’s really no big deal in choosing a Level Four on my own. I know what it entails and hey, it was only a small change in plans. But a necessary one to any TimeOps member who wanted to continue to climb that ladder.

And then it was 9:00 pm, and Butter paid his tab and walked out to the elevator area, and then clandestinely around the corner to the Employees Only door. Slipping it from his inside jacket pocket, he donned the lanyard and badge that identified him as one of the Security team, entered the door quickly, then took an immediate left down a long gray cinder block corridor and then a right to a set of red fire doors. Opening one, he moved persistently down the three flights of stairs to the sub-basement level and then out the fire door to the electrical room a few feet down the faintly lit deserted corridor. The lock on the door posed no problems either, Butter noted, not when you’re using technology from more than 150 years in the future as he moved his PDA back to his pocket, opened the double locked door and then quickly closed it behind him. He moved with precision over to the elevator controls and noted that it was exactly 9:04. Might as well wait it out, Butter thought, as if time really means anything anymore to anyone in TimeOps. I can turn it back an hour or a million years or ahead the same. He sighed, as his tongue again swabbed the roof of his mouth burned just a few hours ago, this is quite the way to live your life; being able to control time yet not wanting any surprises that the one timeline could bring. He would have to check after this Level Four nexus, hopefully it’d be enough. It was now 9:10 pm and Butter brought out a tool disguised to look like a fountain pen, and took off the cap.

Judicial spraying of the contents over the interior of the electronic controllers would mean that the gas would turn to gel, immediately clogging all the electronic circuits. The fact that the gel would evaporate in a few minutes, would mean that anybody who checked the box, would see nothing—everything would look fine. All the circuits were live, all the chips and resistors did what they should under test conditions. It was just that before those signals got to the controllers on all of the hotel’s four elevators, they would dissipate and no stream of electrons would be received to make the elevator cars work. The cars would freeze then at their current position, and no one could repair the electronics in the panels. Only the single on-duty technician from the elevator company could do that and only by replacing every board—and Butter knew that tonight at 9:11 pm, the closest elevator man was already doing just that down in Columbus at the Children’s Hospital. The Level Four nexus provided that opportunity, and Butter had just driven up from there. And that repairman would be making repairs down there till at least 2:00 am EST so there’d be no service here for at least five hours. Looks like there’s an outbreak of mysterious elevator failures, Butter said nervously to himself as he counted down the last few seconds till 9:11 pm EST and at exactly that moment, he sprayed the interior of the panel, shut it, then left the room and headed for the parking lot. Job done in this time, he thought as he walked over to his Hertz/Tilden rental, smiling at what must be happening back at the 4 Seasons/EconoLodge. And now to await the outcome of this Level Four nexus interrupt.

Up on the mid-16th level, Dr. Bill Armstrong grinned at his secretary, as he stumbled at the sudden stop.

“Whoops!” he slurred.

“Whoops nothing, you prankster. You turn that back on,” the blonde said as she lifted her glass in a toast. “I know you want to get right to the dance, don’t you?” she said with a slight flutter of her eyelashes. Mandy wasn’t the brightest secretary Bill had ever had, but she was surely the best looking, Bill thought as he nodded. Maybe we could dance right here, maybe except down below in the banquet room his wife awaited.

“Uh… sure… but… wait a sec…” Bill said as he tried more buttons, juggling his cocktail from hand to hand and still the elevator didn’t move. “Maybe there’s a phone,” he said as he tried to pry open the In Case of Emergency panel.

No phone was encountered, but there was a Net terminal, and Bill typed in HELP right away. The brick cursor flashed, kept flashing… then an answer appeared on screen.

Hello Elevator Occupants. We are aware that the elevators have all just suddenly stopped working and invite you to remain calm. Please realize that we are attempting to fix the problem immediately, and hope to have the elevators back up and running in just a few minutes. For your pleasure, while we run our diagnostics, you may now use the terminal to call any persons that you wish to notify of this problem, regular Comcharges will be at our expense. Please do not hesitate to contact us again should there be a medical emergency. Thank you… 4 Seasons/EconoLodge Management.

Mandy sniffled, “Immediately? That’s good, right Bill?” and she looked around for a place to sit down, which she did right then in the corner by simply sliding to the carpeted floor.

“Uhh… I guess,” Bill answered and sat down clumsily beside her.

“Let’s see,” he said as Mandy giggled, “I’ve got my own cocktail and you’ve got yours, and then there’s the flask in my pocket we just retrieved for later when they cut off the bar again this year. We’re fine… I mean, how long can this take?”

Mandy grinned at him, and said, “So, a toast—till they get things up and running again!”

And Bill nodded, “Sure enough, let’s party!” as he put his arm around her shoulders.

Down in the banquet room at the table where the place cards marked the company executives, Sarah Armstrong fumed. Bill had gone up again with that woman and been gone now for almost fifteen minutes. How long does it take, she stared angrily at her Mimosa, to pick up a refill for his flask? I should have known, she said, I should have gone with him, instead of that witch. She took a long pull at the drink, and then listened even more angrily as she was told the news that the elevators were all shut down and Bill and that woman were most likely stuck in one. This better end soon, Sarah began to fume, or there’ll be trouble. Especially in this awful town in the middle of Ohio for god’s sake. Big trouble for him because this isn’t the first time, she said to herself, as she toyed with the new necklace Bill had given her as an early Christmas present. Not long, he doesn’t have long, she thought, till I walk out of here… and make him pay for this. She swilled the balance of her drink in her fluted glass, and began tapping her foot under the white table-clothed table and waited. Not long… or this is over. All of it, she thought, thinking suddenly of his stock options and pension plan cash guarantees.

Butter logged in again on his PDA and searched the local papers for the Armstrong surname… and noted that in 2025, in the Mansfield News-Messenger, a notice offered a short marriage congratulations to a Bill and Mandy Armstrong. In 2026, another notice mentioned that Bill had left NovoLilley, and was now head of research at Tompkins/Kliner in Regina, Saskatchewan. He grinned broadly as he tabbed into the Biotech Encyclopedia, and watched as his pre-saved analysis came up… and yes! There it was, the patents for the common cold vaccine were now held by his own company; Bristol-Roche couldn’t even be found in the abstract. Job accomplished, he said to himself, but still that nagging thought would not go away. Level Four nexus interrupts involved—well, they involved death in a way. Now, there would be no Armstrong children; four lives… for a patent. All in a day’s work, he thought, though if pressed, Butter realized, he would have to admit that he had overstepped his bounds. But hey, he thought, that’s what TimeOps was all about, right? Hadn’t he just followed his orders… sort of? Now Armstrong would not find that research, and would move off into obscurity, and his own company Dyno/Biotech would reap the profits for a hundred years from that patent. All in a day’s work.

* *** *

It seemed like only minutes ago, Butter thought, that I was more than a hundred years back and sitting in the bright Carolina sunshine. In fact, he was just a few minutes removed from the past assignment since he’d used the chronograph PDA to come back to his own time. And no sooner than he arrived in the login room, than his PDA alarm went off—Davidson wanted to see him immediately. He made short work of checking in his PDA and hustled off to the agent locker rooms where he quickly wiped the depilatory on, then off and gargled with a mouth freshener. Damn sugar in those coffees a few hours ago had sweetened more than the drink, he thought. Now most of our nutritional sources come from the yeast farms; sugar substitute included. No after taste and no smell either… but that morning coffee had been actually quite nice, he grinned. Time to hike up the levels he thought, as he left the staff washrooms and rode up the escalator four floors.

Once there, he worked his way beyond staff, past Logistics and Control and Continuity, until he was at his boss’ secretary’s desk.

“Nancy, how are you today?” he asked politely, straightening his tie and giving her a big smile.

“Fine, Butter. Do I understand a reprimand is in order?” she answered back without looking up, reading still from the mid-air display and using her data-glove to make changes that he couldn’t see to the data in front of her, not awaiting any answer either, he knew.

“Not really. My assignment was successful,” he said as he straightened his shabby suit jacket and squared away his posture.

“He’s waiting… go right in,” she stated, then she ignored him again.

TimeOps agents he thought, they all ignore us. We’re the teams that change the world, and everyone ignores us because they don’t want us prying into their own futures. Sad, he thought and marched through the door that irised ahead and behind him.

“What the hell, Smith?” Davidson said, and looked over from his desk in his amber glass walled office, “Who gave you the authority to escalate your interrupt to a Level Four? Did you go all through that second-rate college of yours and learn nothing?” Davidson was an average-sized man, but felt that rolling up his sleeves and standing behind his desk while he yelled at his underlings made him look bigger. And it did, Butter realized, as he swallowed.

“But as you know, boss, the changes that I was to make actually did happen,” Butter stated calmly as he slowly sat on the straight-backed chair that sat alone in front of his department head’s desk.

“Yes, I know that you did accomplish the task that you were sent back on,” said Davidson who looked like he was starting to smirk, “but at what cost long term? How do we know that your choice of which nexus to interrupt will be best for us all?”

Butter squirmed a bit, then composed himself.

“Boss, you explained quite clearly to me almost four years ago, that the patent that we were trying to dissolve, could prove to be the best thing for the company in quite awhile. That we were to succeed, and not to fail and lastly, I remember you promising that if we did succeed, I’d climb back into your ‘good books’ and get that vacation owed to me.” Butter nodded to make his point again as he had learned to make use of the plural “we” when he talked to Davidson. No sense in making this a personal issue when in fact it was a company one.

Davidson’s mouth worked slowly, Butter saw, as he pushed out each syllable and word; he was clearly smirking now. And a smug department head was not a good thing, Butter thought as he suddenly felt ill feelings start to rise.

“Fine, Smith. I do see results. You know by now, that our own viral patents have been granted and Bristol-Roche has not answered at all, though we all know that they’ll be trying. I’ll send the file over to Continuity; now it’s Milliken’s problem.”

“Fine, boss. And when do I get that vacation?” He tentatively smiled back at Davidson, and nodded again. He wouldn’t let his mind wander towards that sinking feeling.

“Um… well, that’s no problem, Smith. Your picking out your own nexus means that the whole of the timeline has changed, particularly that the Armstrong’s divorce meant no children. And I know that you did look ahead to see what the consequences of that would be, and found nothing. Except, you didn’t look far enough. The Armstrongs never had a daughter named Sarah, who didn’t have a daughter of her own called Janice. Now Janice got into some troubles in her early years, and had a few children with various men, none of whom stuck around either from what Logistics has been able to turn up. Except for the fact that one of them, Nancy, who married some guy named Rennie, was never born either… so she never had a son named James who never had his own son named James Jr. Does that name ring a bell, Smith?” Davidson was now beaming at Butter, his arms propping up his body as he leaned towards him, his tie just touching his walnut desk.

Butter winced as his leg began to beat on the boss’s chair, his scorched mouth now dry as bone.

“Uh…” Butter was able to cough out.

“That’s right, Smith. Your choice of the nexus to interrupt means that you’ve just ended five generations of Armstrong progeny up to our own time. And one of them was your own father-in-law, James Rennie Jr.—which also means that when you go home tonight there will be no dinner on the table because the little woman was never born. Serves you right, I’d say, and Logistics means for this to stay as it is too.” Davidson’s wide smile was plastered on his face as he slowly sank into the big leather chair behind him.

Davidson then shrugged as he spat out his closing, “And while I didn’t agree, the company has given you a year off. Drop by Logistics and pick out a timeline vacation. See you back here tomorrow at 8:00 am sharp. And don’t put on any weight either… it costs enough already to charge those dang PDAs.”

The back of Butter’s suit coat was now slick with sweat; his leg still beat to its own drummer and his eyes were blurry.

“Oh, stay away from the onlines too… you know the rules,” Davidson mouthed as his attention turned back to the desktop and he sank into his big executive chair as he watched the company’s fortunes once again in the desktop Comcast. Behind him and through the amber windows, the towers of New York City gleamed in the fading sunshine and ribbons and ranks of aircars flitted by as Butter backed out, sweat stains hidden.

Butter rode the escalator down in a depressed frame of mind. He’d ended his own wife’s ancestors’ lives which meant that he was alone. Kelly had never been born. The paradox of time travel was simple; change something in your past, and the future changes with it regardless of what universe you were in. He had made the mistake of not knowing his future, before changing his past, and he was alone as a result. He pondered that further—then turned his attention to the timeline vacation he’d earned. One year of peace somewhere in time… perhaps back to the Renaissance again, but that was so hard on his hygiene needs. Or maybe a thousand years ahead to the Rigel moon resort… or even Eta Cassiopeia and it’s twin yellow and orange stars and those wondrous double sunsets. No matter, he’d take the year and then click his PDA and return to tomorrow at 8:00 am and go out again on another TimeOps assignment. After all, it was his job he reasoned as he exited the building and climbed aboard a sonic to James Bay and home. In twenty minutes, I’ll have a bath and watch some Comcast show and then retire for the night, alone.

 

The Honorable Mayor Willie Brown

airship

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Johnny Eponymous

 

The Mayor of San Francisco, the Honorable Willie Brown, hated spending the night in San Jose. Usually, a long night mixing with the DotCom elite at South Bay galas meant a long, traffic-logged morning return to his precious city, but other times it meant waking up in the nineteenth century. Monday night, the 30th of December 2002, faded into Tuesday morning, November 14, 1896. The mayor woke; saw the walls of the hotel had gone from soothing cream, to harsh, yellow Victorian annoyance. His Honor saw that the fine silk suit he had worn all night had been replaced by a fine wool suit he would wear all day. I don’t like grey, he mumbled, but it’s better than that brown thing I had last time.

The mayor stood, the wood under his feet reminding him of the time difference, just as the taste of champagne hours previous made him forget. He heard footsteps up the wood stairs outside the room, a gentle knock and his butler, Gibson or Gimlet, a drink name either way, entered holding the early edition.

“Your Honor, the paper.”

Willie’s head was a little hazy from the trip, or maybe he had overdone it back in the twenty-first century. He stared a bit at an etching, though his attention strayed to the banner of The San Jose Bee. 

“What’s all this about, Gibson?”

“Gilby, sir. It’s Gilby, and it’s the airships. The airships passed over the city last night.”

The Mayor focused a bit on the picture, finally making out the image of a blimp floating over the tower of light. He rather liked the fact that he ended up in the body of another man of import, though spending the day as a barkeep might have been a good time for all. He folded the paper, pretending to read the story.

“Well, this is a most serious matter. I think… I think I’m going to get dressed, go down to the City Hall and call a meeting. Will you get my advisors on the phone… I mean, get them to the hall, right quick.”

Gilby turned, and started down the stairs. Willie noticed the box of cigars on the bed stand, took one and flicked the lighter on the small table, turning the perfecto gently in the flame. He brought it to his mouth, drew slowly, far more gingerly than he would have on the Dominicans he favored. Just the scent coming from the open box told stories of Cuban soil, of a perfect roll on the inner thigh of a Havana virgin. He savored it, let it roll around before exhaling with his yelled words.

“And lunch; I’d say a steak, some potatoes, something with a lot of oomph to it. I’ll get dressed, send someone with a coach to take me to the office in half-an-hour. Understood, Gilby?”

Gilby made a barely audible reply from the first floor. The Mayor made a note to give Gilby a raise if he made it through the day. He rose, removed the nightshirt and slid into the suit, gravel on bare skin when he thought of the silk he had left behind. Lunch couldn’t come soon enough, he hadn’t eaten in negative one hundred and six years. Willie suited himself up nice, a styling man, even if he paled in comparison to the Frisco Fashion plate (a term coined by Esquire… or maybe GQ). He started downstairs, the sounds of a steak breakfast ringing towards his ears.

“Morning, Mr. Mayor.”

The lovely young thing approaching him wore an apron, a smile, and a dress that managed to show off precise curves, and still maintain an air of Victorian distance. She gave a small bow, the Mayor, cursing the lack of modern necklines at a time like this, bowed his head a slight bit forward.

“And how are we this morning, Miss…?”

The girl, probably nineteen, maybe twenty-one, smiled, looked at the floor and walked into the kitchen. The mayor must have had a fine night last night. The mayor smiled the smile that made him the mayor of the greatest city in the world. He knows how to live, I’ll say that for him.

The breakfast was heavy, greasy, and a hundred times better than the granola and grapefruit juice he’d have in the limo on the way back to the City. The biscuits and steak he smothered in gravy so thick, no ladle could contain it. The potatoes, crunchy and lard-fried, smelt of rosemary, sweet-stinging on his lips. If you are going to be trapped in the body of a Victorian, you may as well take advantage of the arteries your host provides. He washed the morning down with a tankard of… well, the Mayor wasn’t sure. It was obvious that it must be the mayor’s favorite drink, as it had waited for him at the table. He finished the meal, sat for a moment looking over the paper, reading the various reactions to the war in Cuba, the stories of the airship, and had started in on a story of Japanese farmers when Gilby entered the room, a notebook in each arm, his steps hurried.

“Sir, the men are at your office and the auto is outside. Here is a full breakdown of topics that the boys have asked you to go over with them today. I took the liberty of putting the airships at the top of the agenda.”

The mayor wiped his mouth, gave a quick smile to the young maid who had stayed in the dining room while he ate. She giggled slightly to herself and looked back to the floor. The mayor tossed the napkin to the table and went to Gilby, taking one of the notebooks from him.

“Excellent, Gilby. Let’s make our way over. I’ll read this as we head over.”

Gilby stared at the mayor with annoyed amazement.

“Sir, I don’t think it is wise to drive and read at the same time, especially not this time of day.”

“Well, you could drive, couldn’t you Gilby?”

The house staff laughed, just enough so that the mayor could tell that Gilby couldn’t drive, and that the mayor would never let anyone else take the wheel anyway.

“Fine then. I’ll drive and you can give me notes on the way, just give me the gist of the topics as we go.”

The mayor walked out the front door, hoping that the car was at least as steerable as the Jag he would take into Napa on the weekends.

* * * * *

The Mayor’s office was filled with smoke from six cigars and the scent of at least ten thousand others smoked over the years. The walls were the same yellow from the house, only stained darker, giving an antiqued look that he had always associated with old lady docents at historic homes. He went to the desk that everyone had seated themselves around. This is what a mayor’s office should be. Men, crowded eight to a space designed for three at most, and the desk, the monstrous desk, affording his honor room to stretch. Every man stood as the mayor entered, Willie’s head slightly hurting from the smoke. A young man, maybe thirty, clipped a cigar and handed it to the mayor, flipping the handle on the desk lighter, sending up a perfect flame. The mayor bent, puffed it three times and set it in the ashtray, unable to subject these men to any more smoke.

“Alright, let’s talk turkey. What can you all tell me about the airships last night? Anyone have anything solid?”

An older gentleman stood in the back, his cigar smoke hiding a hideous pair of hanging sideburns.

“Well, there are theories, your honor. A great many theories, mostly floated by those with a little science. Folks in Sacramento seem to reading too many of the stories by Mr. Welles, as they are claiming that it is an armada of alien ships coming to take the world prisoner.”

The mayor had a chuckle.

“Alright, now, how about anything with a touch of science behind it?”

Another man spoke, his eyes glowing against the haze, though he too had the same awful sideburns.

“I can say that the coursers seem to be of our design, like the Germans have been experimenting with for years. I remember seeing such a device at our fair, something I believe built by the Swiss. Again, I am not certain of any of this.”

The young man who had lit his cigar spoke out of turn, received heavy warning glances that he failed to notice.

“Sir, if I may bring up another subject; I feel we must quickly speak of the Japanese issue. The area of Fourth Street was set aside years ago, and now that they are eying land outside of the area, I am afraid that we will be unable to control them for much longer.”

The mayor focused on the young man with severe control.

“What are you talking about?”

The oldest man in the room, the one who must have been present when Junipero Serra wandered into town, spoke up, his voice hoarse with decades of meetings in room like this.

“Well, a Mr. Yamamoto has asked to buy a farm near the Santa Clara border. It would be a quite large farm, some 130 acres. It would be quite near Santa Clara University, and the Chaplain has asked for us to prevent this. I am of the opinion that offering the gentleman a suitable piece of land closer to the Fourth Street section would satisfy him, if we can arrange for a drop in price.”

The mayor stood, paced and spoke simultaneously, trying to figure a way that the men would understand his opinion and not think he had dropped his mind on the auto trip over.

“Now, I am firmly of the opinion that the Japanese citizens of this fine city are, and always will be, a vibrant and important part of our electorate. We must allow them to grow, and if we encourage that, we will be rewarded with votes in upcoming elections. Do you understand me?”

The oldest man spoke again.

“You have the next election bought and paid for, sir. Besides, how would a few hundred votes sway things your way. It opens up a great many possibilities as well. What if the Jews or the Russians feel that they can simply find a piece of land and buy it to make a home? Hell, those countries will empty in a week if we fail to put up limits. Why, even Negroes may make permanent settling in the heart of the polite citizenry.”

The mayor stopped moving, leaned onto the desk, and steadied himself on both arms, a look of fire and disgust coming from Willie.

“You will listen to me. I will not allow the good Japanese of our city be discriminated against. They will live wherever they feel and will hopefully bring as many members of their families as possible. They will ensure the future of this city without question. Is that clear?”

The young man looked back at the mayor, his eyes fearful of the rage that his elder colleague had been put through.

“Your honor, I think you should think of the security issues in these times. The Japanese are… well…”

The mayor shifted to the speaker with even greater intensity.

“What could you possibly mean.”

“Well, the airships, sir. I have heard that the Japanese may have something to do with the airships. There are rumors, sir.”

A man, still wearing his bowler and smoking a long thin cigar, stood and spoke, removing his hat and holding it over his stomach as if to deflect an expected blow.

“Well, there are great kite flying festivals in Shanghai. It is quite possible that they could equip these great kites with bombs and destroy the state. Or, they could be working with the Spanish. Both are devilish races.”

The mayor made the man glad he had removed his hat, as he whipped a stack of papers at the offender, the only one to make contact hitting the hat before gliding to the floor.

“First, Shanghai is in China, you dolts! Second, that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. Now, all of you get out! I need to take a nap, and afterwards, we will go to Japantown and discuss our options. Now, out!”

The crew walked through the door, with Gilby lagging behind.

“Will you need me for anything?”

“No, Gilby, you can take a break. I’ll be fine.”

Gilby closed the door behind him, the sounds from the street making it up to his window. The lively voices, the calling of newsboys, the sounds of horses and carriages all mixed with the heavy meal to put the mayor to sleep in record time.

* * * * *

The mayor woke up in the Palace hotel, his best black silk suit on a hanger hung on the top edge of the open television cabinet. Surrounding the bed were a dozen bottles of whiskey, the heavy scent of cigars, and a half-dozen room service trays. The knocking on the door had woken the mayor in his own time, and unfortunately in the body that had been the recipient of the mess that had once held the contents of the bottles and trays that littered the room. Mayor Brown walked to the door, opened it and let in his personal assistant, his personal assistant who seemed to be wearing a suit that Gilby would have thought suitable for a day at the office.

“Your honor, we have a busy day, and there were complaints all evening about the noise from your room. My God, look at this place? Did you buy every bottle of Jack Daniels in the city last night?”

The mayor managed a slight laugh as his stomach began to rumble under the weight of prior festivities. “I wasn’t quite myself last night. What have we got?”

The pair went over details as the mayor dressed, the silk feeling a hundred times better than the burlap the Victorians called wool. The mayor put a hundred dollar tip on the dresser, insisted on paying for the room on his personal credit card, and hopped in his car, waving and signing an autograph for a little girl on the way. Once safely in the car, he spoke sidewardly to his assistant.

“I need you to do me a favor. Call up the San Jose archivist, get me the paper for November 15, 1896. I wanna see how I did last night.”

The assistant wrote it down, then buried his face in his hand. The mayor smiled, burped, and laughed. That damn Victorian sure knew how to live.

 

Wezleski to the Rescue

Wezleski_illo

Illustration by Bob Snare

by C.J. Henderson

 

“Philip, t-that can’t be what I think it is…”

The shape stirred at the sound of voices. Its watermelon-sized head swaying back and forth, it sucked down great lungsful of air, snorting away its confusion.

“Can it?”

Remarkably, considering what had just transpired—its forced trip from home, blink-of-an-eye, wham, bye-bye semi-tropical forest/welcome to America—the leathery, gray thing had adapted to the science-shattering moment in which it had just participated quite quickly. Actually, far more quickly than the two presumably more-intelligent men staring at it were managing.

“Around here, Maxie, I think it could be.”

“You don’t mean…”

Already adjusted to its new surroundings, unaware of the uniqueness of its situation, the thing shook itself, casting away the momentary hesitation the newness of sixty-five million years of progress should inspire in a being from the zero end of the equation. No longer concerned with the electric lights, tiled floors, and plastered walls which had replaced the soggy field in which it had been feasting, its head split along a sharp line, displaying several rows of ivory spikes, many still festooned with strips of fatty muscle.

“I think I do mean it, Max. I think I mean that very thing.”

Having cut through the overpowering pungents assailing its nostrils, the shape filtered through the smells of ammonia and paint, ozone and perfume, dust, coffee, and the other uninteresting aromas on the air, zeroing in on the essential odor of the men before it. Bellowing its delight at finally identifying smells in its new world as coming from the tasty column, the thing rose to its full height and began striding forward, the very picture of joyful determination. The pair of men acted with suitable consternation.

“It’s a goddamned dinosaur, Phil!”

“Jesus Christ! Wezleski’s done it again.”

The gentleman was correct. Oh, a complete and hungry saurian was a variation on the usual tune of chaos heard in the halls of the Pelgimbly Center for Advanced Sciences, to be sure, but the melody was far too recognizable. For sadly, the postulate would have to be immediately agreed upon by all in the know, from janitor Swenson to director Aikana, herself, if there was a dinosaur loose, anywhere, anywhere at all in the entire world which, as everyone knows, has not seen claw nor scale of any living dinosaurs for a long, long time, at the bottom of it all had to be Dr. Wendel Q. Wezleski, Ph.D.

“Run, Philip!”

Actually, Professor Philip Morvently was already around the far corner, urging his colleague, the more excitable Dr. Maxim Ginderhoff, to try and keep pace with him. Behind them both, but closing the gap with little difficulty, came the great gray beast which, some thirteen minutes into the future, would come to be know as Fluffkins, but not before a great deal of blood and slaughter and the violent breaking of things which had not been seen outside the venerable halls of the Pelgimbly Center for Advanced Sciences since the last great foreign war, or inside those halls since Thursday previous.

“It’s catching up to us,” announced Phil.

“Quite aware, professor. In fact,” Max ran the figures in his head, glancing over his shoulder one last time to give his equation a final check before presenting it as a hypothesis, “the way it’s managing to out-pace us, I’m thinking it’s line of trajectory is going to intersect ours in less than eleven seconds.”

Agreeing whole-heartedly, Phil shouted back to his colleague;

“Remsley, pages 72 through 75.”

Puzzled, Max almost slowed his pace. Certainly the professor was referring to Otto Remsley, or more specifically, his seminal 1984 text, Living With Fear. But, pages 72 through 75—what that reference could mean he had no idea. Sensing the doctor’s confusion, Phil clarified;

“The paperback, not the hardback.”

Suddenly everything was made clear. But, of course, “Chapter Seven, Agreements Made in Fear.” The point in the book where Remsley quipped so eloquently on the humor in danger when it caught groups by surprise, and the pacts that could be made under such pressures. Max started to chuckle at such wit from his esteemed colleague. Then, his split-second of jolly reverie past, he flashed-back to their current shared reality, remembering exactly what they had been agreeing to, reminded by a snort of white-meat scented moisture on the back of his neck. Grabbing his companion’s sleeve, the doctor tugged with urgency, shouting;

“In here!”

Max and Phil managed to execute a quite dramatic left turn into the second level biology lab just as the brute thing snapped at one or the other of them. Skidding helplessly on janitor Swenson’s immaculate tiles, the great beast slid past the doorway, one massive leg raised upward, swooshing onward to the end of the hall where it collided rather firmly with the far wall, knocking loose two fire extinguishers and the Center’s cherished picture of L.D. Goodhue holding up two fingers behind Johannes Croning’s head at the dinner held the day after the latter had announced his new shell molding process.

“Bar the door.”

Max needed no encouragement from his erstwhile colleague. Indeed, he had already started to slide forward several lab stools and a half full box of Blakely & Son’s Bunsen burners.

“Something heavier, old boy,” Phil chided his partner in amateur survival. “Equal mass. Distribution of force, that sort of thing—yes?”

Max nearly blushed. Even mind-numbing panic of a sort never actually experienced by any living human being was still no excuse for a scientist forgetting his fundamental principles of dynamics.

But, ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, he thought, grabbing for something that might stiffen the barrier the pair of researchers were hoping to build between themselves and the slavering thing in the hall, that Wezleski!

There simply wouldn’t be a need for such enthusiasms at all if it weren’t for that darned Wezleski.

Oh, how the name made Max flush with a rage not compatible with his elevated blood pressure. Come to work and find eighty-seven of the eighty-nine windows of the western wing not only shattered, but the resultant shards pincushioning a low flying plane brought to ruin by the shattering, and only one name could be attached as the cause—Wezleski. Break for lunch and hear the arrival of scores of firefighting volunteers along with their hooks, ladders and hoses, all eager to have away at the volcanic eruption transforming the formerly immaculate south lawn into something from a Ray Harryhausen film, and there would be only a single Center member whose reputation might come to mind—Wezleski. Reach for the last jelly doughnut, and find that not only is it missing, but replaced by a spiny creature the length of a standard spatula, the width of a generous dinner plate, with the eyes of a collie and the disposition of an Orthodox Jew at an all-you-can-munch bacon-breakfast and certainly, but one signature could you see on the dotted line…

“Wezleski.”

“Less muttering, more stacking,” encouraged Phil. Oh, to be certain, the professor was not trying to change his companion’s disposition toward their absent brethren, merely his immediate fixation upon him for, outside in the hall, the gray thing had made its way back to the biology laboratory. Already it had begun to pit its tiny, fairly one-dimensional intellect against the awesomely complex three-dimensional concept of the swinging door. And, since it had already shown itself to be somewhat of a Paleozoic genius, it was doubtful Max and Phil had much time left.

The thing stared and stared at the spot where its prey had effectively vanished. It had followed them to the exact spot where it now stood. It knew it was correct in this, for their odor still hung in the air. Indeed, it was strong and juicy and growing stronger, filled with the delicious drippings of desperate fright in which the horror’s growling belly simply delighted. In fact, it could smell them, could hear their squeaking noises, it could practically taste them in the air. It just could not see them. Still, it had not lived to the ripe old age of many passings of the sun by not learning a thing or one thing and another thing. The beast knew that if it could smell something, it was there. So, trusting its nose, it began moving forward toward the wall.

Its snout touching the door, the thing was taken with the fact that this flat gray nothing seemed somehow different than the flat gray nothing into which it had slammed several minutes earlier. Whereas its forceful encounter with that flat gray nothing had been rather painful, it losing the lop-sided battle quite completely, this flat grayness was different. It was not stationary. It moved.

“It’s pushing the door!”

“Well then do join me in pushing it back.”

The scientists resisted with the strength they would use to oppose the theory of a flat earth, or the rights of cinema stars to proselytize for scientific causes. The memory of Susan Sarandon and Wynona Ryder lecturing the General Assembly on the dangers of conservative Christians being allowed to clone mad armies for Jesus still burned into his mind, Max strove valiantly to hold the breach by himself as he shouted;

“Phil, release all the animals.”

“What?”

“Just do it!”

No Wezleski, of course, Dr. Maxim Ginderhoff was still an intellect with which to be reckoned. All throughout the biology room, cages adorned the walls and floor filled with all manner of experimental fish, fowl, and furbearer. As Phil threw open latch after latch, allowing escape for the various chickens, cats, white mice and so on, Max began kicking away bits and pieces of their barrier, even as the thing in the hall started increasing its efforts to reach the delicious sounds it heard multiplying inside the lab. Reaching the monkey cages, Phil asked;

“Even Brodsky’s chimps?”

“Everything.”

“He’ll be awfully cross, he’s very keen on how close he is with his cancer research.”

“Open the cages.”

“Max, he’s got them up to two packs a day.”

“Philip! Unfasten the bolts or I shall stroll over there, unfasten the deltoids of your left shoulder from the area of the trapezius, grasp the resultant dislocated appendage firmly at the intersection of ulna and carpals and beat you to death with it!”

Sensing the seriousness in Max’s tone, Phil complied, releasing Dr. Brodsky’s prize chimps into the melee, all eight of which immediately began an insane search for cigarettes, seven for the cool, fresh taste of Marlboros, only one determined to uncover the coveted pack of Winterfresh Menthol Lites the doctor saved for those of their octet who performed exceptionally well, ringing the right bell in response to the proper colored light series or managing to get at least an act or two of Hamlet typed up from memory before coughing up a nicotine-flavored lu’gee into their IBM Selectric.

Finally, with hamsters, ducks, rabbits and everything else filling the air with fur, feathers and consternation, Phil rejoined Max at the door. Adding his delicate but willing shoulder to the barricade, he both informed Max that all the test subjects had been released and inquired as to just why the hell such a thing had been done. The doctor explained.

“I’m willing to wager that our friend out there, eager as it is to acquaint itself with the best scientific minds of our day, is not all that erudite itself.”

“Points conceded,” Phil granted as the door continued to push inward. “Go on.”

“I’m thinking,” answered Max, just catching his balance as the beast pulled away for a moment, causing the door to rush back toward the hallway once more, “that if one side of a swinging door confused our new best friend, that similar results might be achieved by the opposite side as well.”

“Acceptable premise,” agreed Phil as the beast came at the door again, expending much more force than it had previously. Digging in his J.C. Penny loafers, he asked, “have you given much thought to testing it?”

“Indeed. If you note, our friend has fallen into a pattern of pressing against the door, pulling back, and then coming forward with more force. Delightfully predictable. I propose when next it relents, we back away, and then, when it comes forward again, we allow it to enter the laboratory while we exit. Once inside…”

“With all the animals on the menu…”

“He will forget about us…”

“And we can trap him in the lab!”

“Precisely.”

The great beast stopped for a moment, vibrations it had never felt before stunning its external radar.

“He’s slowing…”

“Now or never…”

The thing was shocked. The spark that raw human consciousness could generate had actually touched it through the door, not harmed it, no—not a physical touching…

“He’s still there—you can feel him.”

But, pressed against the moving gray nothing, the mindless thing almost awakened, almost noticed something beyond the few senses it knew and trusted so well. But then, the first of the new aromas caught hold—

Inside, Max rapidly waved the notes he was carrying, a rather insightful symposium lecture he was to deliver at 2:30 on the social significance of the fact that Monty’s Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” was the most requested song at funerals around the world, blowing the rising smell of the lab animals under the door.

“Come on, big fella, we do chicken right.”

Suddenly the air was alive with a thousand new pure fats and bloods that were so overpowering as to intoxicate. The beast wavered on its feet, giddy with wonder at what treasure might be inside the vast gray nothing.

“He’s going to move soon, yes…?”

“I’d say in three…”

His foot on the side of his body which was not the other side of his body dug into the treacherous floor. His eyes hooded, shoulders flattened—

“And two…”

Deep breath, rush of blood, brain exploding with oxygen, order given—forward!

“One.”

Max and Phil fell to the floor with the grace quickly learned by all those whose permanent place of employment was the Pelgimbly Center for Advanced Sciences, falling back with the perfect rhythm all truly rational souls gain in times of stress. Two-stepping as the door swung open, violently propelled as it was by the blood-fever rush of the only dinosaur to know the sweet dream of feasting on domesticated lives, the esteemed doctor of thermodynamic physics bounced back toward the hall with the much-valued professor of non-linear philosophy sliding out quietly behind him.

Allowing the door to swing shut, they locked it quickly with Morvently’s official key as a dean of sciences, and then slid down the wall opposite, laughing and cursing, ignoring the hideous screaming, screaming, screaming coming from the other side of the door as they tried to answer the questions of the many flocking to find out what all the previous commotion had been about. There were, of course, a goodly faction who were also quite curious about the screaming, screaming, screaming as well.

In only a few minutes Dr. Ginderhoff and Professor Morvently were able to give a fairly detailed account of what had happened to them, specifying their suspicions of grievous blame and to which of Dr. Wezleski’s addresses to forward them to in their footnotes, despite the constant questions from those in the crowd, especially janitor Swenson, although it was apparent he was mostly concerned with how his tiles had gotten so streaked, and who was going to have to clean up “…der stinkin’ piles of dinosaur crap,” and of course, the screaming, screaming, screaming, when suddenly, the constant din of the country dinner being served tartar in the main dining room of the biology laboratory… stopped.

No more screams.

None at all.

For a very long moment…

And then…

“Who in hell took my Luckies?”

“Wezleski?” asked Phil.

“Wezleski,” snarled Max, diabolical loathing closing one of his eyes, curling his delicately sensitive instrument-like hands into fists. “Wezleski!” snapped Max, envy and humiliation raging against the indifference he knew the crazed Wezleski would feel toward everything that had happened in his wake.

As the crowd moved toward the swinging door of the biology lab, they all gasped involuntarily as the door suddenly open.

“Hey, some kind of mess in there, huh?”

Dr. Ginderhoff moved forward, moustache twitching, open eye bulging, face crimsoning over like Russian wheat at sunset, his hands clutching and opening, clutching and squeezing, only to find himself blocked by the venerable Director Aikana. Knowing her staff all too well, the good Director thwarted the promised blood-letting with a bit of tact, deflecting the doctor’s misplaced rage into a weapon for truth.

“Dr. Wezleski,” she snapped with authority. “What was that thing? Why did you bring it to the Center? Explain yourself before those horrid people from UPN force their way in here again.”

“Oh, you must mean Fluffkins,” answered the somewhat dazed looking scientist. “I noticed him leaving through the field as I returned.”

“What?” The innocent single word was actually voiced by a number of the crowd. Indeed, there were a great many exclamations, but this one is quite representative and thus should suffice.

“I thought I’d finally cracked the problem with inter-dimensional travel. Trouble is, I only back-doored my way into time travel again.”

“Groan…” Once more, not a complete tally of reactions.

Wezleski opened the door behind him and invited everyone to move into biology lab 5A, or as it would be affectionately remembered for years after, ye olde slaughterhouse, as if ushering them into Fluffkins dining hall would somehow endear them to his tale. But, unbelievably, after but a few fairly incomprehensible moments of explanation, the eye-popping reaction to which can only be compared to the first ever audience to experience Willis O’Brien’s King Kong; the sensation of seeing the Earth as only the astronauts have—floating in space, back in the womb, snaggled to a life-giving umbilical, viewing a motherfigure the size of everything and the width of it squared; or that wonderful moment in 1905 when a brave new world was created at the moment when elastic rubber replaced the traditional whalebone and lacing used in women’s foundation garments, the Director said;

“You’re telling us, that when you went through the time stream you displaced an equal mass to yourself and what you took inside with you. It could have been two hundred and fifty three pounds of sea water, or coal, or riverbottom that came to us, but no, precisely, it was a dinosaur of a vary nasty, snapping, unbehaved type we had to contend with while you dallied elsewhere.”

“Yeah, I think so,” admitted Wezleski, puzzling to remember if he had meant anything else.

“And before I assess the damage you have done to our esteemed Center, yet again, Dr. Wezleski, I want to know something… Why did you call that beast ‘Fluffkins,’ as if you knew it?”

“Because I did know it.”

Now, remarkably, at this point, having lived through so many purely wezleskian moments as that shard of time they were all sharing with the only M.I.T./Yale/Cambridge alumni to have ever taken The Most Dangerous Man in Science Nomination twenty-six times in only eleven years (the duplications caused by his common, multiple category nominations within the same year, usually creating a split vote that would allow some other knucklehead to walk away with the trophy), you would have thought at least someone would have begun edging toward the door.

“You see,” he explained, with that unknowing way he had of luring the foolish to their doom, “geared as I was for intra-dimensional travel through inter-dimensional means, when I hit the damn time stream again, my ratial-mass threw an anchor out to pull me back—Fluffkins. But, since I was on an extended trip, I was actually there before, during and after his…”

“Its.”

“Excuse me, Dr. Ginderhoff?” asked Wezleski.

“It’s not a ‘him,’ it’s an ‘it.’”

“Hey, I was with him long enough to assign enough anthropomorphic characteristics to allow the pattern to establish itself. Comprende?”

Ginderhoff hated Wezleski’s embracing of popular culture means to explain his sloppier descriptive characteristics. Then again, he hated Wezleski’s favorite lunch, any tune he might chance to whistle, and even the tie given him by the Women’s Alliance for Runaway Decency. Honestly, he just plain hated Wezleski. But, with his vision blurring and the pain in his arm turning to numbness, he decided he had more important things to think about at that moment.

“Anyway,” Wezleski continued, “I disappeared from where I was twice, Fluffkins, three times. That means I was able to study him after he ate all the bio critters.”

“Hold on sixty seconds,” snapped Professor Morvently. “How could you have been around this creature any length of time? It obviously considers the human smell the dinner bell…”

“You have to rub yourself with fruit juice and not give off any signs of fear. All right?”

Morvently rolled his eyes. The crowd stared. Aikana wondered about this research Wezleski had mentioned. Her need to find dollars in any situation, the Director steered the conversation back to the doctor’s studies.

“Oh, yeah… anyway, I ran tests on ol’ Fluffkins when he got back. It’s a complete study of the effects of modern life on prehistoric cultures. Fluffkins chowed down on mega overdoses of nicotine and perfume extracts and carcinogens—everything that was in biology. I’ve got it all stretched—the numbers ring. Someone out there should be happy.”

Aikana smiled. Her mad bomber of scientific research had done it again. No matter which outcome the research favored, she already knew to whom she could sell it. Her soul lifted as the tally she could see for damages and lost loveable furry things was far outstripped by the minimum bids she could already hear jangling in the Center’s deepening pockets. Pleased beyond reason, she spoke without thinking.

“Well done, doctor,” she cooed, meaning it. Loving him once more. “Do give me you notes.”

“Sure,” answered Wezleski without hesitation, always happy to follow the dictates of the Director, “One minute. I left them on the other side.”

Turning on his heel, he reached out and grabbed an arm.

“C’mon Swenson, help me look for those notes.”

And the two men stepped through the time portal to retrieve the asked-for papers. Sending not two hundred and fifty three pounds over to the other side, but some five hundred and eighteen pounds instead. Of course, it might have displaced some five hundred and eighteen pounds of sea water, or coal, or even of riverbottom. But no, none of those were precisely what was returned.

What anchored their trip was something smaller than the last time. Tiny in comparison—but still remained the rows of ivory spikes and unruly disposition. Smaller, indeed, just more of them. Two hundred and fifty-three more of them, to be exact. All of whom, upon arrival in ye olde slaughterhouse, heard one massive sound voiced from some thirty-two various throats:

“Wezleski!”