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art by Melissa Mead

Volition

Alec Austin is a video game designer and a graduate of the Clarion West 2000 writing workshop. He's worked as an undergraduate nuclear reactor operator, TAed for (and discussed fantasy novels with) a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and earned a Masters degree from MIT in Comparative Media Studies. This is his first fiction sale.
T minus three and a half years:
In two weeks, Karl Hoestler will graduate from the Akademie Der Zeitreise with an Untersturmführer's commission in Temporal Operations. Karl does not know this yet. At the moment, he stands fidgeting in the chill white hall outside a classroom door, listening to the low voices of his thesis examiners percolate through the gap separating the door from the hallway's polymer tiles. He is afraid of what they might be saying about him and the work he has done, but when they go silent, his fear only intensifies. In that silence, it seems that his future has been determined, its pattern fixed and written in time by the old men in the classroom, these instructors to whom he has entrusted his fate.
This prospect terrifies Karl. His breathing is rapid and irregular, like his pulse, and sweat trickles down his back despite the chill air billowing from the vent down the hall. He toys idly with the brown-striped collar of his cadet's uniform, stubby fingers twisting at the plastic tabs set into its fabric. For a moment, he imagines the course his life will take if he has failed: an unimportant desk job somewhere in the apparatus of the decaying Reich, perhaps accompanied by one of a dozen diseases he inherited from his inbred, eugenics-obsessed forebears. He shudders at the thought and blots it from his mind. Karl has never felt as helpless as this, as vulnerable to the cruelty of an impersonal universe. He has been a non-determinist all his life, but now his faith is being tested, and it seems that his vaunted volition can avail him nothing. His choices have all been made, as certainly as if they had been made for him, and now all he can do is wait for the verdict of time: Pass or Fail? Live or Die?
Karl closes his eyes and calms his breathing. For him, there is only the present moment. The past is immutable, and the future is a formless void.
In five seconds, the door will hiss open and Karl's advisor will give him the good news. His eyes will open, and a smile will blossom on his lips, unfurling itself to reveal the chipped enamel of his teeth.
In three seconds.
Two seconds.
One.
T minus two centuries:
Depending on who you ask, Karl's graduation is either three years ago or a hundred and ninety-seven years in the future. Which is not to say that anyone in the bunker Karl is trapped in has any time to worry about the date. The earthshaking impact of shells landing nearby has shaken a haze of dust and fungus into the air, and parents are busy covering their faces with damp cloths and pressing breath-masks onto their children. Karl's team has been ordered to retrieve as many of the refugees filling the shelter as they can, but the job is proving difficult; the dialects of Thai and Cantonese which the OKZ's researchers had them learn are different enough from the pidgin these families speak that all their efforts so far have only coaxed one child through the pickup field and into their home century. Karl sees the frustration written on Manni and Uta's faces through the haze of transparent green numbers his implant is feeding to his optic nerve. They're cutting it close, staying down-time this long; after allowing for error, there are two minutes of safety left before an Imperial Japanese Tanuki shell will burrow its way through the steel plates and hardened concrete separating the bunker from the surface. It will explode, and the dozen families who are staring at them and their vintage Thai Army uniforms with wide, fearful eyes will be reduced to a bloody jelly.
But saving the life and genes of one child is not enough to justify the expense of flashing a recovery team this far down-time. Karl knows that in his bones. "You have to come," he says in awkward Thai to the family nearest him, a mother and three breath-masked daughters all in loose cotton robes, huddling atop a plastic tarp held down by all their worldly possessions. Again in Cantonese, this time beckoning with his hands: "You must come with us." The mother's stare is glassy as another near miss shakes chips of concrete loose from the shelter's ceiling, and Karl knows with a sickening certainty that she is dead already. She has given up, chosen to die in this tomb. And she will, in exactly one minute and thirty-five seconds, plus whatever the safety margin is this time.
"Please," Karl says, gesturing to the woman's daughters. He makes his voice imperative and his gestures abrupt, trying to convey urgency with the sweep of his hands as they jerk towards his body. "Come on!" Out of the corner of his eye, Karl can see Manni and Uta trying similar tactics on other families. Nothing is working. Perhaps if the Oberkommando der Zeitreise hadn't guessed wrong as to the dialect these people would speak, something could have been done, but as Karl sees their time slipping away, the clock in his head relentlessly counting down to zero, he knows that things are hopeless. No one else is going to come with them. No one else is going to be saved.
"Scheisse," Manni snarls as the clock in Karl's head hits fifty-nine seconds left, and then he's gone, flashed back to the present without any regard for their mission or what will happen to the refugees. A few children who were looking at him point and jabber something to their parents, but for the most part no one seems to care. Everyone is too busy staring at the cracks growing in the ceiling, at the dust showering down as the seismic impact of ground-penetrating shells creeps ever closer. A surge of anger at Manni's cowardice rises from Karl's stomach, searing the membranes at the back of his throat with acid. Just because a situation is hopeless doesn't mean they can throw up their hands, say it was fated, and go home. Their job is to make miracles happen; to save lives and genes from their ancestors' pogroms. Karl has always made a point of staying with an operation until the safety circuits in his suit pull him out, and he's not going to give up on these people until they're dead and buried.
Lurking at the back of Karl's mind is the knowledge that Manni is a determinist and an advocate of force. To Manni, everything that happens down-time has already been set in stone: his flashing home early isn't cowardice but destiny, while their failure is the inevitable result of the OKZ repudiating coercive tactics a quarter-century before. If pressed for a response, Karl would argue that coercion was both unethical and ineffective, and that determinism is another form of fear, but at the moment he has no time for such thoughts: the tallest of the dead woman's daughters has detached herself from her mother's hand and is walking towards him, her feet edging off the tarp as her sisters stare at her with wide eyes. The clock in Karl's head flashes 0:00:35, and in the corner of his vision a sudden void tells him Uta has flashed home too, but he focuses on the moment, on the girl walking towards him and the pickup field. One more life, he prays silently. Please, God; let me save just one more life.
"Come on," he says as he beckons the girl closer, hoping that his voice will keep her moving. He focuses on the girl's solemn, narrow face, past the numbers flashing in his head, and smiles, trying to project welcome and safety as the ground lurches beneath his feet. Tentatively, her eyes wide with hope and fear, the girl steps forward, only to be thrown to her knees by the shock of a nearby impact. Karl lunges toward her, hooks his hands under her armpits and lifts her to her feet, propelling her towards the corridor that leads to the pickup field. The clock behind his eyes hits 0:00:10. Only four meters separate the child in his hands from safety. But with ten seconds left to go, four meters seem like miles.
Two hundred years later, Karl will recall everything happening in slow motion. He will recall the bloodless chill of his own fingers as they pressed against warm, crumpled cotton, the girl's seeming lightness as he half-pushed, half-carried her towards the field, and the way she twisted in his grip, her heel catching him on the side of his right knee. He will remember the weightless feeling of falling as his knee gave out, how the numbers in his head seemed to turn a bloody vermilion as another shock came, this one closer still, bringing down a hail of jagged concrete from the ceiling and smashing the shelter's single electric lamp. He will replay an eternity spent groveling in darkness, fumbling for the girl's hands, and his final attempt to drag her into the field, drawing on a reserve of strength he didn't know he possessed. He will remember the shimmer of the field closing around him, and the moment of amazed gratitude he felt as the girl's hands wrapped tightly around his own, having succeeded against all odds.
And then the lights will come on in his memory, the recovery room coalescing around him, stark and white and empty, and Karl will see the girl's hands; the girl's hands and forearms, hanging limp and pale and dripping, severed along a curve sharper than the edge of any knife. The sound of liquid spattering on the recovery room floor will fill Karl's ears, followed by that of his own voice, screaming.
And then, mercifully, he will remember nothing at all.
T minus 49 days:
Karl's greatest objection to Frau Doktor Angela Nakayama is that she is not a real doctor, a medical doctor, with the arcane knowledge of the human body that would allow her to prescribe him drugs. Instead, her twin doctorates are in psychology and temporal causation theory, making her one of five people in the world qualified to hold the position of Chief Counselor at Von Braun Paratemporal Base. Though records list her as thirty-nine years old, her face is as smooth and unlined as that of a child. The creases around her eyes and mouth appear only when she laughs, which is rarely, and the spill of her bobbed hair is a shimmering jet in the light of her office. One of the images that fades in and out of the picture frame on her wall shows her smiling in the archaic garb of a doctor of sciences: stole, hood, and robe. But today, slouching in her chair, she wears a Sturmbannführer's uniform, and she is not smiling at all.
"It wasn't your fault, Karl," she says. "The past is fixed. When the archeological team excavated the shelter last year, they found a girl's skeleton that was missing its hands and portions of its forearms. I've read your thesis; you know the Law of Conservation of Atrocity as well as I do." She meets his gaze with such obvious sincerity that Karl is forced to look away. "If you hadn't tried to bring the girl through the field, someone else would have. Or else there would have been some other reason why her skeleton was missing its hands." She stops, staring at the rigidity of Karl's expression, and shakes her head. Despair and exhaustion are written upon her face. "I'm not getting through to you, am I?"
"I am responsible," Karl replies. "It wasn't someone else who cut her hands off. I did. I tried to save her and I failed, and no amount of determinist hand waving is going to change the facts."
The look Dr. Nakayama favors him with is sad and more than a little pitying. "The past isn't a quantum indeterminacy experiment. The insertion of a modern observer into an established time stream doesn't collapse possibilities into fixed form, because the stream already includes the observer. Everything down-time from us has already happened."
"You're denying me any responsibility for my actions," Karl says, recognizing the direction of her reasoning from an endless series of class discussions and more emotional arguments that had echoed up and down the halls of the Akademie. "I shouldn't feel guilty, because I have no control over anything I do."
"That's not what I'm saying at all," Dr. Nakayama says, her voice gentle, but Karl still glares at her, disbelief written plainly on his face. He will not surrender his principles for the sake of a clear conscience, will not admit that he might not be responsible for the maiming of a young girl a few seconds before her death.
He is guilty, and he refuses to be consoled.
T minus 31 days:
Dr. Nakayama is teaching Karl to play Go. Her set is worn, its folding board battered by decades of hard use, but Karl finds its scars endearing. They play outside, beside the base's Koi pond, and Karl frowns as Nakayama frames one of his stones with three of hers, threatening to capture it on her next move.
"I thought you said this was a game of choice," Karl says as he fills in the inevitable next move, defending his stone from being captured.
"It is a game of choice," Dr. Nakayama replies, calmly placing her next stone on the far side of the board. "Where chess has been solved by computers, the early and middle stages of Go resist analysis through raw computing power. Only the endgame is amenable to combinatorial analysis."
"Then how can you force me to respond to your moves?"
Dr. Nakayama pauses to gaze at Karl, her expression unreadable. "Do I force you to react?" she asks. "Or do I force you to choose?"
Karl stiffens as her gaze bores into him. "Do you call sacrificing a stone a choice?" he asks, as he connects two groups of his stones, ensuring their safety.
"I do," Dr. Nakayama replies.
She plays another stone, cutting off two of Karl's stones from each other, and as Karl studies the board, he sees that if he had made her move on his turn, he would have secured those stones instead of the group he saved. Now he must decide which of the two will live and which will die.
"You always have a choice, Karl," Dr. Nakayama says as he studies the board, searching for a way out of her net and finding none. "You can't control what it is, and you won't always like its consequences, but the choice is always there."
Karl does not respond for half a minute, as his eyes map out intersections and he plays out possibilities in his mind. Finally, he moves to protect one of the two stones, abandoning the other stone as lost.
"Good," Dr. Nakayama says. "You're learning." She places another stone on the far side of the board, the click of ceramic on wood echoing off of the courtyard's walls.
T minus 11 days:
"So when do I get a clean bill of health?" Karl asks.
Dr. Nakayama gazes at him without surprise or rancor; this is the third time Karl has asked her this in as many minutes. "When I think you're ready," she replies.
The two of them sit in her office, Dr. Nakayama relaxed, Karl tense and fidgeting. The forced inactivity of the last month has worn on Karl's nerves, as half a dozen missions have been planned and executed without him. He wants to get back to the action, to read Uta's reports and see how his team has been doing in his absence, to flash down-time and snatch lives and genes and knowledge from the jaws of the past. And yet he is trapped in this room with Angela Nakayama, who watches and judges him with her cold black eyes.
"I'm ready now," Karl insists, though he knows it will avail him nothing. Of late, Von Braun Para-Temporal has begun to seem like a circular labyrinth to him, with its maze of paths and corridors leading inexorably towards the same destination.
Dr. Nakayama dismisses Karl's protestation with a wave of her hand. "Have you ever thought about what it must be like to be rescued, Karl?"
"I took three different seminars on retrieval psychology at the Academy."
Dr. Nakayama continued as if Karl hadn't spoken. "Despite the Reichstag and the OKZ's complaints about low retrieval rates, what surprises me about our operations isn't how few people we rescue. It's how many people are willing to follow a stranger into the pickup field."
Karl shrugs. In his heart of hearts, he is convinced the drop-off in live retrievals is linked to his being shunted to the sidelines. After a moment, he says, "It's not so hard to understand. People just want to be saved."
"Do they?" Dr. Nakayama murmurs, giving Karl a meaningful look.
Karl flushes, recalling the dead-eyed mother and the girls clinging to her skirts. "They do," he insists, as if he can make the statement true through sheer force of will.
"Even so," Dr. Nakayama says, "their desire for rescue is no guarantee of them allowing us to save them. Would you trust a stranger who said you had to come with them, with no further explanation?"
Karl shifts uneasily in his seat. "The technology doesn't allow us to take any other approach," he says. "Not without coercion, and all it entails."
"But what if it did?" Dr. Nakayama asks.
"If it did," Karl said, drawing a deep breath, "we would have to revise our approach and establish rapport with prospective targets ahead of time. It's been discussed for years. The problem is that our monitoring system is already straining the capacity of the base's reactor. A longer-term approach would completely compromise officer safety."
"Mm," Dr. Nakayama says, touching the end of her pen to her lips. Karl shies away from her gaze; there is something terrible and ancient about her eyes, a darkness that makes him think of the ocean's crushing depths, and Karl wonders how he ever thought of the doctor's face as childlike. After a moment, Dr. Nakayama lowers the pen to her desk.
"You may go," she says, and Karl retreats from her office, feeling her gaze upon him as he leaves.
T minus 2 hours:
Karl prowls through the halls of Von Braun Para-Temporal like a caged animal, tracing and retracing their convolutions as he broods. The technicians and specialists he passes give him a wide berth, and Karl can tell from their expressions that they fear his misfortune may be contagious. He plunges past them, looking ahead to the next intersection, the next choice. Each turning point allows him to imagine that he can break free of the trap that holds him in its jaws, to imagine his career can still be salvaged.
The thought is a delusion, of course. Manni has been promoted to take Karl's place, in spite of his performance record. If Karl's reports had been heeded, it would have been Uta who was promoted to lead the team, but Karl suspects his opinions have become as discredited as he is. Despite Dr. Nakayama's reassurances, he's been out of circulation too long, and Brigadeführer Tarlenheim has taken the opportunity to push him aside.
Karl turns, strides forward, and turns again, trying to outrun his thoughts, his anger, his despair. His serpentine path through the base carries him around Dr. Nakayama's office, avoiding the courtyards and the gardens that they frequented together, and so when he turns a corner and finds her waiting for him, it comes as a surprise.
"What are you doing here?" Karl asks her, struggling to retain his composure as he comes to a halt.
"Looking for you," Dr. Nakayama replies, unperturbed by Karl's obvious anger.
"Why?" Karl asks again. "To gloat?"
"No," Dr. Nakayama replies, meeting Karl's gaze with her cool, dark eyes, and as she speaks, Karl realizes he believes her. In that instant, his visions of Dr. Nakayama and Tarlenheim conspiring against him dissolve, leaving him without a target for the inchoate emotion churning in his gut. His fists clench and unclench, his breathing becomes uneven, and after a few moments, Karl realizes that he is about to cry.
"Let it out," Dr. Nakayama tells him, placing her hand on his arm. Karl shakes her off, but he is already weeping, rivulets of tears coursing their way down his cheeks. A muffled sob escapes his lips, and as he leans his back against a nearby wall, he feels Dr. Nakayama patting his shoulder.
"There are more important things than your career," Dr. Nakayama tells Karl as he struggles to compose himself.
"Are there?" Karl asks bitterly, but the reproach he reads in Dr. Nakayama's eyes makes him subside.
"There are," she says. "So long as you're alive, you have hope."
As Dr. Nakayama speaks, her watch chirps an alarm, and a moment later the ground shifts beneath Karl's feet. Karl clings to the wall behind him as the complex shakes and the lights flicker, irrationally convinced that the tremor is a response to Dr. Nakayama's claim, and that the whole world has come undone.
"What was that?" he asks when the shaking stops, not really expecting an answer.
"The geological survey made when the base was built was flawed," Dr. Nakayama murmurs. "There's an undiscovered fault system a dozen miles away, and Von Braun Para-Temporal wasn't built to withstand an earthquake. That was a foreshock. Everyone inside the base is going to die when the real quake hits."
Karl turns to gape at her, wanting to ask how she knows this, how she can be so certain, but even as he turns, he knows the answer. All this time, Dr. Nakayama has been establishing rapport with her target. She is here to retrieve him.
"Why me?" Karl asks, his voice almost inaudible.
"Out of all the personnel assigned to Von Braun Para-Temporal, only two bodies were not recovered from the rubble."
Karl nods, understanding.
"What about Angela Nakayama?" he asks after a moment, meaning, Did someone die so you could rescue me?
"She died from leukemia at age twelve," Dr. Nakayama replies, and Karl cannot tell if she is lying.
Another tremor shakes the earth, and a moment after the corridor goes dark, the emergency lighting comes on, illuminating the world with a lurid orange glow. Karl swallows, feeling lightheaded. His panic feels faintly unreal, as if all of this is happening to someone else.
"I don't have any choice, then," he says, forcing the words out as dust cascades from the ceiling and the ground shifts beneath his feet. "I have to come with you."
"You always have a choice," Dr. Nakayama tells him as a pickup field blossoms behind her, unfolding itself in the air.
As Karl meets her gaze, he sees what she has risked for him, the years she has expended to bring him to this place, this single moment. For her, this is the moment of truth, and yet the power of choice is still his. He could elect not to go with her. And yet, at the same time, Karl knows that he truly has no choice at all.
In five seconds, he will allow the woman he knows as Angela Nakayama to take his hand and lead him into the shimmer of the pickup field. His hands will shake, and as the field devours the light of his native time, Karl will wonder how far into the future he is going, and what fresh tragedies have made his genome precious.
In three seconds.
Two seconds.
One.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 23rd, 2011


This story was written in response to John Varley's "Air Raid," and took nearly a decade to reach its final form. When I started working on it, I had the structure, the ending, and the mix of present & future tense, but it was 2005 before I stumbled on Go as a metaphor for choice, and another half decade before I made key elements of the setting explicit. I’m hoping my next published story won’t take as long to write.

- Alec Austin

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