art by Melissa Mead
by Alec Austin
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.
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.