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Eye of the Storm

Steve Rasnic Tem, a past winner of the Bram Stoker, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy Awards, has published 470+ short stories. His novel Ubo is a dark science fictional tale about violence and its origins, featuring such viewpoint characters as Jack the Ripper and Stalin. His most recent collection is Thanatrauma: Stories from Valancourt Books. You can visit his home on the web at stevetem.com.

My father always said the rich have a responsibility. They create possibility. He's gone fifty years now, but sometimes I see him standing in his tailored Savile Row suit on the other side of a veil of tears.
If she had stayed home that day.
All morning it rains metal. Pill-sized for the most part, but deadly as bullets if you're in sync with them. Occasionally larger pieces come down, metal hail the size of a fist. Huge metal bodies--from cars to cargo ships, planes, suspension bridges, some the output from my own factories--drift at cloud height, and their disintegration sends these fragments down. I can't see the source objects, except as streams of dark shadow, black threads weaving their way across the sky, but sporadically the streams drift closer to the ground, the individual items more distinguishable, and with good binoculars I can see pretty much everything: buildings and vehicles and trees and great gobs of earth and animals and even people. Yes, dead people floating up there, some in the historic garb specific to their time and place. So sometimes it rains flesh. Not often but experiencing the phenomenon once or twice is more than enough. It changes you, to see something like that.
If I hadn't been so wealthy.
In addition to the streams in the atmosphere, tendrils of a similar flux travel the ground. They present as a blurriness, a smear of people and objects, like an unfocused collage of historical photographs. Now and then I recognize a former employee. We don't speak. I don't know what I would say.
Sometimes I see versions of myself from different times. I don't know what to say to them either.
If I hadn't been so convinced I knew what I was doing.
The streams thread around me and I try to avoid them, and it's almost as if they're avoiding me. We do not belong in the same space. They sometimes rub against me, usually with no ill effect, although I may walk away bruised or bleeding.
My late wife Louise used to complain about my self-centeredness. "What has to happen to make you change?" I believed she couldn't understand someone with my money and power, my talent for invention. Sometimes I see her in the flux. If she sees me, she offers no acknowledgement. I have no idea what I would say to her if she did, after what I've done. I never see our two children. I hate imagining what they must endure.
If I'd used some caution.
Much of the flux contains items and people from other times, other moments besides this one. But some are from my now and reaching out to them is tempting. I thought I understood what I was doing at the time. I thought at least I had some sound theories. I was the only private citizen with the knowledge and resources necessary to test those theories.
If I had given it more thought.
Profitability was important, but I wanted my wealth to get things done. I had a choice, build another rocket ship, send another crew into space, or tamper with time, undo my personal tragedy. I chose incorrectly.
There are safe places, marginal pockets the flux never touches. A bedroom, a patch just beyond the door, an attic or a cellar or an office, the bit of manicured grounds where my missing children used to play.
Today I see myself in the flux in three different locations, and in each instance, I am wearing a different expensive suit, a different shirt and tie. They ignore me, a little too deliberately I think, as if they know. None are wearing the clothing I wear the day of the launch. Still, I follow them as far as I can.
Sometimes I visit my old office and review the files. I rethink procedures. I examine probabilities. On my desk there's a silver letter opener which used to be owned by Winston Churchill. I have a few of his other belongings--the collection cost me almost three million dollars. But you can't buy greatness, as Louise was always telling me.
Churchill once said the era of procrastination, of half-measures, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.
If I had just delayed.
Some kind of government still exists, although there's little evidence of its effect. Sometimes I see emergency vehicles, but they flicker in and out so frequently their progress is impossible to follow. I also flicker in and out. Sometimes I'm in one place, then I find myself several blocks away with no memory of an in-between. I suppose it's like this for everyone, although we don't share stories. Conversations are brief and urgent.
I see the police every so often, always driving somewhere at high speed, but I cannot tell if they belong to this moment or another. I haven't seen a garbage truck in a while. But garbage still disappears. Does garbage belong to now or yesterday? It doesn't last long on these flux-driven streets.
Televisions and radios are unusable. I find a rare current paper on someone's lawn. The last was several weeks-months-hours ago? I take this treasure into my office to study. It talks about the flux, what the scientists say, what the politicians say, the religious leaders (whose opinions are always entertaining). None of them understands anything. Apparently, the authorities are seeking me for questioning, but I have all the time in the world to hide. In any case, I have no answers yet to provide.
The paper has my photograph on the front page, taken at the factory the day everything falls apart. I'm wearing the red-checked shirt Louise gave me the day of her car accident. It looks ridiculous with my outrageously expensive Brioni trousers. But it is the last present she ever gave me.
I was thinking about her all day until I decided this was the day to launch. I called in all my engineers and told them to initiate the sequence. A few grinned when they saw my shirt. It made me furious.
Louise tells me I should treat my employees better. I am impatient with people who do not meet my standards.
I cannot remember my exact reaction when Louise gave me the shirt. Did I laugh? Was I rude? My mind has lost it, whatever it was. The next I knew she was driving away.
If I hadn't said whatever I said.
If I hadn't been grieving Louise that day.
If I hadn't initiated the sequence. If I hadn't ordered the launch. If I hadn't invested all that time and money into, into time. If Louise hadn't gotten into the car. If Louise hadn't died. If I'd worked through my grief and focused on my kids. If just a few of my people had refused to cooperate. If I hadn't been so damn arrogant.
Yesterday, or last week, or maybe last summer, I see a man die in front of me. He is walking several yards ahead, and the clarity of my vision tells me we are of the same moment, of the same time. This is how we live now, in the calm eye of the storm, walking these trails of clarity while everything around us blurs.
Two streams are moving toward him, our clear path narrowing, smearing walls close on either side. We are likely okay if one touches us--perhaps a shock of electricity or at worse a skin burn--but I have no idea what will happen if we're squeezed in and touch both at the same time. I'm concerned.
He looks into one of the streams and I think he must see someone he cares for, because he reaches into the smear. It pulls him apart. I see his arm go, then part of his head, and in a spray of blood and tissue he is gone. Now I know something of what to expect. The careless use of time has its consequences.
I see the me in the red-checkered shirt first thing this morning. I cannot believe my luck. This is the fool whose desperate need to undo a mistake unraveled it all.
I try to remember what I was wearing the day Louise died, when she gave me the shirt, but I have no idea. I own too many expensive clothes. I have no idea how to save her.
But this idiot in the red-checkered shirt, him I know all too well. I follow him all day. I pull Churchill's letter opener from my trousers, and when he wanders close enough to the edge of the smear, I plunge it in, damn the consequences.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 8th, 2022

Author Comments

I'm firmly committed to living in the now, and yet I, like most people, am consumed by the ghosts of my past and the specters of an uncertain future. Putting those phantoms in their proper place (in a mental museum, perhaps) requires enormous effort. So the seductiveness of the time travel theme has always fascinated me. Such stories are pure fantasy, I suspect, the technology impossible to achieve (and thank goodness for that). But even though most of us know this, our daydreams of fixing the past via some future action still persist. My wish is that we can all somehow apply similar creative energy to our too-often neglected present.

- Steve Rasnic Tem
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