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This is Not the Beginning; That is Not the End

Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she's left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nature, and elsewhere. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit wendynikel.com.

The Pihsecaps speeds through cloud layers--bright-dark-bright-dark--until finally, with a stutter of the engine, we burst through the haze.
Finn swears.
He blinks and straightens himself up in his seat, obviously shaken.
"Shhh--" I grit my teeth and pull on the controls to adjust our pitch. "Enough. This is the last time I'm putting my neck on the line for some magical alien artifact. After this job, we're sticking to precious metals and gemstones only, or I'm taking my ship and striking out on my own. Swear it. Now."
"You don't mean that, Merida. Just think about it: with a chronolith, we can always be one step ahead of the other scavengers and collectors. All these abandoned planets, filled with treasures, and if someone beats us to a find, we'll just reverse time and get there first." He pulls a pair of granola bars from the bag and holds them out to me. "Looks like there's only one chocolate one left. I'd arm-wrestle you for it, but--"
"I don't care." I'm too busy flying to argue. As we reach the planet's tree-level, a horde of drones blinks on our radar, and from the sound of their blasters, they're none too pleased with us. It takes all my concentration to dart and dive and evade them.
"This chronolith could be our ticket to the big-time, you know," Finn muses. "No more living payoff to payoff. We could fix up the Pihsecaps. Give her some upgrades. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"Be quiet. I need to concentrate." We hover, just off the ground, the air currents causing the ship to wobble. "And buckle up. 49 percent of fatal accidents occur during takeoff or landing."
Finn slides into his seat and mutters to himself as he digs through our supply bag--probably for another snack.
The engines roar, bending all the nearby foliage outward, away from the Pihsecaps.
I flip the switch on the control console.
Everything is silent. Too silent. I don't like it.
"It's 10:20," I say, checking my watch. "At the rate they were flying, we've only got two or three minutes, tops, before those drones catch up."
In the airlock, Finn struggles with his terra-suit. "I can see now how those defensive drones have managed to outlast the planet's inhabitants. Brutal little things."
I'd parked the _Pihsecaps_ on the edge of the forest, hoping that the shadows of the nearby trees would shield us from the drones' view. So far, it seems to have worked.
"We're close," Finn says, checking his GPS as he pushes through the overgrowth. "Come on."
We run along the forest path. Each swarm of alien bugs sounds like the drones' distant buzzing. I slap at the insects, pushing myself to keep pace with my brother's long strides.
The ancient ruins are so overgrown, it's hard to distinguish forest from city, and it's only after we rush through the half-crumbled stone archway that I realize we must've crossed the boundary.
"This way." Finn points ahead.
Drones dive around the crumbling courtyard surrounding the chronolith's pedestal. They fire their blasters at us, obviously programmed to prevent us from taking the artifact. We huddle behind Finn's deflector shield, waiting for the right moment to make our move.
I check my watch. It's 10:10. But that can't be right, can it? I hold it up to my ear. It's still ticking.
Finn jerks the shield this way and that, deftly evading the blasts.
"There! To the left!" I point at an oncoming drone.
Finn pulls the shield to the right, and the laser singes the grass mere inches from my feet.
"You're not listening to me," I say. "Again. You never listen to me. You act like we're still kids. Like you're still the big brother who gets to boss me around, just because I'm a couple years younger." What I wouldn't give, sometimes, to have things reversed. For him to listen to me for once.
"As soon as we get back to the Pihsecaps, you'll be fine."
"Why would you even say something like that?" Finn can be oblivious sometimes, but he isn't usually so dismissive of my feelings. I wish I could storm off, but there's nowhere to go. At least not without being shot by blaster fire.
"You're just tense because we're being chased by alien robots."
"You don't feel that?"
"What?" he asks, finally noticing my unease.
I've always been more perceptive than Finn, but it still surprises me that he can be so unaware of the weird, unsettling feeling that's suddenly come over this place.
It's the chronolith. It has to be. That's what's to blame for this awful feeling in my gut. Finn had said the artifact messes with time--twisting it, dilating it, reordering it. My temple throbs; whatever the chunk of rock is doing, my brain doesn't like it. It's making it hard to concentrate. I stare anxiously at my wrist.
Finn's still maneuvering the shield this way and that, blocking the drones' laser blasts, but I can't tear my eyes from the steady, rhythmic blink of my watch.
"There's something very weird going on here, Finn." Something that's just beyond my comprehension, that slips from my mind like sand in an hourglass. I glance down at my watch.
"What are you talking about?" Finn asks, grabbing my arm and urging me on beneath the cover of his deflector shield. "We just need to get we came for and get out of here before we get killed. Now go!"
My fingers close around the chronolith. As I tear it from the pedestal, the stone zaps me with a jolt of electricity. I look at my watch--10:00--and, for that brief second before I drop the artifact into my shoulder bag, I see the beginning and the end of all this and realize I've been seeing it wrong the whole time. This isn't the end; it's the beginning, and everything I thought came before was still yet to happen... Would start happening now, here, with this instant. "Time's running backward."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 12th, 2021

Author Comments

This story began as a personal challenge for myself to see if I could write something that could be read in both directions: forward (from the beginning to end) and backward (starting at the bottom and reading up, paragraph by paragraph). How different would things look if time flowed in the opposite direction?

- Wendy Nikel
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