All the strands of what-if stretch out into the future, all events and decisions are nodes in a whisper-fine net of potential. The present, the now, is a greedy black wall that consumes each knot in the fabric of events; discarding, choosing, making potential become certain as time washes the knots into it.
When I started training in my teens I would spend hours staring at the wall, wondering if the wall was God—all those decisions, lives, deaths. Was Heaven behind that dark all-consuming curtain? Could I cross into the past and see my family, alive once again? There were no answers for me then and there were none now.
I turn once more to my task, knowing I have the power to save people. Even if they are not my people.
The babble of the refectory’s other occupants at lunch mumbled into the lull left by General Klein’s question. A bead of sweat tickled Corporal Lafarge’s back; his perspiration nothing to do with the room temperature.
“No Ma’am, go ahead—plenty of space.” LaFarge waved a hand at the spot across the bench from him.
General Klein sat, pushed Lafarge’s food-tray to one side, and flopped a manila file on the table between them. The Corporal glanced out through the patio doors; two armed Redcaps sat at a picnic bench staring at him. Klein flicked the cover open, looked across at LaFarge and smiled. The fashionable benchtop may as well have been tired Formica, the refectory mood-lighting a single swinging bulb; LaFarge recognised an interrogation.
The General tilted her head to one side “So I am to understand that we have a covert science team here, funded to the hilt, manipulating the outcomes of future events.” She glanced into the file, turned a page. “Your superior officer, Major Fontaine, and the scientist who founded this project, June Cho, are dead. You—who are second within the command structure—consider the project to be, and I quote you here, ‘an unsound initiative’?”
Lafarge swallowed, his dry throat betraying his tension.
Klein leaned forward, her eyes drilling into him. “EUGov may be a bunch of stuck-up bureaucrats, but they watch their money, and their people, and when both start going missing they call me in. You are confined to base pending my investigation, and before you ask; yes, you are my prime suspect.”
This is where I feel free, cut from my body, my worries; out amongst the multi-branched fronds that all reach back to the present. You can feel the current of time flickering over your skin as you swim against it following lines of choice to their future conclusions.
I have voyaged decades from the present. Further out, the snap and dissolution of lines of could-be appearing and disappearing as events that lead to them cross into the present becomes bewildering and chaotic.
I start in that chaos and trace events back to find the change, the butterfly wing, needed to avert future disaster.
I feel the tap and slide of sign language on my palm. The intrusion of the real world startles me still; the tactile language a security necessity—the only way to talk as we hide in blacked-out rooms in silence. We swimmers can only see and hear events, so this disguises our activities from other swimmers.
:: Any luck? :: I recognise the delicate touch of June, the programme lead and my favourite operator. I can’t help but smile at her touch; she has helped me so much over the years—almost a replacement mother since … well, since I was selected.
:: Getting closer :: I swirl my hands around nothing, but I feel her hand in mine.
:: Any sign of your stalker? :: She is referring to another swimmer I have seen shadowing my activities.
:: They are looking into each thread I touch ::
“So, have you worked out what they are doing?” The question puffed across the stainless steel table in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
“Yes, President Moerka. I have followed their agent at a distance for some weeks now—it appears the EU are stopping your brother and his family dying from a terrorist attack during the tenth year of your governance.”
Moerka grunted. “And have you any idea about their base—their setup? Anything to help our programme?” He momentarily drummed his fingers on the table—stopping when he noticed the tell.
“Sorry, Mr. President. I found a side thread relating to their programme, but in all the events around the day-to-day operation they operate in darkness and silence—they know how this works, so have hidden everything from prying eyes and ears.”
“Thank you—it sounds as though they are trying to soften me up for the forthcoming negotiations. Dismissed.” He waved a hand towards the door.
“President Moerka—if I may. I don’t think the EU agent has found their own thread; this is a precious thing to people in our trade. Would you permit me to guide them to the programme thread—perhaps they can trace their own from that point? As a personal ‘thank-you’ from yourself, perhaps?”
The President sat back, creaking his bare steel-framed chair. The idea of personal largesse warmed a smile on his face. “Yes, that would be fitting—you have done well today.”
Concrete spalls from the wrecked supermarket wall. Dust choking the air to the stammer of heavy machine-gun fire. The young couple jerk to the deadly tempo and drop to the floor.
I pull my face from the thread. Not this one. I have navigated back from the massacre in the future, feeling out the lines and decisions; each small nuance that spews a million universes.
I am saving a city. Everyone executed in reprisal for the NAmGov President’s brother dying at the hands of freedom fighters. My mission is to save a city, but it is Moerka’s brother and family I am really saving.
Here I can make a difference, change the future for people—for the better. The future is all I can work with, but I grasp it and wrangle it and exercise my talent—making specific lines in the web of the future become certain—before the ravening black wall behind me makes its own inexplicable and arbitrary decisions.
I know that wall is not really black—this is just how I see it, like a black hole. All futures flow into the present, nothing comes out and you can’t cross into the past—though every fibre of me wants to.
None of my family exists in any of the futures I have seen; they have passed the veil and been consumed into the past. Long gone.
The ragged couple crouch and step catlike through the deserted supermarket. The scattered remnants of pre-revolution life crunches underfoot.
Sunlight flickers through a blasted wall—the couple separate; one to either side of the fractured gap. The woman peeks through. She beckons to the man. He steps out over the low jagged threshold, the woman follows glancing left and right, her fear jerking her gaze across the ruins outside.
“Wait—I’m pretty sure I saw kids.” The man stoops, lowers himself to the ground to lie next to a gap under a fallen slab.
“I was right!” He reaches in, waggling his hand, beckoning at the group of three children cowering in the shade.
The dull ringing of metal bouncing off concrete heralds the arrival of a grenade.
I pull rapidly out—not this one either, but getting closer.
I have ceased to wonder at why so many soldiers suffer from PTSD. I have seen this ragged couple die a thousand ways over the last six months, some ways quick, other ways visceral and tortuous. I leave the machine some nights sweating and shocked at the lives and deaths that take people.
I have to stop the massacre. That is the mission. More than that though is saving those children, not from death but from their future and damage. I have seen a future where they have a life filled with care and wonder, and where they do not become fighters. If I save them I save Moerka’s brother. If I save them I cleanse myself in redemption. At least temporarily.
In many ways this job is a sweet deal—the government gets what they want, and I get to save lives. Over and over again.
:: ? :: June checked in.
:: Much closer :: I sign back, her palm warm, soft and not in my universe. My beloved anchor.
:: Your shadow? :: My stalker is less than a shadow in this world. You don’t see other swimmers—they are shifts in the current of time, the light flickers around them; they—we—are all wraiths.
:: Here. Bye ::
The children under the slab slowly emerge. They are pale, torn stick-children—the young couple easily shoulder them and tread their tricky path back to their encampment.
Done. All the threads are lined up and I have made them certain. I allow myself a moment to float and move with the time-current. All is still.
In the darkened lab I am sobbing silently. I am lightened by saving the children and all the others in the chain of events, but my mind is clenching into a tighter ball. I can never save my family in the same way.
The wake of the other swimmer disturbs my troubled catharsis. They are close by. Their pattern is dashing left and right, then away and back. They want my attention. I follow. We weave through branches, moving further away from the present into the snapping warp of a year ahead.
The swimmer loops around a specific thread, and then is gone—they have plugged out.
Snow spatters a window in the bare lab.
President Moerka’s gift delivered, the swimmer pulls her instrument cap off and lays it on the wooden table. A frown hardens her face as she reaches for a packet of cigarettes.
I hope my gift is not a curse. I know this knowledge can be double-edged.
General Klein sat back—the lightweight chair scraping on the concrete, the sound stark against the bubble of lunchtime chatter.
“Your written statement, Lafarge, indicates that this programme used potentially unethical methods to condition the swimmers—as you term them. Could you please elaborate for the record.”
Lafarge coughed, shifted in his seat, glanced to the left of the General. The presence of the other diners was somehow more constraining than the four walls of the dark cells three floors down. “I wasn’t involved, you understand.”
“Of course—you were only following orders. Continue.”
“Once in the causal stream—the sea as they refer to it—the programme has no idea what the swimmers actually see. Or do. Or more importantly, could do. June Cho authorised conditioning to make them care about saving people—they had to feel compelled to do so. This was done by damaging them. They had to suffer, but be survivors, to grieve, yet feel constantly guilty about being left behind. We couldn’t trust positive motivation—so we governed by negative conditioning.”
“You said we, Corporal.” Klein leaned forward again. “You should also know that I am better informed about your involvement than you may think. Tell me what you did.”
Lafarge paled. “Once selected as teenagers, we, ah, eliminated their families around them whilst they slept.”
I pull back from the thread. Cold sweeps my body, my stomach spasms and I can feel myself vomiting, the heat of liquid spilling invisibly in my lap. I scream and rip the instruments from my body and lurch from my light-dappled ocean into the darkened room, stumbling where before I had walked with surety.
June called softly in the dark—her distress and concern a background mumble in my haste to get out to the door and into light.
I will be back, though. I want to know more. I want to be certain. Then I will make it right.
Before moving into IT and fatherhood, Mark English was an astrophysicist who undertook his doctorate working on the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn. The choices and chances that lead us where we go have always fascinated him. This may have leaked into the story somewhat.
Mark’s stories have been published in Every Day Fiction, Raygun Revival, Escape Pod, Perihelion Science Fiction, and Antipodean SF, where he is a member of the narration team.