Stopping the machine is simple. One physical switch and the world outside the capsule resolves itself in anticipation of a landing. Chronometer figures flicker into a discernible sequence, then they, and the world, stutter to a halt. Out there in the silence of evening a green pasture prepares for sleep. To my left a little row of houses, red brick and sash windows glimmering with dim illumination against gathering darkness All is quiet. I have chosen my location well.
I verify the figures on the chronometer with my backup instrument. 2211946. 17.42. Day, month, year, hour, minute. The 22nd January 1946. 5.42pm. Exactly as planned.
The climb over a low back wall is easy. The green back door yields to gentle pressure. Mary is in the kitchen.
“Hi!” I try to imitate an American accent. “Is Michael Harris around?”
Mary looks askance at my uniform, but does not seem unduly surprised by my arrival. “Mikey? Yes, he is. He’s upstairs. What’s he done now?”
“Thanks. Nothing to worry about, lady. Just checking everyone for tomorrow.”
“We do have a front door, you know. And a knocker.”
“Oh, yes. Sorry!”
At the door of the bedroom I pause for a moment or two, listening as the young man inside moves about, busying himself with some activity I imagine must relate to packing. Then I walk in.
“What the hell?” Mikey is in his undershorts. He is marginally less pleased than Mary by this stranger’s entrance.
“Hello Mikey.” I drop the accent – it sounds phoney anyway. Why bother? “Putting your stuff together?”
“What are you doing here? I ain’t done nothing!”
“You mean the MP uniform? It affects a lot of people that way, doesn’t it? We’re just keeping a check. We want to make sure everyone reports tomorrow.”
“Sure! 700 hours sharp. We’re shipping out, aren’t we? I wouldn’t miss the chance to go home, Sarge. No way!”
“That’s good.” I nod approvingly. “You’ll be going out tonight?”
“Are you kidding? Last night in UK? Last opportunity to show the locals how to party? Of course I’m going out!”
“You’ll be meeting Rose, then.” (My research is always thorough – that is something Xerxei, my arch-rival, has always grudgingly admired).
“How’d you know about Rosy?” I have let the name slip as Mikey is folding a pair of pants ready to stow in his kitbag. He pauses. “Oh, right! I guess you guys keep tabs on everything, huh? Well, don’t worry – I’ll be on base tomorrow. I’m doing nothing wrong. Rosy’s a great girl!”
“She’s very fond of you! Does she know you’re leaving tomorrow?”
A veil of sadness clouds Mikey’s face. He doesn’t answer.
“Well, does she?” I insist.
“I guess not. See, Sarge, it’s so hard to tell them, you know?
“To tell ‘them’?”
“The Limey girls. You’re right, she is kind of set on me. But – hell, I wouldn’t stay even if I could.”
“She’s asked you to?”
“Yeah. I mean, though – this damp, cold country? Rosy’s fun; yep, she is fun. Listen, I get it right, it’s gonna be a long night tonight. Know what I mean?”
“Oh yes, I know.” I assure him. “You’ll get to sleep with her tonight, I’m thinking. Yes?”
“Hey! Let’s not get too personal, friend.”
“But you will. The innuendo was yours – that was what you meant, wasn’t it? Although ‘sleep’ is probably a euphemism. You’ll screw her in a back alley somewhere and you won’t let anything come between you, will you, Mikey? There are no rubbers in those deep pockets of yours.”
“On my last night? I should eat my orange with the peel on? Com’on!”
“No, of course not! After all, tomorrow you’ll escape, won’t you? What about the address you gave her to write to? It isn’t yours, is it?”
Mikey chuckles. “Or anybody’s, far as I know. If it is, they’re in for a helluva surprise. Wait a minute!” His face darkens. “Look, I’ll give you a phrase, yeah? ‘Spoils of war’, Okay? There’s no crime, here, mister MP, all the guys would do the same if they could, and I’ll guarantee you a lot of them are. A payment on account, against the danger, and the pain. Now see, this conversation’s over. I’m going to meet Rosy, and unless you want to arrest me for something, I suggest you leave.”
He’s right; the conversation’s over. I already have more than enough. I draw my Destructor from beneath my jacket. Mikey pales. “What the hell is that?”
By way of explanation I sight on his half-packed kitbag and vaporise it, then, in case he should react unexpectedly, I turn the sight on him. Horror-struck, he stares down at the precise white X where it settles on his chest, and looks up to meet my eyes. His death is in my face and he can read it plainly. “Jesus!” He says. In a ghost of a voice he asks: “Why?”
“You’re in my game. You are a three hundred and twenty point target. Sorry.” I must stop these reflex apologies, which are becoming a mannerism. I have no sympathy for him. He seems incapable of speech, so I fill in the spaces. “Let me give you a date, first. We like dates. 19th October, Mikey, does that mean anything? All right, maybe not, but it’s a special day, or it will be. It’s the day, later this year, when your son is born. Heaven knows why, Rose will name him Michael. She’ll still be in love with you, you see – even when she knows you deserted her.”
Mikey looks, for a second or so, as if he has been punched in his stomach. “You – you can’t know that. How can you know that?”
“Oh, trust me Mikey, I know. She’ll take your name, Harris, and tell everybody you died in the war. She won’t say you were a stores clerk. If you’re interested, you were shot down in a raid on Bremen. After a few years, Rose will start to believe it herself.”
Mikey starts to rise to his feet. “This is bullshit! What do you think you are? Some sort of fortune teller, or what? One thing’s for sure, you’re no Military Policeman.”
“You’re right, I’m not. If you look through that window you’ll see the Tracer that brought me here, waiting in the field. A Tracer is a TDT, a Trans-Dimensional Traveller – you might call it a time machine: I fed it your coordinates and it brought me straight to you. Where I come from I’m a chemical engineer, if that’s important to you. Thing is, I’m in The Game. I’m very good at it, too.”
My target, for such he is, edges to the window, aware my Destructor’s X is following him. I know the materiality of the Tracer will be enough to reinforce my explanation, because it will be unlike anything he has ever seen before, or dreamed about; a silvery-white disc sitting on the vaporous edge of his dimension, transcendent and waiting. “You ride in that.” He murmurs. He is silent for some time, then, and I let the minutes pass, watching his face as he slowly assimilates the reality of the TDT and a harsher truth the Destructor implies. Eventually he is ready to speak again. “Okay, this ‘Game’ of yours – how much do I pay to buy out of it?”
“I come from a time when your currency has no value. In less than a thousand years when over-population has become critical, atmosphere toxic, supplies of water and food unsustainable, although there is no wish to resort to your primitive solution of war we have still to reduce our numbers to manageable levels. Our solution is The Game.”
Mikey says, dully: “The ‘Game’. Sounds great. Explain.”
“I was about to. In The Game every living human is a ‘Passive’ or a ‘Player’. Mostly, Passives just live normal lives waiting for something to happen; if they’re lucky, nothing ever does. There are a select few, though – regulated by The Association – who become Players. If you’re a Player you research the histories of the Passives looking for ‘Targets’, those whose ancestors behaved badly or immorally, and if you find one and if the Association doesn’t veto it, you can use a Tracer to travel back across time to make a correction.”
“This sounds mad to me.”
“It is very effective! Overall, in only five years The Game has reduced world population by nearly fifty percent. By eliminating just one transgressor before they act we can reduce the next generation by as many as thirty individuals, because without them there are children that are never born, incidents that never happen, and so on. Advance another forty generations and the planet’s cleansed of two, maybe three thousand hungry mouths; sometimes many, many more. No pain is involved – the Player makes the correction then they simply disappear. What’s more, as we’re eliminating faulty or bad genes in our species, we grow in power and virtue. We are few enough to find space on our world and our species is vastly improved. Good, huh?”
“Dangerous: if you make a mistake you could be one of the disappeared.”
“Exactly! Which is why we call it The Game. The Association takes all the care it can, they’re very strict; but inevitably there are overlaps. I’ve checked my history and I’m sure I’m clean, but there are more than a hundred of us doing this. If I’ve got it wrong, or if someone finds a flaw in my ancestry I’m the one who gets eliminated. According to Association estimates, no more than five of us will eventually win through. It’s extremely exciting!”
“Well, who or whatever you are, if it’s all the same to you, I hope you’re not one of the five.” Carefully, Mikey returns to his bed, perching on the edge, with one eye always on that X on his chest. “I guess that thing you got pointed at me is what does the correcting?”
“Don’t worry,” I tell him. “the process is painless.”
I know he will make a play, he has no choice. When he does, I will dispose of him. Meantime, I am gaining some enjoyment from this.
Mikey deliberately puts himself in my eye-line, staring at me. “Seems to me this Game of yours could be doing you a lot of harm. You’re reshaping history for yourselves, aren’t you?”
“Absolutely! There are bad things that never get done because those responsible are never born, and there are other benefits too. You see, our recorded history means we can monitor the changes: that’s how The Association’s points system works. Do you know that if I had not targeted you tonight your great grandson would have been implicated in the assassination of a Russian President? More than that, your great, great grandson financed five big business centres in Marseilles that are about to disappear. I know exactly what alterations your absence will make, so you’re worth lots of points. I will be Player of the Month for finding you, Mikey!”
The move comes as I expected it. A much-emulated twist to his left side (I’ve seen the tactic so many times) and the dive to take control of my Destructor hand. It is pitifully slow, and my reactions have not lost their perfection. My beam catches him in mid-leap: he vanishes in mid-leap. He is part of the air now, a mist that will quickly disperse but can induce a cough if I am careless enough to inhale it in the first thirty seconds or so: which is why my smile of inner satisfaction must wait until I have left the room.
I meet Mary on the stairs. “Is he going out yet? I made his tea.”
“Not yet. I’d give him a few minutes; he’s changing his pants.”
My escape involves nothing more than leaving as I arrived. I slip back into my TDT, set my coordinates to rebalance and throw that switch. All I have to do is watch as the chronometer begins to spin and the world outside loses first form, then colour. Five minutes or so after my departure Mary will call Mikey to his tea, and he will not answer. Later, maybe, she will open his room and find him gone: no kitbag, only a few clothes, nothing more. She might be angry that he has left without signing off his last week’s allowance, and when she cleans the room she might notice the film of dust is a little thicker than usual, but that will be all. Somewhere out there, I tell myself, Rose is waiting for a man who will never show.
I cannot describe for you the elated feeling, knowing that as I thread my way back through time large slices of history – structures, people, events, even wars, are altering: I wonder at what might be the landscape when I reach my home City – who is new to me, who will no longer be there?
“Cracen.” The voice of my old adversary surprises me. It is not unusual to get messages, especially on my return from a Correction: I have quite a large fan base anxious to congratulate me; but Xerxei, whose playing skills might be said to equal my own? What can he want?
“Xercei! What a surprise!” I say.
“Yes,” Says the disembodied voice. “It will be.”
“I’ve just scored a three-twenty.” I tell him, trying not to crow. “Which, I suggest, must be top of the rankings this month.”
“Actually no.” There is an arrogant nuance to Xerxei’s tone I do not like. Has he beaten me? I am near to home, so I reach forward for the decelerator: fast landings are not allowed in the City.
“A little addition to your research, Cracen; one you should have spotted, and didn’t. A story for you – a short one, very short.” Xerxei pauses.
“Well?” I demand.
“Rose. At around eight o’clock she got tired of waiting, so she sought solace in the arms of Michael Harris’s best friend. She and Tom Walbeck had a really fun night. You know Tom Walbeck, don’t you? He’s on your personal ancestor list, Cracen; in fact, he’s right at the root of it. It’s a pity you didn’t read up on him just a little more, and you would have found out that he deserted Rose, just as Michael would have, given the chance. The child she named Michael was Tom Walbeck’s son. Anyway, to cut this short – I couldn’t let our Mr. Walbeck go uncorrected, could I?”
Shocked into immobility, I can only watch those last seconds as the chronometer counts down. This time, when it stops, my TDT will be without a pilot.
© Frederick Anderson 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.