From the author: An elite soldier's battle-weary soul is tested when he must travel back in time and carry out a retaliatory strike for an attack that has yet to happen.
We approach Cynosure thirty years in the future, creeping in the shadows of the mistakes we have yet to make. In the aftermath of our upcoming mission, I can make out no light, no sign of industry, in the battered ash and swirls of blood of the parched world.
Thirty years in the past, in my present, a small mining colony thrives on the southernmost continent, near the pole. They have recently declared independence from Earth's Central Council, an act Earth Defense hasn't taken kindly. Cynosure launched an assault fleet against E-Def, in retaliation for acts of war I have yet to commit.
Who fired the first shot? When you can travel back in time and retaliate before the first punch, notions of cause and effect lose their importance.
My friends gather around me in the cockpit, filling me with a sense of peace. Unnr and Kangi Chante flank me, leaning close to the screen. Ihsan stands back, her arms folded tight; while the lithe, narrow frame of Sokhem casts a shadow from the cockpit entrance.
"Hey, Salem, looks like, we win, yes?" Sokhem asks me. I look in vain for sarcasm in his words.
"We just have to take down a few thousand hostiles, then we can claim our prize," says Kangi Chante, with enough sarcasm for the both of them.
Unnr laughs, but his eyes are not amused. Ihsan shakes her head. I glare at Sokhem and Kangi Chante in turn, stopping only when they each swallow their next witty remark. They return their focus to the mission.
Earth Defense has picked each of us as elite Marine troops for its time travel division. With a neural scan at the moment of death and a pinch of DNA, they have brought us back to life to enforce the Central Council's military doctrine across centuries and light-years.
But mastery of time and space has not expanded humanity's minds. Targets, objectives, hostile engagement, chain of command, pre-emptive strike: the vocabulary of antagonism that has cost us our previous lives continues to frame human thought. The weapons become more sophisticated, but they serve the same primitive urges.
E-Def calls us the Old-Timers; we were warriors long before Earth took war to the stars. Sokhem slaughtered Angkor's enemies with a bronze knife, in the glory days of the Khmer empire. Kangi Chante fought tribal wars deep in North America's forests before Europeans set foot on Lakota ground. Unnr rode on the first Norse longship that touched the shore of Vinland. Ihsan presided as a war leader and judge during the civil war that tore Sudan apart.
As for me, Earth Defense rescued my genes and mind as I drowned in the blood and mud of a German ditch. I don't remember anything, but I smell the mustard gas and rot in my dreams.
"Prepare to shift," I tell Unnr and Kangi Chante. The hum of the time engine soon fills the cabin. A minute later, a green light comes on.
The Universe spins as we shift back in time. I close my eyes to fight the dizziness, and my consciousness fills with elastic spots of colored lights. I smell something like mercury, and then flowers, flowers burning.
When I open my eyes again, timid lights flicker on Cynosure's dark side. The Cynoreans have yet to launch their attack fleet.
"Bring us down," I tell Unnr. The lights of Cynosure below begin to grow.
"Hah! You want us to take out the fleet before it launches?" asked Unnr. He laughed at his own question, his voice shaky.
Three days before we got to Cynosure, I sat with the squad in a top secret briefing room aboard Earth Base One, watching the Colonel's jaw twitch in annoyance.
"We want you to try, Lieutenant Hálfdanarson," said Colonel O'Brien. He detached each syllable, as if Unnr had grown dumb since the briefing began. "The mission's success parameters demand only partial takedown of hostiles. We've detected the fleet, so there's no possibility of undoing that. But you boys can make sure the first wave is the only one the Cynoreans get to launch."
I looked up at the briefing screen again. On the left side, an angry red dot marked the mining world of Cynosure. A straight line extended from it, aimed straight at Earth Base One to the right of the screen. A small pack of triangles, depicting the Cynorean fleet, blinked its way along the line, one millimeter at a time.
"The fleet we've detected poses minimal threat," said Colonel O'Brien, prompted by something Ihsan said which I hadn't heard. "Nothing Earth Base One can't handle. Now, there's two possibilities: either it's the first wave meant to soften us up, or the poor bastards launched all they got because there's nothing else they could do to retaliate for a preemptive strike. Your job is to pick that second option for us."
"You want us to get inside the box and kill Schrödinger's cat while it's still alive and dead," I said. The Colonel glared.
"Since you claim we have tactical advantage, Colonel," said Kangi Chante, "I'm guessing there's all but three miners on that colony." The Colonel turned his stare on him.
"You're E-Def Marines. You have training, advanced weaponry, and you'll engage them before the thought of pointing a gun at us crosses their minds," said the Colonel. He clucked his tongue.
"Lieutenant Kangi Chante is right," I said. "I have four men to take out thousands of hostile. If we are to—"
"Our intel supports the mission's parameters—" began the Colonel.
"You're going to share that intel with us, yes?" demanded Sokhem.
Ihsan sneered. "By God, you expect us to believe that?"
Unnr chuckled, running his hand through his red hair, while Kangi Chante closed his eyes and shook his head.
The Colonel slammed the briefing lectern with his open hand, startling the room into silence.
"E-Def has never failed a mission since we figured out shifting. What do you expect? We control time. We make you grunts succeed before we even launch."
"Shrödinger's suicide," I thought. I must have said it aloud, because Unnr stared at me.
Unnr lands the ship two kilometers outside the valley where the Cynoreans built their spaceport. We make our way to the cargo hold, where I gear up, listening to my comrades checking and loading their weapons in a metal shuffle.
The silence returns, filled with the thick electric charge of anticipation, coursing from one of us to the next.
I take a deep breath. "Longest Squad, deploy."
The slim exoskeletons of our power suits begin humming, and Kangi Chante punches a button with his fist. The rear door of the EDS Achilles falls open, the maw of a beast drawing breath. The exterior air rushes into the cargo hold, and I smell dust and gravel on the breeze. Cynosure's sunlight blinds us for a second.
I nod my head to my friends, and each step into their roles without effort, interlocked pieces of a well-oiled machine. Pride in my squad straightens my stance.
Kangi Chante sprints to the front, and falls to a half-crouch. Despite his power suit, I can imagine him laying low in seventeenth century America, taking point for his fellow Lakota warriors.
Unnr moves to the rear as Sokhem and Ihsan flank me. Unnr makes an excellent rear guard, and not because of his Viking genetic stock. Whoever selected Unnr Hálfdanarson for Marine duty must have imagined him laughing through his mead as he swung an axe; instead, they got one of the most loyal, high-strung workaholics I've ever seen.
Kangi Chante signals a warning, and throws himself on his stomach. I raise my hand for Unnr's benefit, and all at once our power suits fall silent. I study Kangi Chante; no movement betrays him as he stares through a pair of binoculars.
"Target's in sight," says Kangi Chante over the radio. "No signs of a defense force, but I see workers."
I frown. We all expected to face massive defenses, even anti-air missile batteries as our ship approached the landing zone. To be undetected so far verges on the miraculous.
"Guess we got the green light on the suicide box," says Sokhem.
"Hah! I don't think we've pressed the button yet," says Unnr.
Back on Earth Base One, Unnr was on me the second the briefing was over. He closed the door to the barracks and turned to me.
"Why do you think this is a suicide mission, Salem?" he asked, his lower lip trembling.
I put my hands up in protest. Hearing Unnr's words, Ihsan, Sokhem and Kangi Chante turned to me, their eyes wide.
"I said no such thing!"
"Hah, I heard you in the briefing," said Unnr.
I sighed, doing my best to hold the broad Viking's eye.
"I was talking about Schrödinger's suicide," I said.
"Who's Schrödinger?" asked Sokhem.
"Schrödinger's suicide," I replied. "It's a scientific thought experiment about time travel."
I sat up straight, and glanced around at the group. Unnr took a step back, and leaned against a bunk.
"Go on," said Ihsan.
"Well, it goes something like this. You've got this cabin-sized box, and there's two lights on the outside: one's green, and one's red. There's a door on the cabin."
Kangi Chante frowned at my explanation. I went on.
"Inside the box, there's a big button. If you enter the cabin, lock the door, and press the button, one of two things happens.
"Fifty percent of the time, the cabin releases a whiff of fresh air, and you live. And the green light outside the cabin lights up ten minutes in the past."
I gave them a moment to process this.
"Now, fifty percent of the time, you enter the cabin, lock the door, and when you press the button, the cabin releases a deadly gas that kills you in an instant. And the red light goes on ten minutes in the past."
Unnr sneered. "Hah! Doesn't sound like a cabin I'd ever use."
"Unless the green light came on before I entered," said Ihsan with the hint of a smile on her burgundy lips. I smiled back.
"Yeah, exactly. If you come up to the cabin and see a green light, then you know it's safe to go in. There's no risk involved."
"Yes, but if you see a red light..." began Sokhem. I felt a grin light up my face.
"If you saw the red light," I said, "you wouldn't go in. And that would create a time paradox."
"That's impossible," said Kangi Chante.
"They are impossible. Which is why—"
"The red light never comes on," said Ihsan, smiling one of her rare, full smiles.
"Every time you come to the box, you'll see a green light come on, because that's the only outcome that doesn't result in a paradox," I said. "Flip a coin a thousand times, and it will always land on heads."
"The Colonel said something about never launching a mission that didn't succeed," said Sokhem, serious as ever. "You think he's using something like this, yes?"
"I'm pretty certain of it, and it explains why he won't give us details," I said. "Somehow, he already knows the outcome of the mission. It has already succeeded; there's no way it will unhappen."
Tension lifted with these words. But over dinner that night, the gloom crept back into our hearts. Soon, our laughter was strained again. Throughout the meal Ihsan sat silent, frowning at the wall.
When I feel confident of the landing zone, I tell Sokhem to go back for the payload. He carries the disproportionate pack on his back, the power suit bearing the weight of the explosives.
As he makes his way over to the lip of the valley where we stand, his steps slow and deliberate, I listen to the quiet chatter between Unnr and Kangi Chante. They pass the binoculars back and forth, Kangi Chante still on his stomach, Unnr on one knee next to him. Unnr sounds relieved and excited, but I can feel exasperation and a hint of anger from Kangi Chante.
"How does it look, guys?" I ask over the radio link.
"Piece of cake," says Unnr. "They have some power suits, but they're industrial. Hah! No patrol, and the few weapons I see are pistols and semi-autos."
Kangi Chante still hasn't looked up from his binoculars. At the corner of my eye, Ihsan turns to us and stares.
"I don't get it," I say. "They have a fleet, but there's none of the usual crews and flyboys about? And no patrols?"
"That's a civilian fleet, Salem," says Kangi Chante, his voice low in his throat. He turns off the binoculars, and stands to face me.
"But... Wait, what?" I look back and forth between Unnr and Kangi Chante, and they exchange a glance.
"It's a mix of cargo and civilian transports," says Kangi Chante. "They're loading everything on ships to make a run for it."
"Straight for Earth?" I ask, incredulous. Ihsan moves in front of me, her eyes filled with fury and sadness.
"Central lied," she says.
"The miners didn't build a strike force, they made a convoy," says Kangi Chante, his disgust evident. "E-Def wants to take them down before they run."
"Guys, we can argue over this once the mission's complete, yes?" asks Sokhem, pointing his thumb to the payload on his back.
I order the squad back inside the EDS Achilles. When Sokhem protests at having to carry back a half-ton of dangerous explosives, only to bring them out later again, I let him put them down. He stays behind to build a secure perimeter with automated gun sentries and tripwires.
I take my time stepping out of the power suit, and stay in the decontamination shower much longer than I need. When I come out wearing a fresh uniform, Ihsan is waiting for me, her arms crossed.
I can feel the presence of the devout Sudanese war chief shining through her cloned body.
"Why did you let Sokhem set down the explosives at the top of the valley?" she asks.
"I didn't want him to have to carry them back to the ship, then out again if—"
"You're considering going through with this?!" she says, and despair throws the last syllables into a crescendo.
"Now wait a minute, Ihsan—" I hold up my hand, but she's having none of it.
"I don't care about the orders." Her eyes glow. "God did not bring me back to this life to knife people in the back as they run from a fight. Earth Defense probably thinks I'm cut for this stuff because of what I may have done in my previous life. I'm not, Salem. I'm not."
She bores into me with her stare. "Yes, Lieutenant-Major Dumaine?"
"Ihsan." I resist the urge of an apology. "I don't want to do this. I really don't. But we're locked up in Schrödinger's suicide box. We don't have a choice."
"God made us free," she says, and although her voice is still hard, anger no longer sharpens it. "There is always a choice."
"Except there isn't, Ihsan," I say. "This attack on Cynosure has already happened. We cannot unhappen it. E-Def sent us here because they already know we'll do it."
Ihsan glares as she looks for a fault in my argument.
"If we don't do it," I say, "it will have to happen without us. But at least we can minimize casualties. We can warn them to evacuate the spaceport. We can render help to the wounded."
Her shoulders fall, and a fierce wind leaves her. She looks at me, her angry eyes now filled with sorrow.
She walks away without a word.
I stand at the top of the valley, cloaked in the long shadows of a Cynosure evening. We pass around two pairs of binoculars between Kangi Chante, Unnr, Sokhem and me. Down at the spaceport, dark-skinned workers illuminated by floodlights ferry around shipping containers with power suits.
"They grouped the cargo and transport ships separately," says Sokhem. "If we place the explosives in the right spot, we can take out the cargo ships, and only destroy part of the transports."
"Good," I say. "Let them run. Let Central have a fit over that."
Nobody replies to that.
"So, what kind of casualties are we looking at?" I ask.
"Minimal, yes," says Sokhem. As is often the case when he's confronted with an unpleasant task, the Khmer's voice gains an almost mechanical rhythm. "The night crew will die. And there's a good chance the fuel depot will light up and take out the crew habitats to the west."
I aim the binoculars where he's pointing, and see dozens of small off-gray residential cubes.
"Give me a number," I say.
"Four, five hundred."
"Oh, really, just that?" asks Kangi Chante through his teeth.
"Even at night?" asks Unnr.
"I'd say a daytime attack multiplies that by twenty. There's the daytime shift for one—" Sokhem stops himself. "Look, I didn't tell them to build their habitats next to a fuel depot, alright?"
"Hah, fuck this," says Unnr. Even our Norse friend has lost the taste for death.
I think back to Ihsan's words.
I'm trying to go through this mission like I'm planning to save lives, but whether it's happened or not, what we're planning here is murder.
Whether in North America, Angkor, Scandinavia, Germany or Sudan, all of us have experienced enough deaths to last us a lifetime. Or, most likely, we never loved war in the first place. Perhaps no one ever does, except at a safe distance from the battlefield.
My jaw hurts from grinding my teeth.
"Sokhem, pack the explosives and meet us back at the ship," I say as I stand to go. Someone gasps.
"What are we doing?" asks Unnr. Sokhem begins to load the explosives on the back of his power suit.
"I didn't come back from the dead to murder a bunch of miners on the run. Let E-Def court-martial me over this, if they want."
Unnr and Kangi Chante say nothing, but approval softens their hard stares. We leave Sokhem behind to pack the tripwires and sentry guns. Only the whir of our power suits fills the silence on our way back.
Back in the Achilles, I head straight to Ihsan's cabin.
A faint acknowledgment answers the knock on her door. Inside, Ihsan is praying on the ground next to her bunk.
I mumble an apology.
"Stay, Salem, it's OK," she says without looking up.
I shut the door without making noise. She prays with deliberation, intense and focused, yet there's a fraction of joy and peace on her narrow face as she holds her hands before her like an open book.
Ihsan sits down on her bunk, and motions to a metallic chair nearby.
"How go the preparations?" she asks. However hard I try, I cannot detect any hint of anger or disapproval.
"Mission's scrubbed," I say. "I'm taking full responsibility." Her eyebrows shoot up.
"But you said..." she begins, agitated. But she reins herself in. "I'm sorry. Go ahead."
I shrug. "You were right. Whether it's already happened or not, it doesn't make it right."
"So what happens now?" she says, her voice tender and sad.
"Things will just have to happen without us," I say, unconvinced. "Perhaps there's an explosion at the port. I dunno."
"I meant about us."
"I'll go down, no way around that," I say. "We'll say you guys opposed my decision, and tried to carry out the mission anyway, but I wouldn't—"
The hair of my arms raise up as an ugly thought enters my head.
"Did you bring back the explosives?" asks Ihsan, reading my mind.
"Sokhem is bringing them back as we speak," I say, but I jump to my feet. Ihsan comes running after me down the ship's narrow corridor, and in five strides we're in the cockpit.
"Is Sokhem back?" I ask Kangi Chante. He shakes his head.
"He ran into a few glitches with the perimeter." I turn on the radio and hail Sokhem.
"Salem. I'm almost wrapped up here," says Sokhem over the radio. He sounds calm, or maybe distracted.
"How far are you?"
"I'll be there in five minutes, yes. What's the rush?"
"Just making sure you're OK," I say and turn off the comm before he can answer. I run out of the cockpit to the cargo hold. I decide against putting on the power suit, and instead pick up a rifle, a sidearm and a radio headset. I'm barely aware of Ihsan, Unnr, and Kangi Chante trying to get me to slow down.
I only stop running once I reach the lip of the valley. I followed Sokhem's path in reverse, but he's nowhere to be seen; I put the rifle down, lie on my stomach, and scan the valley.
I'm beginning to doubt Sokhem had betrayal in mind, when Kangi Chante taps my shoulder, and points at a dip in the valley where the slope is gentler.
Sokhem is making his way down in deliberate sideways steps, the oversized explosives on his back. From this angle, all I see of him is the payload, hiding his frame.
He'll be at the port in less than ten minutes. I recall his voice, monotone, enumerating the potential casualties.
"Sokhem," I say over the radio. Beside me, Ihsan, Unnr and Kangi Chante switch on their headsets.
"Yes?" asks Sokhem. But his reply comes too late to be innocent.
"Turn back," I say, my voice as hard as I can muster.
"I know you don't want this."
The radio falls silent for ten, fifteen seconds. I'm tempted to hail him again, when Sokhem finally replies.
"You're right, I don't. But it must be done."
Below in the valley, Sokhem continues his deliberate crab walk towards the port.
"You said so yourself," he says. "This can't unhappen. The red light came on on the cabin, and somebody has to go in and press that button."
On the way over, I thought Sokhem was doing this out of some perverse sense of belonging to Earth Defense's culture of war. Shame reddens my face; still, I reach for the rifle. Ihsan gasps.
I load the rifle, push the bolt, and deploy the tripod under its muzzle. I push myself up against the hard plastic of the rifle's butt, and through the scope I find Sokhem's silhouette, cloaked in darkness.
"Sokhem." My voice strangles up on his name. "As your superior officer, I order you to come back to the ship immediately."
"Sokhem. I have you in my cross-hairs. If I could shoot your leg out I would, but all I can hit from this angle is the payload. Do you understand?" I hear Ihsan pray, but I dare not look away from the scope.
"Yes sir," says Sokhem. His tone has grown mechanical.
"That would detonate the payload, correct?"
"Yes sir," says Sokhem, his voice small.
I punch the earth three times, my mouth stretched into a silent scream.
"So that's how it happens," he says.
"Come back, Sokhem." Grief tightens my throat and stings my eyes. But Sokhem continues his slow descent towards the port.
I wipe my eyes with the back of my glove, then line the shot.
"Salem, listen. I forgive you." His words hit me like a punch to the solar plexus.
I squeeze the trigger, and wonder if something improbable will happen. Perhaps time has decided to use Sokhem, and it will not allow me to slay him.
The shot goes off.
Sokhem fumbles in his power suit, and falls forward. For a second I think I've merely wounded him; but my furious hope proves misplaced.
A crude phosphorous flare erupts from his back. The shot landed exactly where I knew it would. A ball of light forces me to look away from the scope. Thunder rolls up the valley, shaking my organs and bones.
My ears still ringing, I bring myself up on my elbows to study the scene. Of my friend Sokhem, only a dark crater remains, filled with smoke and twisted metal.
Kangi Chante taps my shoulder again, and points towards the spaceport. Armed men scatter about, scanning the valley for the incoming attack.
I throw my rifle on the ground and stand up. When this fails to get the attention of the Cynoreans, I wave my arms.
At first they run for cover, but when no shot comes, they inch towards us.
I wait for them atop the valley, removing the clip from my rifle. Next, I unload my pistol, remove the bullet from the chamber, and throw it all to the ground.
Ihsan follows my lead, then Kangi Chante and Unnr. Their empty weapons bounce against the hard ground.
Arms up, palms empty, I watch the approach of the people we are fated to murder.
It took time for the Cynoreans to trust us.
They kept us isolated from one another for what felt like weeks. Out of fear of retaliation, however, they remained civil, under the circumstances. Guards roughed me up, but none of us underwent torture. They also treated Ihsan with courtesy and never assaulted her, much to my relief.
After some pleading, they even let us collect what little remained of Sokhem. We buried him at the top of the valley, with a Cynorean guard at respectful distance.
Mostly, they were scared. I sensed it in the way they kept their distance from us even when they were yelling insults. They knew that Earth had had its eyes on their resources for a while, but to have us here in front of them, the vanguard of an effort to annihilate them, hurled them into paranoia.
Then one day, the leader of the Cynorean mining union, a broad, dark man named Singh, summoned me to an office cramped with piles of paper, weighted down by pieces of colorful ores. Singh ran a hand, calloused by a lifetime of manual labor, through the graying strands of his beard.
"Let's try something different," he said in a voice like shaking a handful of gravel in a paper bag. "Say your story is true."
I caught sincerity in his wide, gray eyes.
"OK." Hearing the dryness in my voice, he poured water from a canteen into a tin cup. I gulped it down.
"So you guys were sent to destroy our space fleet. But when you saw us, you thought we were so nice that you couldn't go through with it." His tone mixed sarcasm and hope.
"How do you like us now?" he asked. "Maybe you want to avenge your friend instead?"
"I don't like your guards very much," I said, shaking my head. "But killing you unprovoked doesn't sit well with me. You can't be blamed for launching an attack if it's our response that triggers it."
I handed him the cup, but he pretended not to see it.
"Isn't killing what you're trained to do?" We exchanged a long stare. He reached for the water and filled my cup again.
"Our grandparents entered debt to come here," he said. They realized it too late, but they owed too much to ever repay. The interests grew, and the debt got passed down to our parents, then to us. With each generation, the debt becomes larger. The Central Council owns us. Each of us will kill ourselves in these mines, but my children will still be slaves." Singh sighed. "This is why we built this fleet. We hoped to run before Earth found out."
"Do you have somewhere to go?" I asked. The man didn't reply.
"If you just run, they'll catch up to you," I said.
He raised an eyebrow. I sipped my cup in tiny gulps, holding it with my cuffed hands, not looking up.
"You need a diversion."
As a gesture of goodwill, and out of curiosity for my proposal, Singh allowed us to walk around the compound with an escort. But as much as he had been willing to listen, any effort on my part to get them to commit resulted in open hostility. We argued for days in the union hall.
"Who are you to make demands?" Singh said one day, the gravel in his voice rumbling through the hall, the table shaking where he hit it with his fist. "You land here with weapons and order us to sacrifice part of our fleet! What makes you any less of a bully than Central?"
"I'm not trying to convince you to send a decoy fleet," I replied. "I'm saying you will. The fleet has already been detected on its way to Earth—"
"What proof do you have?" asked Khan, Singh's aide, a thin man with a trimmed beard and hollow eyes.
"We're here, aren't we?" said Ihsan. the authority in her voice cooled the miners' spirits. "We've been sent by Central to murder you all. Isn't that proof enough for you?"
She had shocked the room into silence.
"You know what, do what you want," I said, throwing my hands up. "You'll launch the fleet in three days, one way or the other. There's no other way."
That evening, Singh paid a visit to the secure compound where we were kept under guard.
"We will go ahead with your suggestion," Singh told me, sitting among us in the communal room where we ate our dinner of flatbread and lentils. He allowed himself the hint of a smile.
"You decided to believe me after all?" I asked.
"Yes. Yes I have."
"Khan keeps looking for a hidden motive," Singh said. "He says that E-Def is not to be trusted. But when I look at you, all I see is a haunted soldier trying to change his ways."
I nodded in silence. Singh stood. "We'll strip down a dozen ships for the decoy fleet. We launch in three days." His smile was grim. "Just like you predicted."
He engulfed my hand in his calloused palm, and squeezed it for a long time.
Three days later, we watched the launch of the decoy fleet, the pillars of light from their engines blazing up the night. The next evening, it was the Cynoreans' turn, as the men, women and children piled up into elevators that ran them up the ships. As I watched Singh rise up along the length of the elevator, holding his granddaughter's hand, I think I saw him smile.
As the last of the Cynorean ships faded to a distant contrail, Ihsan, Unnr, Kangi Chante and I returned to the cockpit of the Achilles. Unnr brought the ship up to orbit, and for a while I watched the planet's surface, now devoid of man-made lights, just as I had seen it the first time.
We shifted back in time.
The day's last sunlight now bathed the spaceport. Unnr brought the ship far east of the shipyard, then flew in low, on the opposite side of the valley, until we circumvented the valley's lip. Kangi Chante pointed at something on the screen.
Here he was. The sight of my friend Sokhem put a vise on my throat.
As we drew nearer, we could see him packing up the tripwires in slow but deliberate movement. Perhaps he was prodding his own courage, wondering if he had it in him to betray my orders and do what must be done.
Self-loathing brought bile to my mouth.
Unnr landed the ship and I walked out to Sokhem, who greeted me with a wave.
"I'm almost done here. You guys couldn't wait?" asked Sokhem, once I got within hearing distance.
"Leave the payload and come with me," I said, the sound of my heartbeat hammering my eardrums.
Sokhem's arms dropped, and he began to walk towards the ship. "Something wrong?"
'I've come back in time to the moment before your death to bring you back with us. I know how you die, so the only place you can get killed is right here, in this time, by my hand.' That's what I wanted to tell my friend, on the very spot where I murdered him.
"It's complicated," I told him instead.
And then I began to lie.
"Describe the damage to the spaceport?" asks the Intelligence officer. I repeat what I have told each of his colleagues a dozen times.
"The cargo ships were hit hard; I didn't see a single one left standing. We identified cargo ships as the primary target, so Sokhem detonated the payload in close proximity. This means some of the transports made it through. Some of them stood, but there were fires. Some of the habitation cubes were also blown away in the blast."
I pause, waiting for the next inevitable question.
"How did Sokhem make it back to the Achilles?" he asks.
"We detonated remotely. Sokhem used the cover of night to get in, got out of the power suit on the spot, then sneaked back out before we triggered the payload."
"What's your estimate on the number of ships that survived?" he asks. Right on cue.
"Between twelve and fifteen, all transports. Those ships that were further from the fuel depot. Could be less if secondary explosions followed."
That one is out of order, and possibly meant to throw me off. It doesn't.
"Four, five hundred. We didn't stick around to count bodies."
The intelligence officer sighs, as if he finds my explanations insufferable and inconsistent, and contains his anger with a great effort of will. But when he speaks again, he's composed.
"Thank you, Lieutenant-Major Dumaine. That will be all."
I stand and salute, then exit as fast as I can.
Outside, I pass Sokhem in the corridor, flanked by Intelligence officers. He's up next.
The interviews continue for two solid days.
With each Intelligence officer grilling us, I grow more confident. They have to take our word for the success of the mission; the green and red lights on Schrödinger's suicide box have turned into unreliable narrators.
In the evening, Ihsan, Kangi Chante, Unnr, Sokhem and I sit in the mess hall, quieted by a fear of electronic surveillance. Sokhem gives me a quizzical stare from time to time, but as much as I try, I can't meet his eyes.
Three days later, Colonel O'Brien summons me to his office.
Expecting another grilling, I salute with a resigned look. To my surprise, the Colonel salutes back, cheerful, and motions to a chair.
"E-Def Intel has cleared your debriefing," he says with a hint of pride. "They've authorized the mission to proceed. I'm finishing the transmission."
He turns to a camera, speaks his name, rank and assignment, then gives out a long identification code.
"Operation Sword of Justice is a success. Proceed with assignment and deployment." He hits a key on his keyboard, and turns back to me as he stands.
"Congratulations, Lieutenant-Major." We shake hands. "You executed a critical mission under difficult circumstances. You will be commended for this; E-Def cadets will study your mission report for decades to come."
I force a smile at this, and salute the Colonel. Once outside his door, I lean against a wall and wait for the trembling in my knees to subside.
The general alarm wails us awake at 0400 hour.
I stumble out of the barracks, slipping on my uniform. Men and women run about, their steps urgent but controlled. They've prepared for this a long time.
So have we.
When I reach the meeting point, Kangi Chante, Unnr, Sokhem and Ihsan are waiting for me. Unnr shakes with excitement, and Ihsan steadies herself with deep breaths. Kangi Chante's eyes are hard and unreadable, while Sokhem's face is drawn in a pale mask of resignation.
We make our way down corridors bathed in the red flashes of the battle stations alarm. No one stops us in the general chaos, and we soon make our way to the launch bay where the EDS Achilles awaits.
The flight tower denies us permission to launch, so Unnr turns off the radio. We exchange a grin.
We launch along a wing of fighters, who align towards the rendezvous point next to a destroyer formation.
Earth Base One has deployed all its military vessels, hoping to make a quick, spectacular example of the rebellious Cynosure fleet. But when the enemy fleet enters scanner range, Earth Defense realize they've been deceived.
The Cynosure fleet's twelve ships are stripped bare of any weapon system. Some of the old, derelict junkers are too damaged for a life support system. Cynosure pointed them straight at Earth, and let them go on autopilot.
"Weapons free," comes the order over the radio. Plasma and swarms of missiles engulf the Cynosure ships. And about now, someone on board Earth Base One is figuring out our part in this.
I can't help but look at Sokhem. I still haven't forgiven myself for killing him, and the last week has brought me nothing but pain at seeing his past self alive.
My own take on Schrödinger's suicide.
"Earth Base One to EDS Achilles. Return to base at once. Failure to comply will result in deadly force."
"Earth Base One, this is EDS Achilles," I say. "Negative on the order. We are departing Earth space, and advise you to not open fire."
"This is your last chance to comply, EDS Achilles," says the officer. "Skipper has ordered weapons free in ten."
We all stare as the orbital cannon mounted on the prow of Earth Base One comes around to aim right at us. The hair stands up on the back of my neck. Kangi Chante looks at me with terror and excitement.
Hoping to rattle us, Earth Base One lets us hear the countdown over radio link. We count along in silence; Kangi Chante closes his eyes when we reach zero.
The sound of an explosion fills the radio link, as a fireball engulfs the orbital cannon. Of course: something had to malfunction at the firing stage, because a successful shot would have killed Sokhem and caused a paradox.
Emboldened, I power up the engines for a time shift, doing my best not to look at Sokhem.
Earth Defense launches fighters. Three of them rain plasma on us; most miss us. The few that do hit, bite into armor, leaving our critical systems intact.
In the distance, two fighters collide head-on, while a third pilot, possibly passed out at the controls, flies away, harmless.
An entire squadron sent to slaughter us, and no one has managed to even make a serious dent. A shaken, hysterical laughter fills the cockpit of the Achilles.
With twenty seconds to go before the time engine is ready, Earth Base One launches missiles. They fill the radar screen like a murder of crows. One of the missiles appears to suffer from a rare malfunction, and spins out of control. Its trail touches a drone next to it, which detonates in a blinding flash of white. The rest of the missile flock is shaken by the explosion, and many ram into one another or crack under the blow.
Only five missiles reach us. Two pass us, their guidance system damaged in the explosion. One grazes the Achilles' rear armor, and its payload fails to detonate. The last two hit home, and we're rocked by twin explosions.
I see Unnr's head bounce against the instruments, and he holds the side of his face with a blood-soaked hand. An alarm wails, drowned out by the ringing in my ears.
Undeterred, Earth Base One launches a second volley.
I know the Achilles will survive the onslaught, but it dawns on me that we don't all have to make it through in order to pilot the ship back to Cynosure. The missiles could very well kill everyone of us but Sokhem, and let him live long enough to make his way back to Cynosure, for me to murder him.
I watch the missiles trailing towards us.
A green light comes on. Kangi Chante hits the switch; the Achilles shifts backwards through time.
When the missiles reach our position, they're thousands of years late.
I stand outside the Achilles, on the lip of the valley where I murdered my friend.
Sokhem gets back into his power suit. He catches me looking, and grins. Against my better judgment, I decide to walk over to him.
"Sokhem, listen—" I say, but he cuts me off.
"It's OK, Salem," he says, his smile thinning. I mistook his dark resignation for joy, and the realization fills my soul with dread.
"No, it's not OK," I say, but can't find the strength to continue.
Sokhem pauses, then puts the explosives down on the ground.
"I've had time to think things over while we were back at Earth Base One," he says. "I understand why you came back to pick me, yes. I accept it."
I look away from the peace in his eyes, ashamed.
"Don't apologize," Sokhem says. Perhaps annoyed at my vague insistence, he begins to shoulder the explosives again.
His radio comes alive with a burst of static, and I hear my past self hailing him with a note of panic.
"Salem. I'm almost wrapped up here," answers Sokhem on the radio. His voice is flat and calm, and his lips are drawn in resignation and loss.
I step forward and hug him through the metal frame of his power suit. He holds me back without a word.
"How far are you?" my past self asks over the radio.
"I'll be there in five minutes, yes. What's the rush?" says Sokhem, more for my benefit than that of my past self. I nod to him and walk back to the ship, where Ihsan waits for me.
"You did the right thing, Salem," she says. "You saved thousands of lives. Sokhem understands it. He accepts it."
I stare at Ihsan until she looks away.
Unnr takes the EDS Achilles off the ground before my past self can see it. Below us, Sokhem begins his way down towards the shipyard. I wonder if he would have chosen to sacrifice himself had I not snatched him from this moment.
I order the Achilles into low orbit, and the hum of the time engine soon fills the cabin. A perverse thought enters my mind, and for a brief moment I fight against it.
I turn on the camera, and zoom in on the slope of the crater. It takes me a moment to find him, but sure enough, there is Sokhem, hobbling his way down towards the spaceport.
Behind me, Unnr and Kangi Chante exchange a tense laugh. To keep their minds off the tragedy unfolding below, they whisper back and forth about our next destination.
Kangi Chante argues for the beauty of the Lakota hills before the arrival of European colonists. He suggests that the vast forest could hide us from human contact with ease. Ihsan, for her part, would like to see Sudan after the civil war, to help rebuild in this life what she destroyed in the previous one.
I study Sokhem's bulky frame on the monitor. Squinting and leaning close, I can almost make out a second shape, lurking in front of my friend. The payload would have concealed a second person from my rifle's scope, at the time.
Who is that second person I murdered, along with my friend? Is this me, joining Sokhem at the moment of his death to atone for my sin? Or is it someone else, and for what purpose? Is the second shape an electronic glitch, a fleeting mirage born from my guilt?
I forgive you, said Sokhem before he died. Which Salem did he forgive? Did he speak to my past self, knowing I was about to shoot him with a rifle? Or did he pronounce these words for the benefit of my future self, watching me approach to join him in death and atone for my act at last?
"By God, that's enough, Salem," says Ihsan, slipping between the monitor and myself. She tries to put on a hard stare, but pity overflows through her eyes.
On the monitor behind her, Sokhem dies in the fateful explosion, and the flash of light casts Ihsan's face in darkness.
I want to scream at her until she leaves me alone, but pain and anger choke me. Ihsan shakes her head, and brushes her fingers against my cheek.
"Sokhem forgave you; now forgive yourself," she says.
"How?" I ask, her touch draining my anger away.
"Time," she says. "Give yourself time."
I look up at her. Somewhere in her luminous eyes, I spy a future I never dared imagine before. She takes my hand.
"Hah! Screw all this," says Unnr. I say we pack as many crates of Cuban cigars and rum we can fit in the cargo hold, and go crash that ship on a deserted beach in ancient Thailand."
To live, after two lifetimes filled with death; there's a thought.
Ihsan smiles. I squeeze her hand, hoping to forget what lurks in Sokhem's shadow.
This story originally appeared in Perihelion SF.