"Another week. Another successful test flight." Sarah Schoeffel raised her beer bottle in a toast.
"I'll drink to that." Her father, Kim Schoeffel, clinked his bottle against hers.
Sarah took a swig and lounged back in the patio chair. A cool breeze blew across her father's spacious back yard and rustled the leaves of the trees at its edge. The mighty crowns of old-growth oaks and beeches formed a green horizon with only the blocky white silhouette of the Chronoton Research Center marring its natural beauty. Stars had begun to dapple the clear, darkening sky.
"This is nice." Sarah sighed, a contented smile on her face.
"Yes," her father echoed, his tone possessing a far-off dreaminess.
"You remember when we used to sit on the porch at the old house and watch the storms?"
"I remember your mother yelling at me for it."
"Yeah." She chuckled and took another sip. "Good times."
"Oh?" He turned in his seat. "That's only because she'd send you to bed with nothing worse than a scolding. Whereas I had to listen to her pontificate all blasted night!"
"Like I said, good times." Her eyes sparkled with laughter.
Kim shook his head, smiling back, and drank from his bottle.
"You have no idea." He cleared his throat and raised the pitch of his voice. "'Did you know there's a five-point-three percent uptick in nano-smog density today?' she would say. 'The back porch isn't screened! Do you want our daughter to have lung cancer when she grows up? At least put on your damn respirators when you go out! People who wear them religiously have a sixteen-point-six percent longer life expectancy, even in this climate.' And on and on it would go. I swear, the woman was a walking encyclopedia."
"Gee, I wonder what you two saw in each other?" Sarah teased.
Kim flashed a sly half-smile at her.
The porch grew quiet after that. Talk of her mother always dredged up a convoluted mixture of competing emotions.
Sarah had grown up as a typical daddy's girl. She'd idolized her father The Scientist, so much so she'd dreamed of becoming one herself someday. Before she understood what that meant. Before she came to realize what he and her mother had sacrificed to pursue their passions. They did their best to shield her from the suspicion, public ridicule, and yes, even the death threats, but the other children at school had ostracized her all the same.
She eventually came to understand just how hard her parents had willingly made their lives. Even if they'd tried to hide it from her.
The world had never fully recovered from the Nano War, even two centuries after the final weapons had been dispersed. The lingering fallout from that war was one of the reasons why her mother had researched nano-climate manipulation with such fervor, why she'd been an outspoken advocate for developing self-replicating machines to clear out the nano-storms still plaguing parts of the world.
But fear of science, of how unfettered progress had nearly ended the human race, had rooted itself deep within humanity's collective psyche. It took guts to be a scientist in this day and age. Guts and a stubborn resolve to see matters through to the end.
Fortunately, the Schoeffel family had those two traits in spades. But even so, accidents still happened, and only an empty casket rested in her mother's grave.
Sarah took a deep breath and enjoyed the unfiltered crispness of the air.
"She would have loved it here."
"One of the advantages of being forced out to the middle of nowhere," Kim grumped.
"Out of sight, out of mind," Sarah mused, thinking on how the Research Oversight Bureau had consciously decided to build her father's research center on the far side of the planet from the World Union capital in Moscow.
"I suppose," he sighed.
His phone vibrated.
"Oh, for the love of . . ." He sat up and reached into his pocket.
"Don't," Sarah urged. "Whatever it is, it can wait."
Kim paused for a moment, then smiled at her and leaned back.
"You're right. Let's at least finish our beers."
They clinked their bottles together again.
Sarah's phone vibrated against her hip, and she grimaced and switched it off.
"Yours, too?" Kim deflated with a sigh. "We seem to be popular tonight."
"You starting to hear things?" Sarah took a long draught from the bottle. "My phone's been off this whole time."
"Right." He chuckled.
Floodlights switched on around the Chronoton Research Center's airfield, outlining the trees with halos of light.
"A little late for that, don't you think?" Kim said.
"Whatever it is, it's someone else's problem."
The sleek, silvery form of a World Union Air Force VTOL took off from the airfield. Its four turbojets rotated, and it sped off over the horizon.
"Still seems a bit odd for a Friday night," Kim said.
"Knowing Pushkov, this is another one of his pointless drills. I bet you anything he sits in his office and uses his CompuCore to calculate the worst possible times to run them."
"Oh, he's not that bad."
Two more VTOLs took off and headed after the first.
"Doing anything fun this weekend?" her father asked.
"Nothing much. Heading to the beach with a few friends. Might do some scuba diving while we're there. We'll see."
"Is Pavel coming along?"
"No." Sarah raised a suspicious eyebrow. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh, just wondering. Just wondering."
"Well, you can stop wondering."
"Not your type?"
"He . . ." She sighed. "First of all, he's a coworker."
"A single coworker with an exemplary record at the Center."
"But he's so boring! You know what he does for fun?"
"Can't say that I do."
A fourth VTOL took off and spun to face a different heading.
"He paints these little plastic figures and then drives two hours each weekend so he can line them up on a table across from some other boring guy. And then all they do for hours is roll dice at each other until someone ‘wins.’"
"Oh. So he's into tabletop gaming? What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing, except . . ." She trailed off as the newest VTOL flew toward the house, and the engine whine eclipsed their conversation.
The craft rotated its turbojets and hovered above them, forcing Sarah and her father to cover their ears. The craft lowered itself onto the back yard, a sliding door opened on the side, and a tall man in an orange nano-hazard suit stepped out.
Sarah grimaced, and both she and her father stood up. Seeing a nano-hazard suit was bad news on any day, but at least Deputy Minister Pushkov hurried up to the porch with his helmet in the crook of his arm instead of his suit fully sealed.
"Doctor. Lieutenant," Pushkov greeted them over the whine of the idling engines.
"Minister," Kim replied, a twinge of fear in his voice.
"Doctor, I need you to come with me. There's been an incident."
"What sort of 'incident'?" He eyed the minister's suit.
"We're not sure. I'll brief you on the way."
Kim set his beer down and was about to step off the porch when Sarah put a hand on his shoulder. He turned and saw the hard look in her eyes, then nodded slowly to her.
"Can the lieutenant come, too?" he asked the minister.
"If it'll make you get on board faster," Pushkov replied bluntly.
* * * * * * * * * *
The VTOL sped over the lush forest, and Pushkov unbuckled once they were at cruising speed. He retrieved two nano-hazard suits from a supply locker and set them out for the other two passengers.
"Put these on," he ordered.
"Are we dealing with a nano-plague outbreak?" Sarah asked. It was the only kind of disaster she could recall that would instantly mobilize World Union assets, even those assigned to research centers.
"We're still assessing the situation," Pushkov said.
Sarah grimaced. In her book, that was code for "We don't have a clue."
"It's not a case of Mercury Rain, is it?" Kim asked, pulling his suit up to the waist.
Sarah shivered at the thought. It had been years since she'd read about a case of Mercury Rain liquefying someone, but the graphic photos still stuck with her.
"No, it's not that, at least," Pushkov stressed. "It's . . . something else. We're treating it as a potential outbreak, but we haven't spotted any of the usual replication patterns."
"Then what have we spotted?" Sarah asked, sealing her suit's neck ring.
"This." Pushkov unfolded his phone into tablet mode and turned it around for them to see. Sarah and her farther both recognized the chart; it was raw data from the center's Chronoton Detection Array.
"But that's . . ." Kim breathed.
"A spike in chronometric activity," Pushkov finished. "Centered right over the disaster area."
"May I?" Kim asked, extending a hand to the minister's phone.
Kim took the phone and scrolled through the raw data.
"The chronotons in the area started moving into the past all at once. Normally they're split fifty-fifty between wiggling backward and forward in time. That would imply time travel. But the scale. The power requirements!" He shook his head and handed the phone back.
"You don't think the prototype caused this, do you?" Sarah asked.
"I don't see how," Kim said. "We couldn't create a disruption this large if we tried. Not with a hundred prototypes."
"I'm inclined to agree," Pushkov said. "Before I left, I had the center's main CompuCore cross-reference all previous test flights. None of them came close to the site's physical coordinates." The VTOL slowed, and everyone grabbed the handholds hanging from the ceiling. "We're here. We run this as a by-the-book outbreak containment until I say otherwise, understood?"
"Perfectly, Minister," Sarah said.
"What do you need me to do?" Kim asked, donning his nano-hazard helmet.
"Assess the disaster site. Determine as best you can if we caused this or not. And if not, figure out what did."
"I'll do what I can," Kim said doubtfully.
"And I'm coming with you." Sarah fitted her helmet on. The suit's CompuCore checked the seals, and indicators in the HUD lit up green.
Kim flashed a faint smile her way.
Pushkov clipped his suit's fall arrest cable to a hook on the ceiling and slid one of the doors open. The VTOL hovered above a rural two-story high school. A few dozen cars were parked in the adjacent lot, and lights shone down upon the football field. It was a twenty-meter drop to the ground.
The other three VTOLs hovered nearby, encircling the football field.
A robotic arm extended from the passenger compartment, and a loop of metal rope spooled out. Sarah clipped onto one of several clamps waiting on the arm and then stepped out of the VTOL. Her fall arrest cable caught her, and the clamp rode down the rope. Her boots touched down in a grass field, and she clipped off.
Her suit's plague detectors showed all green. She checked her surroundings in a full circle but didn't spot any of the usual visual indicators of an outbreak, such as unnatural radial patterns for Spiral Death or uncharacteristic glossiness for Meltdown. The field lights all stood at odd angles, which she found unusual, and the back of one of the spectator stands blocked her view of the field. It too sat at a slant.
Kim dropped off next to her and unclipped.
"The playing field," Pushkov radioed to them. "That's the epicenter."
"Were there casualties?" Sarah asked.
Sarah swallowed hard, steeled her nerves, and marched around the stands.
Then she froze, trying to understand what she saw.
She imagined a varsity game in progress. Just a bit of friendly competition between rival schools, one decked out in red-and-black, the other in green-and-white: players in formation out on the field or sitting on the bench, coaches pacing the yard marks, referees moving into position, parents cheering their kids on, and the two bands playing their hearts out.
And then everything started sinking. Not just the stands and lights into the ground, but people into the stands, or people sloshing into other people as if each had turned into jelly! She imagined the field and stands morphing into a horrible collage of objects and beings interposed in ways that should never be.
There was blood everywhere, too. Blood on the field, where players had slammed into each other, only to splatter through their opponents' bodies. Blood in red streaks down the stairs, drained out from men and women bisected by the benches they once sat upon. Blood pooled in brass instruments pushed through band members.
Blood, blood, and more blood.
"Oh, God," she managed at last.
"This is . . ." Kim bent over and retched dryly.
"Father, are you okay?" She rested a hand on his back, thankful for a reason to look away.
"No, but I'll manage." He forced himself to stand straight. "I can't let this upset me."
"I've never seen anything like this."
She looked him in the eyes as he gazed at the horrible scene.
"Not on this scale, of course. And not with people, thank God. But yes, I've seen this phenomenon." He gave her a haunted look. "It can happen when an object is pushed out of phase with normal matter—by initiating time travel, for instance—and cutting the chronometric field off." He let out a slow, ragged exhale. "In those circumstances, you can have one object phase back in while overlapping something else."
"Then is it possible we caused this?" Sarah asked, horrified by the implications.
"I want to say no, but I also don't see any other explanations." He unfolded his phone and tapped the haptic screen.
"What are you doing?"
"Establishing a remote link with the Detection Array. I'm going to focus it on my current position, try to achieve maximum resolution. Maybe there's some residual activity. Some clue that can help us understand what we're seeing."
She watched the screen with him, and they waited together for the massive exotic matter array back at the Center to align its many components in their direction.
"No," Kim hissed, then shook his head. "There's nothing here. We're at maximum resolution, and the chronotons around us are perfectly normal."
Sarah sighed, then gazed back at the field and all its carnage. She wondered again what the event might have looked like as it happened, what the players and spectators had been doing in the seconds right before they started phasing into their surroundings.
Wait a second, she thought.
"There's nothing to see now," she said aloud.
"Yes, I know," her father agreed, not looking up.
"No, there's nothing here now." She turned to him. "What you need is data from the event itself. As it was happening."
"Yes, but how am I going to . . .?" He stopped, paused, and looked up at her, realization dawning on his face.
"I'll get you that data," Sarah said with absolute confidence. "Because as soon as we return to the Center, we're going to make an unscheduled launch."
* * * * * * * * * *
Sarah stopped at the security checkpoint in front of the prototype's hangar where six World Union army soldiers awaited her arrival. She handed over her identification card and stepped into the body scanner, a process she'd become familiar with through repetition. All six of the men wore full body armor and held their rifles ready as if an enemy would come marching down the hallway at any minute. Tension cloaked them in an almost palpable aura, a distinct change from past weeks when the men would mill about, helmets off and rifles slung.
"ID confirmed." The guard saluted. "Lieutenant Sarah Schoeffel, you are cleared for entry."
She saluted back, then accepted her ID card. A second guard used his badge to open the door, and she stepped through.
Traveler One wasn't the prettiest craft she'd ever flown. But then again, it had been designed to travel though time, not air. The black vessel sat on sixteen wheels grouped into clusters of four at each corner of the chubby main body, while the spike of its time drive extended out the back. Most of the internal space was taken up by the chronometric impeller's support mechanisms, the high-density capacitors that powered it, a chronoton detection dish, and liquid propellant for the four thrusters. All that equipment left just enough room for a modest two-seat cockpit at the nose. Overall, the time machine spanned thirty-five meters in length and a little over ten meters in width.
Dr. Pavel Obruchev was already waiting for her at the hatch. His hands were stained with blotches of black paint.
"In the middle of something when Pushkov called?" she asked, climbing into the cockpit.
"Just basecoating a new model." Pavel joined her inside and sealed the hatch. "Nothing that can't wait. You?"
"Drinking beers with my father."
Sarah strapped in, performed her preflight checks, then clicked the radio.
"This is Traveler One to Control. Requesting permission to depart."
"Traveler One, this is Control. Your departure is authorized. Opening the hangar now."
The hangar doors split down the middle to reveal a wide field of concrete illuminated by harsh floodlights.
"Thank you, Control. Traveler One departing."
She eased power to the thrusters, and the time machine taxied onto the runway. Once clear of the building, she spun the thrusters and applied additional power, lifting the time machine into the air. She waited until they'd reached an altitude of five hundred meters, then rotated the thrusters to accelerate them toward the disaster area.
"How bad is it?" Pavel asked.
"Have you eaten dinner yet?"
"Then you should be fine."
He didn't say another word the rest of the short flight over.
"Target area reached," she said, viewing the school from high above via a belly camera.
"Impeller's all warmed up," Pavel reported. "Exotic matter permeability set. Ready to energize on your command."
Pavel punched the power button, and the capacitors discharged a portion of their stored energy into the impeller. Exotic matter energized, transformed, and then began to block chronotons moving into the past. Chronometric pressure built along the impeller, and the time machine's phase state changed.
Gravity vanished. Sarah switched the thrusters off and felt herself float up against her restraints.
"Phase state looks good," Pavel said, checking his instruments. "Transit speed is stable at eighty factors. We should be at the target in one hundred seventy-five seconds, absolute."
Sarah let out a slow breath, not eager to return to the school.
The sky outside brightened as the timer ticked down to zero.
"And . . . phase out!" Pavel switched off the impeller.
Gravity reasserted its hand, and Sarah engaged the thrusters. Traveler One hovered over the same rural high school, roughly four hours into the past. That placed them two hours before the event picked up by the Chronoton Detection Array.
She eased off the throttle, and Traveler One descended in a gentle corkscrew. She circled around the field, checking it with the onboard cameras and her own eyesight. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. No crooked light poles, no slanted stands.
And no blood.
No kids or parents, either. That made matters easier for the moment, but she'd have to deal with them once people started showing up for the game. She knew there was nothing she could do for these poor folks. Her actions in the past would have no effect on the present. Time would slip back into its original shape no matter what she and Pavel did.
But a part of her still wanted to spare these poor souls the agony that awaited them. Even if it wouldn't make any difference.
She set the time machine down behind one of the stands.
"Whoa!" Pavel exclaimed.
"I'm not sure. The readings from our dish were fine a moment ago, but then everything went nutso. I've never seen anything like this. Give me a moment." He tapped one of his monitors, expanded the charts, and replayed the last few seconds. "Yes, there's significant chronometric activity. And it matches the pattern the CDA picked up. Normal chronometric environment, then poof! Every chronoton starts racing into the past. We're definitely on to something."
"But that can't be right," Sarah protested. "The incident doesn't happen for another two hours. We came here early on purpose so we'd have time to set up a detector ring around the football field. Are you sure we're at the right phase-in point?"
"The position of the sun says so." Pavel gestured out the window. "And my instruments, too, in case you were wondering."
"Then maybe the incident started earlier than we thought?"
"Maybe." Pavel rubbed his chin.
"Should we head back even further?"
"Let's hold off for now. Something's going on here, and we need to collect as much data as possible. I say we set up the detectors as planned, gather what we can, and then head up the timestream and repeat."
"Okay. Sounds good." She switched the flight systems off.
Pavel opened the hatch and stepped out. Sarah grabbed a large duffle bag and followed him out. She set the bag on the ground, unzipped it, and took three of the detection tripods into her arms. Pavel picked up the other three.
"I'll head clockwise around the field." He hefted the tripods. "You take counter-clockwise. Meet you on the far side."
Sarah circled around the field, picked an open spot, and unfolded the first detector tripod. A display lit up on the side, and she bent down and confirmed its connection to Traveler One before moving on.
She rounded one end of the field and planted the second detector directly behind the goal posts. Pavel waved at her from the far end of the field, then disappeared behind the empty stands with his last detector. She hustled toward the stands from the opposite direction, but a gale came out of nowhere and knocked her over.
The wind died as quickly as it came.
"What the hell?" she muttered, picking herself up.
She checked the last detector for damage, found none, and started toward the stands again when a tearing sound drew her eyes toward the center of the field. A section of the green turf collapsed into the ground before her very eyes, and then the hole widened to a few meters across.
"Hey, Pavel!" she shouted. "I think we should get out of here!"
No one answered.
"Pavel?" she called out.
Nothing. The field was silent except for the wind.
A sense of dread overcame her, but she pushed it aside. She set up the third detector and hurried behind the stands.
"Pavel, you better answer me!"
She turned the corner, then slid to a stop with a yelp.
The ground gaped open before her, its edges hazy and immaterial. Like a smoky aberration of the real thing. The hole expanded, yawning deeper and wider, almost like it was reaching out toward her. She skirted around it and started running again.
She raced back along his half of the perimeter and spotted his last detector on the ground on its side.
"Pavel, where the hell are—"
The words caught in her throat when she realized the detector wasn't actually touching the ground. It was being held up by Pavel's hand, thrust vertically up out of the dirt. Blades of grass pierced through his forearm, and blood dripped out of the wounds. She saw no sign of the rest of him beyond a dark, ominous stain in the soil.
"No!" Tears she didn't know she possessed for the young man burned her eyes.
The spectator stands creaked and began to sink, and years of training and survival instincts took over. She cut back toward the time machine and sprinted as if she were going for the gold. More holes gaped open around her, the light poles teetered, and one of the goal posts toppled over.
She weaved through the chaos, eyes locked on her ticket home. A gust of wind shoved her to the side, but she righted herself, raced across the clearing, and leaped into the cockpit. She grabbed the hatch and slammed it shut.
The time machine shifted, listing to the side as if sinking, and she stumbled back into the hatch.
"You're not getting me, too!" She pushed off the wall and smacked the emergency recall button. Automated systems set the present as her destination, and power thrummed through the time drive. Gravity vanished, but the time machine bucked wildly around her.
Sarah kicked off the wall, pulled herself into her seat, and strapped in. She grabbed the control stick and fought to regain control of the craft. Traveler One phased through solid ground, layered sediment visible outside the cockpit, and she had only a few minutes before the time drive automatically phased her back in.
She checked her console, found her bearing, angled the craft straight up, then shoved the throttle forward. All four thrusters fired at maximum. Acceleration slammed her into her seat, and the ship flew up into the air.
The timer ticked down to zero, and she arrived at the True Present.
There was no future beyond the True Present because it hadn't been created yet. This was the endpoint of Time, and the impeller switched off automatically upon arrival, unable to push through the bulwark of chronotons forging the future. Gravity jerked her back into her seat, and she pushed forward on the control stick, angling the craft, stabilizing it above the disaster site.
She was out of danger.
She sank back into her seat and took a slow, deep breath. Her hands shook as she set her course for the Chronoton Research Center, then keyed the radio.
"Traveler One to Control, I have a . . ." She glanced at Pavel's empty seat. "I need to speak with Dr. Schoeffel. Urgently."
No one responded. She double-checked the channel setting and keyed it again.
"Traveler One to Control, respond please."
Was her radio damaged?
She ran a diagnostic, but all systems came back green. The time machine had suffered no damage, as far as the CompuCore could tell.
She pulled out her personal phone and tried to call her father, but an automated message stated all lines were currently in use.
"What's going on here?"
An alert appeared on one of Pavel's monitors—a pulsing red light in the corner of her eye—and she leaned over and expanded it.
"'Abnormal chronometric activity detected'? Yeah, no kidding."
But then she realized the timestamp was from a moment ago. After she'd arrived in the present. The alert was for something happening right now outside the ship, and she activated the belly camera.
Traveler One flew over a dense forest, but a surreal cancer spread veins of nothingness across it. Trees sank into the earth, and chasms gaped wide, spreading so fast she could see them tracing outward from her high vantage.
"Oh, no," she breathed.
How far had it spread? Had it reached the Center?
"Father!" She shoved the throttle forward.
Traveler One rocketed back home.
* * * * * * * * * *
Sarah flew over a new canyon a kilometer wide and twice as deep, spotted the Chronoton Research Center on the far side, and sped in as fast as she dared. She spun the thrusters at the last moment, applied full retro-thrust, and brought the time machine to a halt in its hangar.
She threw the hatch open so hard it rebounded and clanked shut behind her as she ran inside. No one was at the checkpoint, and she raced through the complex, passing men and women weeping, praying, reaching for phones to call their loved ones. One young woman pressed her face against the glass and gawked up at the night sky in disbelief. Sarah stole a glance in her direction and saw the Moon.
Or what was left of it. There was a hole in the Moon now, right through the middle, as if an unspeakably massive gun had put an equally giant bullet through it. Reality was vanishing before their eyes, but surely her father could figure out what was going on. Yes, that was it! He'd invented time travel, for God's sake! He'd know what to do!
Desperate hope welled up within her, fueling her, driving her legs to pump faster—
—until at last she reached her father's office, and that last faint ember flickered into darkness. She found her father hunched over a monitor, pale as a ghost. One look into his eyes answered all her questions.
But a part of her refused to give up, and she motioned toward the door.
"Father, come on! I need to get you out of here!"
He shook his head, much like he had when scolding her as a child, whenever she stubbornly refused to see reason. He turned back to a monitor scrolling with raw data from the Chronoton Detection Array and sank into his chair's deep, sighing leather.
"There's no running from this," he began. "This is the end of everything. Time itself has become unhinged. Now is falling into then, and I have no idea what is causing it."
"But surely . . ." she protested, her voice trailing off.
"The magnitude of this is incredible. Unimaginable!" He shook his head. "I ran a quick calculation to see how much exotic matter it would take to even slow it down. But I . . ." He shuddered and shook his head. "I stopped when the numbers surpassed the mass of Jupiter. I'm sorry, Sarah, but there's no saving our world."
"Father?" she said softly, reaching out to touch his forearm.
He stared at her for an instant, then sucked in a sharp breath and shoved up out of his chair.
"Come with me, Sarah!"
"Where?" she asked hopelessly, twitching her head at the monitors.
"There may be one hope," he retorted, then grabbed her hand and pulled her out into the corridor.
"Run, Sarah—run!" he snapped, and she found herself following him, retracing her steps through the complex, back to the prototype.
She took the lead and hurried through the abandoned security checkpoint.
"The ship's field," her father panted behind her as she threw the time machine's hatch open. "If it can't protect us, nothing—"
A push from behind, even as her ear identified the gunshot.
She fell into the time machine.
Her father slammed the hatch behind her.
Two more gunshots.
She turned to see him smile at her. His lips had moved. She couldn't hear his last words through the hatch viewport, but she didn't need to. She knew what he'd said, and her eyes filled with tears as he slumped out of sight, his fingers leaving bloody streaks down the port.
Oh, yes. She knew.
"I love you, too, Daddy," she whispered.
Then a World Union security guard slammed the butt of his rifle against the hatch and shouted at her, his face a mask of desperation, like a cornered animal that needed to reach the safety of the time machine at any cost. She spared one instant to snarl at her father's killer, then turned and raced for the controls. She flung herself into the seat, punched the button to power the impeller. The time machine quivered as it came online, she reached for the control stick—
—and then her world tore itself apart.
She hurtled forward, her forehead had smashed against the controls, and everything went dark.
* * * * * * * * * *
The CompuCore built into Traveler One was not an artificial intelligence. Its software had been written to efficiently filter and compile the data coming in from its various systems, prioritize the data based on urgency algorithms, and present any information deemed Of Importance to the crew in a streamlined manner.
The pilot's flight suit provided a wealth of biometric data, which the CompuCore crunched through. It activated a medical analysis subroutine, which concluded the pilot had suffered severe blunt trauma. Her neck, two ribs, and one arm were broken.
Algorithms determined this to be Of Importance, and a Task was created to notify the pilot when she regained consciousness.
In the absence of a conscious pilot, the CompuCore activated an emergency response subroutine, and followed its first Task, which was to collect data on its current situation and summarize that data before sending out a request for support.
The CompuCore began processing the feeds from its many external cameras, its detection dish, and its onboard diagnostic systems. The cameras revealed a rocky debris field of some kind phasing in and out of existence around the craft. A white building materialized above the craft, its dimensions a seventy-two percent match for the Chronoton Research Center. A boulder smashed through the gut of the building and blasted out a trail of concrete, glass, and people.
The building phased away as quickly as it had appeared.
Algorithms could not determine the craft's physical coordinates.
Algorithms could not determine the craft's temporal coordinates.
The CompuCore failed to summarize its current situation, and the emergency response subroutine stalled in an infinite programming loop before it timed out and aborted. The CompuCore continued to collect data, and a Task was created with a retry interval of one minute. The emergency response subroutine began executing at regular intervals with the same bugged results.
A city severed from its native landmass materialized ahead of the time machine, and ethereal currents pressed the vessel down against one of its wide boulevards. The CompuCore attempted to identify the city, but the urban identification subroutine did not have enough data to confirm a match.
The CompuCore remained unable to summarize its current situation and continued to collect data.
External cameras identified an approaching vessel. The mysterious vessel took the form of a gunmetal ellipse with a long spike at one end, roughly one hundred and fifty meters in length and thirty-five meters at its widest point, many times larger than Traveler One.
The CompuCore activated a vehicular identification subroutine. No present day or historical match was found in its database.
The unknown vessel descended on what could possibly be a collision course with Traveler One. Algorithms determined this to be Of Importance, and a Task was created to notify the pilot when she regained consciousness.
The unknown vessel flew in along one of the unidentified city's boulevards, and the front of the vessel opened. A twisted cylinder of metal larger than Traveler One tumbled out of the vessel's open front as it flew in closer, skirting the boulevard. Its bulk crushed a flatbed truck before Traveler One slipped inside, and the front of the vessel sealed shut.
External cameras confirmed the time machine was now inside a vessel of unknown type, origin, or affiliation. Algorithms determined this to be Of Importance, and a Task was created to notify the pilot when she regained consciousness.
The CompuCore remained unable to summarize its current situation and continued to collect data.
Three people came into view at the rear of the chamber, two men and a woman, each wearing grayish green uniforms with golden eye and bared sword patches at the shoulders. The CompuCore activated a uniform identification subroutine, which failed to find a match. In an effort to collate the incoming data, the CompuCore created temporary designations for each individual, labeling them as Male of Unknown Affiliation One, Male of Unknown Affiliation Two, and Woman of Unknown Affiliation.
"Everyone ready for an impromptu first contact?" asked MUA-1, the noticeably larger of the two men.
The CompuCore activated a language identification subroutine, which detected a mixture of English and Chinese words that combined to form gibberish.
"Not really," said MUA-2, the smaller of the two men. "I wish Kleio was online so we could load up on Russian linguistics."
"Speaking of which, do either of you know what that says?" The woman, WUA, pointed to the designation emblazoned across the prototype's flank.
"Nope," MUA-1 said. "You, Doc?"
"I relied on auto-translators for this sort of thing even back in the twenty-first century, let alone after I got my wetware upgrades."
"Then I guess that's another wait-for-Kleio question."
The trio reached the front of the prototype.
"That looks like blood." MUA-2 pointed at the bloody handprint smeared across the hatch. "And these could be bullet impact points."
"That's a little ominous." MUA-1 knocked three times. "Hello! Anyone in there?"
MUA-2 rounded the corner to the front window and wiped away a circle of grime with his sleeve. He shielded his view with both hands and pressed his face against the glass.
"I can see someone inside! A young woman. She looks injured!"
MUA-1 tried to open the hatch. The CompuCore ran an entry request subroutine but could not locate the clearance level for the individual. It kept the hatch locked.
"Blocked," he grunted.
"Then bust it down!" the woman replied.
The larger man backed up for a running start, then sprinted forward and smashed his shoulder into the hatch. The CompuCore ran an impact analysis subroutine and classified the action as an attempt at forcible entry to the cockpit. Algorithms determined this to be Of Importance, and a Task was created to notify the pilot when she regained consciousness.
"Try the window!" MUA-2 suggested.
MUA-1 hammered a fist into the window. A previous impact had already weakened it, and a web of cracks spread from his fist. Two more punches and the window shattered. Jagged edges tore at his sleeve and skin, but he raked his arm across the opening, breaking off glass teeth, then grabbed the window frame and vaulted inside.
"Philo, warm up the medical bay!" MUA-1 slid his arms under the woman and scooped her up. "You've got a patient incoming!"
The CompuCore watched the three persons of unknown affiliation leave with its pilot. Algorithms determined this to be Of Importance, and a Task was created to notify the pilot upon her return.
* * * * * * * * * *
Agent Raibert Kaminski of the SysPol Gordian Division set the young woman down in the recovery casket. The glass top closed, and robotic arms began to blur around her, mending her wounds. He turned at the sound of Agents Benjamin and Elzbietá Schröder entering the Transtemporal Vehicle Kleio's medical bay behind him.
"She'll live," he told them, then looked down at the woman once more.
"There's that at least," Elzbietá said heavily. "Poor thing. She could very well be the only survivor from her universe."
"I know," Raibert replied, his eyes dark with the memory of a different dead universe. "We found ourselves swept up in this mess too late to be of any help. Hell, that phasing debris almost killed us, too. But it didn't kill us, it didn't kill her, and together maybe there's something we can do about it."
"Where there's life, there's hope?" Benjamin asked.
"Right you are, Doc," Raibert said, more to reassure himself than the others. "Right you are."
This story is set in the multiverse of the Gordian Division series by David Weber and Jacob Holo, which includes novels The Gordian Protocol and The Valkyrie Protocol, available in October 2020. Jacob Holo is a former Ohioan/former Michigander now living in sunny South Carolina. He is a writer, gamer, hobbyist, and engineer who started writing after his parents bought him an IBM 286 desktop back in the '80s. He’s been writing ever since.