Sound asleep on a midnight plane approaching Amber City. A shadow born in the womb of the moon lands on the wing, shimmies through the porthole, lays a hand along my face:
“Place your seatbacks and tray tables in an upright position, Little One. We’re landing in the place where the Time Machine failed.”
Except my seat doesn’t recline and there is no in-flight meal. They fed me with one tube and emptied me with another one.
I’m covered in 9-G foam, sealed tight inside a rig built from Near-Frictionless Carbon. Got a 40-pound PMI (Passive Magnetic Inhibitor) on my back, controlled by the biteplate in my helmet which oversees the output of the PMI and puts me in charge of my descent. I vibrate, slightly out of phase with the frozen moment below. That lets me cut through the Soup.
Moral of the story: the Soup can’t stop what the Soup can’t touch.
But why? you ask.
That most simple of tools, the steadily turning screw that keeps everything from happening at once, has finally crossed a thread. No rhyme, no reason. Just like that, a section of Everything went ka-plooey in a small town. Time stopped in a quarter-mile blob. The closer to Ground Zero, the deeper your sleep. If you’d been playing hooky, headed toward the edge of town when it happened, you stand an nth of a chance of waking up someday. Step across that line, break the bubble and enter the next century. *snap* Just like that.
The squeals of excited children became silver grapes frozen on the vine, as did the hungry mouth’s of star-crossed lovers in the park and the focused fingers of a lonely woman turning the pages of dime store best-seller in the coffee house across the street. All became still, and have stayed that way since.
Believe me when I say they tried everything to get them out.
High above hangs a recreational skydiver, visible from the staircase that now surrounds the City. They say he fell 700 feet before things began to slow, and the length of his following seconds multiplied by one. (“The flying arrow is at rest…”) His molecules are sound asleep and his flight may last forever.
They threw money at the problem but the problem didn’t listen. They tried to destroy the problem, to part it, to tunnel through it. Finally, they gave up. Threw a dome around it, and charged admission.
Two days ago, a ring of inward-looking sensors situated along the walls picked up a signal, a ripple, a heartbeat. A solitary figure moving freely about the city, normal speed.
That’s where I come in. Got to go in there and find out what’s alive, figure out What’s-the-Matter and determine what’s got the strength to move in the Amber.
Check my gear, stand in the mouth, wait for the Word. Like all useful information in this day and age, it comes as light. Green, and the doors hiss open. I leap into the arms of the night, savoring this madman’s elevator. I fall.
How long? Later.
Approach the apex of the Amber, preparing to merge with the Soup. There’s a human diorama below me, hundreds, maybe hundreds of thousands of people on permanent smoke break. Laughter in mid-throat, telephones forever ringing, elevators that’ll never come. Enter the Soup, I bite and chomp through the control menus. I puncture the Amber, slide in. It’s pissed, doesn’t want me here. Fights me. Closes its thighs to me. Power levels in the suit surge to compete with the Soup and my muscles burn.
Hours later, touchdown.
Getting my bearings, preparing to move out when I feel a sudden pressure in my right shoulder, hear a faint scratch like a dog wanting to come in. Took me almost a minute to look down and I still don’t believe what I’m seeing. An honest-to-fuck bullet from Long Ago, humping the fabric of my suit like a lovesick insect, struggling for a way to mate with the warm wet red and vital stuff buried deep inside. Must have been fired less than thirty minutes ago; either it’s a million-to-one, or worse.
I go limp, rolling backwards. This takes me seven minutes. I bite down on the ‘plate, coaxing more juice from the PMI, my eyes riveted to the sparkling cone of lead, friction waves cast aside like the scarves of an exotic dancer. The optics in the helmet watch my eyes, changing the visor to amplify the object of interest. Red light on, cameras rolling. Presently, my field of view is overcome by a macro close-up: hollow-point shell, like the rim of a tiny volcano. It’s turning, albeit slowly.
Panting with exhaustion, sweating bullets (no pun), bite down on the ’plate. Warning lights, MAX POWER. One final lunge, breath rattling in my ears, contrasting the high pitch whine of my nervous system. Slobbering human heavy breath noisy in here, silent as the grave out there.
Seconds passed, nearly clear of the bullet. Twist a little further. The brush of metal catching. The tail begins to rise, and the nose follows – picture a helicopter taking off.
Finally, it crests, heading away. But it won’t stop. It’ll go until it finds something new to dig into, somewhere in this city of 6,500 people frozen in time. Might be hours, maybe weeks. Unless that bullet falls to earth, its dreams and purpose unrealized, it’ll likely burrow into another human.
Think on that: you’re walking down the street. Time stops, but not everywhere. Outside, the river flows on. One hundred, two hundred years pass. Inside, you’re still walking, your left foot hovering an inch above the ground. A bullet fired from a weapon in the future seeks you out in your present moment, and slowly carves a tunnel through your entrails while you sleep walk, frozen, helpless. Sucks to be you. (On the plus side, it’s moving, and you aren’t. Meaning, too fast for you to even care. Instant.) Should you ever awake:
“Who the fuck shot me?”
“Some guy a few thousand years ago. (P.S. you’re seriously late for work.)”
The real question – who pulled the trigger? Judging by trajectory, the guilty party exists thirty minutes into my own future.
Radio ops and position, move out…