The Hourglass Brigade by Alex Shvartsman

Presentation Thumbnail DSF LogoThe Hourglass Brigade
by Alex Shvartsman

The first sign of trouble is when they begin to keep count.

Catherine has been a good partner, one of the best. We’ve done over a dozen incursions together, and she’s pulled her weight on every single one. Unflinching and uncomplaining, she’s willing to get her hands dirty. We have been comrades in the field and lovers afterward. But now she is beginning to unravel, to doubt, to come apart, like all the ones who came before her.

“There were the five merchants in Damascus, and that couple in Budapest,” she tallies the incursions, “and the scientist in twentieth century Capetown. And now, a shipload of explorers.”

This is how it always begins. They add up the kills, mourning the collateral damage. They misdirect their pity, and question the Plan, and consult whatever higher power they believe in. They waver and doubt, and, before their hesitation might endanger an incursion, they’re removed from the program and I never see them again. And then I have to break in a new partner.

“Those seventeen souls were heroes, you know, braving the unknown like that. I grew up wanting to be just like them.”

I say nothing, continuing to steer the speedboat with one hand, as I brush wet strands of hair out of my eyes with the other.

This was an easy incursion. No hiding. No blending in. Not a living soul for miles. Just the two of us and an hour-long speedboat ride off the coast of Guadeloupe. One shoulder-launched missile later, and their rickety tub was so much driftwood floating in the Atlantic.

Those sailors, they were no heroes. They were gaunt, starving, scurvy-ridden men foolish or desperate enough to sign on. It was by sheer luck that their primitive vessel was going to make it to the New World and then back to Portugal in one piece. By all rights, the sea should have had them anyway. We merely helped it along, blowing up their ship far enough from shore to make certain none of them made it to land and contaminated the desired timeline.

We’re the real heroes. We delayed the Europeans from discovering America by at least a decade and improved the lives of billions in the present. But to do it, we got close enough to see the sailors’ eyes, and that was too much for Catherine.

I wonder if there’s some event, some catalyst that would one day break me like that. I allowed myself to believe Catherine would be able to handle it, but now I realize that our time together is likely coming to an end.

I smile at her. Her hand finds mine and holds tight as our boat races toward the retrieval point.

 

I lie during the debriefing.

It is an easy lie of omission. I report only on the success of the incursion and hold back my doubts. The chink in Catherine’s mental armor will take time to spread. I believe that she still has a few good missions in her; we still have time to be together, for a while longer.

It also gives me time to work out the contingencies.

I enter Kaufield’s office from the hallway. The cramped room has two doors, the other entrance ajar and leading into a spare study hall. Charles Kaufield is in front of a chalkboard, talking to a dozen new recruits. Drawn on the chalkboard is an outline of an hourglass.

Having caught Kaufield’s eye, I wave and point askance at his terminal. He nods slightly, without interrupting the lecture. He so loves briefing the fresh blood. None of the students notice our silent exchange. They face the chalkboard, hanging on his every word.

“For centuries, our civilization tried to outpace its problems by creating newer and better technology. We replaced whale oil with kerosene and the horse buggy with the internal combustion engine. We invented penicillin and Genome-specific drugs. We desperately kept looking for ways to feed and heal and comfort the growing population. At the height of their arrogance, our ancestors thought that we could invent our way out of trouble forever.”

Kaufield paces in front of the recruits as he speaks in a raspy, low voice. As always, he stops at that point, faces his audience, looking straight at them and speaking louder for greater effect: “They were wrong.”

“They fished out the oceans, drained oil reserves, and overheated the planet. And they kept reproducing.” Kaufield resumes his steady movement back and forth across the room as he speaks.

“There were less than a billion people on Earth at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and six billion at the beginning of the twenty first. This number doubled in less than a hundred years, and stood at nearly twenty billion at the inception of our program. These are population levels our planet cannot possibly sustain.”

Kaufield goes on to throw all kinds of numbers and statistics at his audience, but I tune him out. He is a capable bureaucrat, but he does so love the sound of his own voice. Besides, his entire premise is flawed. Nothing changed. We’re still solving our problems through cutting edge technology today. I mean, it’s not like time travel equipment grows on trees.

I browse the database, using Kaufield’s access codes to check out the dossiers of active Hourglass agents and making a mental note of possible future partners. There are a number of promising young people with long kill sheets. Operatives who might be broken in the same ways as me, broken in ways Catherine is, sadly, proving not to be.

Kaufield is getting around to his favorite part, and I can’t help but listen.

“Although the planet could no longer support the current pace of population growth, we now possessed the means to rewrite history in a way that would ultimately slow things down. With great reluctance and hesitation, humanity’s best minds arrived at the conclusion that drastic measures had to be taken. And thus, the Plan was set into motion.

“Elite teams now travel into the past and alter the timeline. Very sophisticated computers crunch numbers to determine what changes are to be made, consider every possible implication and issue precise orders to the operatives.”

He makes it sound so neat, almost clinical. But it isn’t. We are saboteurs and murderers, the demolition men of time itself. It takes a certain kind of person to do this job for a prolonged period of time. I wonder if, under another set of circumstances, someone like me would become a killer or another kind of monster who doesn’t belong in society. Perhaps I’d become a soldier, a mercenary, a thug for hire—any job that might legitimize what I am on the inside.

“We came to be known as the Hourglass Brigade,” Kaufield finally brings it home, pointing at the white outline on the chalkboard. “We choke off the throat of an hourglass to make the sands of time trickle down a little slower.”

I finish going through the database. There are several intriguing possibilities, but no one quite like Catherine. I am angry. Angry that she is falling apart, that she isn’t living up to my expectations, but mostly angry at myself for letting the situation get to me like this.

When I slip out into the hallway, Kaufield is still talking.

 

I step on a caterpillar, crushing it into a mess of green goo smeared into the gravel.

Some classical writer imagined that a time traveler could change the future with such a simple action. As if time could be so fragile. In reality, it is an elastic thing, resilient, and adverse to change. You can step on a bug, and time doesn’t care. You can travel into the past and blow away your own grandfather, only to find that grandma procreated with someone else, and you still very much exist. You can’t change history by brute force alone. It requires finesse, subtle chess-like moves that even the top players find difficult to comprehend.

Like this incursion.

Catherine and I hike in the wilderness of Ural Mountains circa 1708. We climb halfway up to the summit and set dynamite charges in a small cave, collapsing the entrance. The incredibly powerful computer at Hourglass HQ calculated that this would delay the invention of the periodic table of elements by nearly six years.

Catherine must be happy to avoid bloodshed for once. She is chipper and talkative as we make our way downhill, and all I can think about is our making love in that cave earlier on, before we set the charges. We were possibly the last two people to set foot inside for centuries to come.

We walk down the path together, sharing a moment that feels very much like happiness, when someone fires at us.

A bullet lands only inches away, throwing up dirt and rock chips. A moment later the unmistakable sound of a high-powered rifle shot catches up to it and pierces the primeval calm of the mountains. Years of training kick in, and I throw myself to the side, dragging Catherine with me. I spin around looking for the assailant and another bullet ricochets off a nearby rock.

Catherine and I crawl away from the path, looking for cover in the brush. Gravel and twigs cut my hands and face. The tough material of my combat uniform protects the rest of my body.

We settle behind a boulder, large enough to block sniper fire. There is some thick brush nearby, but the desolate steppe behind it makes further retreat impossible.

“The shooter,” Catherine pants, “it must be a time traveler, like us.”

No kidding. It’s not like anyone has access to this kind of a weapon in the early eighteenth century.

“What do we do?” Catherine makes to peek out from behind the boulder, but I hold her back.

“Don’t. Let me think.”

We only brought standard issue pistols since we didn’t expect any violence on this incursion. These pistols are no match for a rifle in a long-range firefight. But, as long as we stay put, we are out of reach of the rifle. Whoever wants us dead would have to come closer, evening the odds. And those odds would improve further, under the cover of night.

But there are hours of daylight left, and I don’t know how many enemies we are up against. They know our exact position and can strike at any time and from any direction. Waiting it out is too risky.

“The next time they fire,” I tell Catherine, “I need you to scream like you’ve been wounded.”

I strip off my jacket, roll it up and hold it out toward the edge of the boulder, revealing a few inches of material. Seconds later, another bullet whirrs past us, very nearly missing my makeshift decoy.

I nudge Catherine, and she screams. I move as far away as the protection of the boulder allows, lying flat on my stomach under the brush. I put the camouflage jacket back on, trying to blend in to the ground.

Catherine continues to moan in pain, and it sounds rather convincing. I expect that our enemy won’t be able to resist the chance to attack while they think I might be tending to her wound.

I am right.

I see him out of the corner of my eye, creeping up from the south. From my vantage point, I can see him advance carefully, staying out of Catherine’s line of sight. He finally makes it to the edge of the clearing and peeks out, his eyes going wide when he sees Catherine, alone and unharmed. And before he can act, I unload my pistol at him.

Two of the bullets hit his torso, and he stumbles back, a pair of dark red stains flowering on his chest. His partner with the rifle must’ve stayed back because he returns fire from somewhere uphill, several bullets landing in the brush. He still can’t see me from his position, but he can see his partner bleeding out across the clearing and must’ve fired out of frustration and anger rather than strategy.

I smile at Catherine from the brush and give her a thumbs-up. She sneers at me. “Next time we do something like this, you be the bait.”

“It worked, didn’t it?” I shout back.

The sniper abandons his position and runs in the general direction of our retrieval point, rifle slung on his back. It is a smart move; with his partner down, he is no longer at an advantage and could be in real trouble after dusk. I give pursuit. I gain on him somewhat during a ten-minute sprint, but I never get close enough before he disappears into the thick forest at the bottom of the hill.

The advantage is his again–and I am convinced we are dealing with a lone enemy now as he wouldn’t have run otherwise. He can hide anywhere near the retrieval point and pick us off whenever we try to go home.

I wipe the sweat off my face, curse in frustration, and head back up the hill.

 

Catherine is standing over the guy I shot. He is still alive, but only barely. I take a good look at his face, and it is familiar. Although this man is in his thirties, I saw the photo of the younger version of him among the personnel files in Kaufield’s office.

“Tell him what you told me,” says Catherine.

“Don’t go back,” he whispers. “Timeline. Corrupted.” He is struggling to speak, spitting the words out between ragged breaths. He tenses up, trying to say something else, but can’t do it. His body relaxes, and he is no longer breathing at all.

Catherine kneels over him, checking for vital signs. I clench my teeth, hating the fact that all of my suspicions are being confirmed. Catherine is going to mess up, in an upcoming mission. Mess up so badly that the Hourglass Brigade felt it was necessary to take both of us out of the picture, permanently.

The right thing to do would be to finish what the assassins had started. I could put a bullet in the back of her head, and she’d be dead before she even knew what was happening. But I still can’t bring myself to do it. Also, my odds of surviving the encounter with the dead man’s partner aren’t as good alone.

“What else did you get out of him?” I ask.

“He claimed to be one of ours,” Catherine says once she finishes checking the body, “eight years uptime. He said that one of our upcoming missions is going to go wrong and screw up the timeline in some major way.” She turns toward me. “I thought the computer calculates our moves to the point where a mistake like that is impossible?”

So she doesn’t know that she is the problem. That is going to make things easier.

“We need to get back,” I say. “Straighten things out. Maybe even drop out of the Brigade if that’s what it takes to protect the timeline.”

“I don’t think they’ll let us go back,” she says and her voice trembles. For Catherine, that’s an equivalent of somebody else bawling their eyes out. “Think about it. If that was a viable solution, they would’ve sent word downtime. But they didn’t.”

She is right. For whatever reason, we are deemed too dangerous to return.

“We can’t win against someone uptime,” she says. “They’ll just keep sending agents, deeper into our past if they have to, until they get us.”

Yes, they could. But they didn’t—we are still alive in this timeline. Does this mean that the sniper is going to get us, after all? Or that I would end up taking care of business before this incursion was over?

“We have to try,” I say. “Maybe we’ll get lucky. Maybe it was some rogue elements within the Brigade that ordered the hit, or the computer sent the other team expecting it to be eliminated by us. Whatever the answer, we’ve got to fight. Otherwise we might as well walk up to the sniper and let him shoot us.”

Catherine nods. They say hope is the last thing that dies in a person. She can’t give up, won’t give up so long as we have any chance at all. She will fight alongside me and do her absolute best to get us past the sniper. And then… Then, we will see.

 

We wait until dark to make our move.

We barely speak at all as we wait for the sun to go down. Instead, I stare at the familiar features of Catherine’s face, the curves of her body, the way she tilts her head when she is deep in thought.

There is plenty of time to think, to reflect. And, in that vast emptiness of the Ural steppes, I come to realize that there is no way I can ever hurt Catherine. Am I in love with her? I can’t tell for sure. My emotions are… complicated. But whether it’s love, or something else, I can’t bring myself to kill her, not even to save my own skin. There has to be another solution.

Catherine was wrong when she said that you can’t defeat an uptime opponent. You can alter their past, as surely as you can alter your own. I am beginning to formulate a plan.

The details of it brew in my head as we crawl through the forest in the dark. The sniper has to be watching the retrieval point, our only escape route, limiting the physical area we have to cover.

We move through the forest as quietly and deliberately as we can. Contrary to what most people imagine, a nighttime forest isn’t a quiet place. Gusts of wind rustle the leaves, and all manner of nighttime creatures fill the woods with sounds of life. The sniper does not hear us coming, not until it is too late.

He is lying on the ground behind a fallen tree trunk, his rifle pointed at the retrieval point. He twists around and scrambles for his handgun, but we are already on top of him. Catherine shoots him in the face at nearly point blank range. Our path back home is now cleared.

I know what our next step should be.

We will return to headquarters and, before anyone has a chance to ask questions, begin another incursion. We can go somewhere safe and very remote—I am thinking seventeenth century Polynesia—where we can live out the rest of our lives leaving no trace for the Hourglass Brigade to find. And as we leave the Hourglass HQ forever, we’ll set off our remaining explosive charges.

No ultra-sophisticated computer equipment would mean no more Hourglass Brigade and no more assassins capable of traveling into our past to stop us.

The fact alone that I’m still alive at this point in time means that my plan is going to work. The hardest part is going to be explaining all of it to Catherine. I smile and turn toward her.

Catherine’s pistol is aimed right at me.

“I can’t let you go back.” Her lips tremble and her knuckles are white from squeezing the barrel too tight, but she holds the gun steady. “The man from the future, he told me you were the problem. You are going to do something terrible; bad enough to warrant a hit squad. He said you’d lay waste to Hourglass HQ, if you were permitted to return. He said I could come home, but only without you.”

“No! He lied to you, Catherine. You were the one who began faltering. You were the problem. But we can fix it. I have a plan. We can beat them together, you and I.” Even as I speak these words, I know that her mind is already made up.

I was a master of time, once. Now I stare into Catherine’s impossibly blue eyes, and realize that all I want to do is to prolong this one moment of it, to keep looking at her forever.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers. Her finger tightens on the trigger. “It’s not me. It’s you.”

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Author: Alex Shvartsman
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