The Commonwealth of Worlds had seen better days. Its final conquest by the Galactic Hegemony was imminent, with only a handful of planets remaining free.
Commonwealth vessels were being launched and destroyed so quickly that the commissioning body was running out of names and was often forced to improvise. Infantry landing ships, for instance, were traditionally named after famous enlisted men. The approved historical figures were long-exhausted, and the criteria had been modified.
So it was that the CWS Maxwell Q. Klinger set down on a nondescript, uninhabited planet well outside the main theaters of combat. Symbolically, it carried within it the hopes of an entire galaxy desperate to throw off the yoke of Hegemony oppression. More tangibly, it carried ten very uncomfortable men, for the Klinger (more of a pod than a true ship) was designed for only six. Its sister vessel, the CWS Gomer Pyle, had suffered catastrophic engine success (in the sense that both engines had engaged properly, but in opposite directions), so Major Wise’s squad had made the best of things.
The planet had sparse vegetation and even sparser animal life. It was riven with crevasses and box canyons that led nowhere. Major Wise and his aide, Lieutenant Kurosawa, stood on a precipice overlooking the terminus of one such canyon, which extended several kilometers before widening into a roughly circular depression.
Four of the men fanned out into their assigned positions; the remaining four piloted the Klinger farther along the canyon in order to assume their own posts.
The planet was nominally controlled by the Hegemony, but as it no longer held strategic importance, the only sign of its “occupation” was a small stone obelisk (upon which Major Wise had very nearly impaled the Klinger).
Lieutenant Kurosawa read aloud from the marker. “May 4, 2368: Here, brave men and women of the Galactic Hegemony captured the Joint Commanders of the savage forces of the Commonwealth of Worlds, turning the tide of the Great War and saving humankind from eternal tyranny.”
“‘Captured!’” spat Wise. “Like a lion ‘captures’ a zebra, they were captured.”
“What’s a zebra?” asked Kurosawa.
Wise ignored the question. He passed Kurosawa a laminated sheet. “Were you briefed?”
“I just got the call an hour ago.” Kurosawa was in for Wyler, whose final service to the Commonwealth had been testing the engines on the Pyle.
“About ten years ago, our Joint Commanders were holed up in an underground safe-house right beneath our feet. The Hegemony got wind, so the Commanders tried to flee. Their escape vessel was in that circular hollow at the other end of the canyon. They never had a chance. The Hegemony fried everything electronic with a localized EMP, then swooped in and crushed them during the confusion. See those mounds of rubble? The Commanders, their staff, and their entire armored caravan are entombed under there.”
“‘03:55, ground transportation commences; light rainfall,’” Kurosawa read. “‘04:00, electromagnetic pulse; all systems disabled. 04:08, torrential rain commences, visibility compromised.’ What is this? Paper?”
“That’s the only record of the battle from our side. It just surfaced. Handwritten by a Sergeant LeRoy, known for carrying a pen, a notebook, and a pocket watch into battle. Along with a serious taste for the old-fashioned, apparently.”
“What’s a pocket watch?” mused Kurosawa.
“This is a precision operation. Everyone’s time device is slaved to mine; we depart simultaneously and arrive in the past at appropriately-spaced intervals to maintain surprise and secure maximum advantage.”
“You don’t trust your own handpicked men not to desert?”
“I’ve no idea of their bravery or cowardice. I selected them for their names.”
“Whimsical, to be sure, Major, but also frivolous, don’t you think?”
“Aronofsky, Bakshi, Carpenter, Dante; these are all historical directors of films.”
“What’s a film?” muttered Wise. “Lieutenant, the positions on my map have alphabetical designations: A, B, C, and so on. How else am I to remember which man goes where without constantly referring to a key?”
This was a logic Kurosawa was ill-armed to combat.
“Huston has a duplicate of my master time device, just in case,” the Major continued. “Him, I trust. His reputation precedes him.”
“This Huston is an exemplary soldier?”
“He has no choice. Half his extended family fights for the Hegemony. If he ever slacked off, we’d probably hang him for a spy. Okay, everyone’s in position. You and I will emerge at 04:05; that’s after the EMP, but before the heavy rain starts. We’ll have a few minutes to look over the terrain.”
When Wise and Kurosawa emerged ten years prior, the wind and rain, in combination with the muddy ground, caught them off guard and they ended up on their backs.
“This is light rain?” Kurosawa scrambled and nearly achieved uprightness, but his feet had other plans and shot out from under him once more. “Where did this Sergeant LeRoy grow up, underwater?”
Wise calmly sat up, ignoring the cold water seeping through his fatigues, and studied the canyon through a pair of binoculars. Along the bottom, the caravan of armored crawlers carrying the Joint Commanders moved slowly and steadily over the rocky terrain toward the escape ship.
“Looks like a line of ants all headed for the same piece of fried chicken.”
“What’s a chicken?” Kurosawa asked absently as he finally got to his feet.
“That’s not right, though. Why are they still moving? It’s 04:07; the EMP went off seven minutes ago.”
“Perhaps someone already came back and prevented it.”
“It would have been nice of them to tell us,” said the Major. “If I find out who’s responsible, there won’t be an epoch remote enough for them to hide in.”
Kurosawa glanced up at the sky. “I wouldn’t worry about that.”
There was a momentary disturbance in the cloud cover. Wise and Kurosawa watched the object, small but unmistakably a missile, shoot straight toward the canyon and impact on the bottom directly in front of the caravan. There was no explosion worthy of the name; merely a wave expanding outward in all directions, detectable mainly by the way it perturbed the rainfall.
They felt nothing as the wave passed through them. In the canyon, the crawlers ground to a halt. Their motors still hummed, but the computers that controlled their hydraulics were now inert.
“That’s not right,” repeated Wise. “Damn that sergeant and his stupid pocket watch. All my tech is shot. Yours?”
“Just a bunch of expensive doorstops and Christmas tree ornaments at this point.”
“What’s a Christmas tree?”
“What do we do now, Major?”
“Hold tight, wait for the others, deal with the situation as it develops. It could be worse; Wyler could be here.”
“The man I replaced? What if he were?”
“He had a pacemaker.” Major Wise indicated the laminated sheet, which Kurosawa still clutched. “What’s next on Sergeant LeRoy’s agenda?”
“‘04:17, approx. five hovertanks attack from western branch canyon, crawlers now permanently disabled, numerous casualties.’”
“What time is it now?”
“No idea. Perhaps you recall the electromagnetic pulse of several minutes ago?”
“I’ve got four men arriving right at 04:17 to take out those tanks: Aronofsky and Bakshi on the near side of the branch canyon, Carpenter and Dante on the far side.”
“‘04:19,’” Kurosawa continued. “‘Some personnel attempting escape via hull breaches; all-terrain troop carriers arrive from near-most eastern branch canyon, initiate barrage of rocket-propelled grenades; avalanches from both sides, escapees killed, remainder, including myself, surely trapped for good.’”
“Eastwood, Fellini, and Guy are scheduled to handle that.”
“‘04:21, troop carrier emerges from far-most eastern branch canyon, approaches escape vessel (surely already neutralized by EMP?); engineers rig vessel for demolition and detonate; all hope for escape gone.’”
“Huston’s set to pick off those engineers from the rim of that depression.”
“‘Know that my allegiance remained true until the end. LeRoy, signing off.’”
Both Wise and Kurosawa found themselves compelled to kneel; not because of the solemnity of LeRoy’s closing sentiment, but because the sergeant’s promised deluge suddenly made itself known. The rain no longer fell in drops, but in great discrete masses of water that lashed at the two men’s backs and gouged furrows in the bare soil.
“I guess it’s 04:08,” Kurosawa remarked dryly (to the extent that he could do anything dryly).
“But it isn’t,” muttered Wise. “Even if LeRoy thinks it is. He’s down there right now, you know. I have half a mind to go haul him out of that crawler myself. Why should the Hegemony have the pleasure of killing him?”
Ahead and to the left, barely visible through the rain, were four brief flashes of light.
“That will be A, B, C, and D,” said Kurosawa. “That makes it 04:17, I guess. But I don’t hear any hovertanks.”
There came several seconds of light and noise, after which the sound of tumbling rocks and subsiding earth was evident even over the sound of the rain.
“Did what I think happened just happen?” asked the Major.
“What?” asked Kurosawa. “That Aronofsky, Bakshi, Carpenter, and Dante, upon emerging here in the past, were disoriented by the heavy rain and unable to confirm the presence of the hovertanks due to the low visibility, and so decided to assume the accuracy of the orders you gave and open fire with their rocket launchers, which in the absence of said hovertanks merely undermined the canyon walls, causing the entire thing to collapse and take them with it? Is that what you think happened?”
“Well, I wouldn’t have been so verbose about it.”
There were three flashes, ahead and to the right this time.
“That’ll be Eastwood, Fellini, and Guy,” observed Kurosawa.
There was a further disturbance of light and noise as the arrivals fired on the position they assumed the Hegemony’s troop carriers to occupy, and, once more, the sound of settling rocks and earth.
“Come on,” raged Major Wise impotently. “Show a little discernment, how about it?”
“Did you order them to show discernment, or to open fire on arrival?”
“You think you’re being helpful, but you’re not,” said the Major. “I’ve been giving orders continuously for twenty-five years; nobody obeys them, and never twice in a row. They had to pick today?”
The faintest of flashes marked the arrival of Huston at the far end. There were no further disturbances at his position.
“Thank the angels for small favors—”
“What’s an angel?” asked Kurosawa.
“—not that it’ll do us any good if we can’t communicate with him.”
Approximately four minutes went by. Kurosawa knew this because he’d been mentally counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” since Huston’s arrival, even though he had no idea what Mississippi was.
Then the attack commenced. It was almost exactly as LeRoy had documented, except that the hovertanks and troop carriers had to negotiate the extra rubble created by the time travelers’ impulsive and ultimately suicidal actions. Wise and Kurosawa could only watch. Their sidearms, though functional, would have been ineffective and served only to give away their location.
The major and the lieutenant retreated out of sight of the canyon. They found no cover, but they did stumble across a slanted boulder against which they could rest upright, thereby lessening, however slightly, the ignominy of their potential deaths.
Despite the fact that they’d barely spent half an hour in the past, both men were exhausted and quickly nodded off, oblivious to the crippling precipitation flogging their unconscious bodies.
Wise awoke to find the rain had ceased. Several yards away, the third surviving member of their contingent stood guard, scanning the horizon.
“Huston, we have a problem,” said Wise as he struggled to his feet.
Huston snapped off a salute. “The Hegemony forces have departed. Are you all right, Major?”
“Good as can be expected.” He nudged the sleeping Kurosawa with his boot. “Look alive, Lieutenant. We have company.”
Kurosawa rose. “You must have had some hike, Huston.”
“A little rappelling, a bit of climbing. I kept my mind busy calculating how much suspicion will fall on me for the failure of this mission.”
“I can’t figure it, Huston. How could every time-stamp be off? And in such a weirdly precise way?”
“I think I’ve solved that, Major,” said Huston. “I have many relatives living and serving under the Hegemony. We don’t speak, of course, but I get a lot of info by osmosis. Did you know, for instance, that the Hegemony uses a twenty-three–hour day?”
“That makes no sense,” said Wise. “Each hour would be—”
“Sixty-two point six minutes,” supplied Kurosawa.
“Sixty-two minutes even, sirs,” said Huston.
“But then there would be—”
“Fourteen minutes left over,” supplied Kurosawa.
“Right,” said Wise. “What do they do, tack them on at the day’s end?”
“They add them to the noon hour,” said Huston. “So they can take longer lunches.”
“What’s the point?” Kurosawa asked.
“That’s revolution for you,” interjected Wise. “Change for change’s sake. You overthrow one government, suddenly it’s ‘metric system’ this and ‘Thermidor’ that.”
“Irrespective of purpose,” said Huston, “it accounts for the discrepancy. LeRoy’s pocket watch was obviously of Hegemony manufacture. Whether he was actually a Hegemony agent, or he just took the watch as a war trophy, who can say?”
“Kurosawa and I came in at 04:05 Commonwealth time—after the EMP, or so we thought. What time was it by LeRoy’s cockamamie watch?”
“03:59 Hegemony time.”
“And the EMP?”
“It came three minutes later, at 04:00 Hegemony time, just as LeRoy noted,” said Huston.
“How is 04:00 three minutes after 03:59?”
“Sixty-two minutes in an hour, sir, remember? 03:59, 03:60, 03:61, 04:00.”
“I didn’t think it was possible to hate the Galactic Hegemony more that I already did,” said Wise.
“We should head back and report in, sirs.” Huston unsnapped a belt pouch and slipped out his time device. “I believe I’m set up to do the honors for all of us.”
“When you’re ready,” said Wise.
“I’m not looking forward to this,” said Huston as he thumbed the switch.
“Huston, wait! We’re not slaved to you anymore because—”
Kurosawa was cut off by the flash of Huston’s departure.
“—our devices are fried,” he finished lamely.
“I really thought he was sharper than that,” said Wise.
“He’ll be back,” said Kurosawa. “Probably in a few seconds; that’s the beauty of time travel.”
“He’s probably not coming,” said Wise an hour later.
“I honestly don’t understand it,” said Kurosawa.
“Don’t you? What would you do if you were a bright young man with the CWS Maxwell Q. Klinger at your disposal and the galaxy’s only functioning time machine in your pocket? You might head to the Hegemony and reconcile with your family, or retire to some more peaceful historical era, or a dozen other things, none of which involve continuing your military career.”
“The only time machine?”
“There were ten of them, until today. It’s brand-new tech. Didn’t you wonder why you’d never heard of time travel before today?”
“I assumed it was classified.”
Wise sighed. “Well, even on a ball of mud like this, there’s something edible. We stay alive until we can leave.”
“But the next ship isn’t due for ten years, and it’s us,” said Kurosawa. “Just thinking about it gives me a headache.”
“Not quite true. Somebody’s coming by to place that commemorative marker. We jump them, take their ship, and go straight to Commonwealth HQ to spill everything we know about the next ten years of the war.”
“It has the feel of a terrible idea,” said Kurosawa, “but for some reason, I can’t think of anything better.”
“Did the marker’s inscription include the date of placement?”
“When was it?”
“I have no idea.”
“I didn’t have a chance to make a rubbing before we left.”
Wise had no retort. He went and sat on the nearby boulder. Kurosawa joined him.
“In the future, Kurosawa, this is my side. Your side’s around back. The less we look at each other, the longer until we hate each other.”
“I suppose you’re not wrong.”
“I could really go for some vodka about now.”
“What’s vodka?” asked Kurosawa. “You know, it’s no wonder humanity’s constantly fighting with itself. No one knows anything; the culture’s too fragmented.”
Wise sighed and massaged his temples. “Vodka is a fish preparation popular where I grew up.”
The sarcasm flew by the lieutenant without stopping. “I bet we could find some fish. All that rainwater must collect somewhere.”
“Feel free, Kurosawa. I’m heading back. The ship carrying that marker might land today. I want to be underneath it if it does.”
©2017 the author — Published electronically at DigitalFictionPub.com. You may link to or share this post with full and proper attribution; however, the author retains the complete and unrestricted copyright to this work. Commercial use or distribution of any kind is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.
* The Can Not in the title is a specific reference to the classic D&D 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide and the unusual spelling therein. The author always thought the irregular spelling was part of the charm…
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