The Here and Now

The Here and Now

by Steven Utley

Illustration by Shirley Chan

As Livermore fussed with my straps and electrodes, I looked up into his bland pink face and said, “I’m tired of wars. I think I’ll switch to literary crowds. They have more sex, and the food is better.”

He chuckled softly and turned to attend The Kid, who lay on the gurney next to mine. The time machine—only pompous buttheads ever called it a chronotron, even though it wasn’t a machine to move us through time but one that helped us move ourselves—the time machine clicked, ticked, and hummed. The readout counted off minutes, seconds, and tenths of seconds until the most propitious moment for our departure. The Kid looked around Livermore’s elbow and said, “You nervous?”

I glanced sharply at him. “What makes you think I’m nervous?”

He indicated the ceiling. “You sure look nervous up there.” The time machine’s ceding and walls were shiny metal. I could see my reflection: with all the wires and whatnot, I looked like a retired math teacher who’d wandered into an old Frankenstein movie. The Kid was up there, too, looking young enough (but not handsome enough or smart enough) to be my grandson. He grinned a grin that had a sneer tucked away in one corner. “What’s there to worry about?”

What he really wanted to say, of course, was, What is this old geezer doing here? Livermore moved to the far side of the gurney and pretended to smooth down a piece of tape as he waited to see how I’d deal with the upstart. And what could I say to put The Kid in his place? “I was the first time traveler to take someone back and insert him into another person’s body.” “I helped transform chronopathy from a random phenomenon and a passive experience into something selective, precise, and interactive.” “I helped design the chronotron, you little snotnose.” So I said nothing, and Livermore looked let down.

After several seconds, The Kid said, “It true this’ll be your last go?”

“It sure is.”

“Guess you’re gonna miss it, huh?”

“I hope not.”

He grinned his hateful grin. “Come on. Stuck in the here and now, year after year after year?”

I said, “I don’t expect to have that many years.”

“Still.” The Kid’s grin got sneerier. “What’ll you do for excitement?”

“I’m past the age where excitement’s very exciting.”

“You never know. Gimme a call sometime. I’ll take you way, way back. Let you run with T-rex and the raptors.”

I shook my head. “I’m just going to take it easy. Catch up on some reading, write my memoirs. Maybe sell the movie rights.” War movies were hot.

The readout said, 09:04:6, 09:03:8, 09:02:1.

Avery, my usual partner, had fallen ill the day before, and The Kid had been brought in as a replacement at almost the last moment. I had to take his word for it that he’d been briefed about Avery’s people. He patently felt that he was doing everybody a major favor that could never be fully repaid. Although The Kid was barely old enough to buy his own beer, he was perhaps the most gifted chronopath alive. All human beings are vortices of energy and matter, and chronopathy is probably latent in at least one in a million. Worldwide, active chronopaths number maybe in the low hundreds, and as for individuals with some control over their ability and a real sense of what to do with that ability—well, there are few enough of us so that we’ve always felt special, and yet just enough of us so that we aren’t all that special.

But The Kid really was hot stuff. He could range, at will, farther afield than most of us had dreamed of or would have dared. I was lucky enough to get as far back as the 1900s. And I could take in and insert and bring out only one or two people at a time. The Kid could handle a dozen or more.

If all that weren’t enough, I was old, and The Kid had decades ahead of him.

I pawed around in my mental file, Aphorisms to Zingers, and shored up my forbearance with something from S. Fowler Wright. The reactions of age to the youth that succeeds it are the supreme evidences of character.

Livermore looked at everything one more time, nodded in satisfaction, and went out. The door closed and sealed itself. The readout said, 04:12:4, 03:56:7, 03:04:2…

I paid attention to my breathing and made myself relax. The time machine continued to click, tick, and hum. The readout said, 02:28:7, 02:15:5, 01:47:8. At around 01:00:0, I offered up a prayer for our success and safe return. The Kid snickered softly, but I refused to let him irritate me. At 00:05:0,1 whispered, “Now,” and willed myself away. I seemed to float against the straps, to rise as though there were no straps, higher, higher than the ceiling. I seemed to turn in the air and look down at my own body, which seemed to be experiencing an epileptic seizure. Then—

—then, just like that, I hung suspended and disembodied above the world, looking down through a pall of smoke. The vista’s chief points of interest were conflagrations, bomb craters, the jagged walls of ruined buildings, and streets so choked with mounds of rubble that they resembled ravines in the Badlands. You couldn’t have pointed to an extant roof anywhere. You wouldn’t have been able to tell that the season was spring; everything that wasn’t actually on fire was ashy gray or sooty black. Everything. It was May of 1945, Berlin lay in ruins, the Third Reich twitched in death.

I sensed The Kid somewhere close by, drawing closer. Looks kind of like Richmond in 1865, he said, only a lot more so.

Come on, I told him, and suddenly we were descending, the ground was rushing up at incredible speed—

—and, just like that, I was in my host. He didn’t have time to realize that something untoward had happened to him; I pushed him down into unconsciousness. His body started to sag against a blackened, pitted wall. I made it stop, made it mine. It belonged to one Fritz Mueller, late of a Volkssturm unit that had disintegrated around him or from which he had deserted—the difference hardly mattered now. His body, mid-fiftyish and out-of-shape, ached with fatigue. It had gone too long without any rest, much food, a change of clothing, and a bath. But there’s nothing like war to make a body lose sleep and neglect personal hygiene.

Shards of glass, blown out of every window in sight, crunched underfoot as I stepped away from the wall. I was in a debris-strewn courtyard. The air was full of soot and grit—I tasted the one, ground the other between my host’s molars. I smelled fire, excrement, and decomposition.

Nearby, pieces of broken masonry clattered down the slope of a rubble pile, followed by a ragged man who very nearly impaled himself on a steel rod jutting from the mass. As he lurched to his feet, he gave me a grin that was as much like The Kid’s own as was physiognomically possible. It looked awful on his host’s haggard, dirty, young-old face.

“Take it easy,” I said. “We’re responsible for these bodies.”

He shrugged. “My guy’ll be dead by the end of the day. He gets away from the Russians and everything, but when he stops to catch his breath and rest his feet, a wall falls on top of him.”

“Cutting it pretty close, aren’t you? What if even one of your people is late? What if your host isn’t under that wall when it falls?”

The Kid didn’t bother to answer what both of us knew were stupid questions. Everyone’s movements had been scouted and timed; nobody was going to fail to show up on schedule anywhere. Time doesn’t permit deviations.

From some faraway point came a low keening that quickly rose to a shriek. The sound passed directly over us. A second or two later, there was a loud explosion close by. I had known it was coming, but still I flinched. The noise of the blast had hardly faded before we heard the keening again, and then the shriek, and finally another explosion, farther away.

The Kid gave me a disgusted look. I said, “Problem?”

“You picked the moment and the place. I thought we were supposed to get here after the cease-fire.”

“We have,” I said, and as the disgust in his expression yielded to disbelief, “Some of the Russian artillery units haven’t got the word yet.”

“Either that, or they’re getting in their last licks at the Germans.” He crossed his arms. “So, what, we just wait until they get it out of their systems?”

“Just till they start lobbing shells in another direction. It’ll be a few minutes.”

I sat down on a roughly level slab of concrete. The Kid went through his host’s pockets, produced a single sad-looking unfiltered cigarette, stuck it in his mouth, went through pockets a second time in search of matches. There were none. He said, “Got a light?”

“Those things’re bad for you,” I said idly.

He raised his host’s hand and waggled the fingers—“Not for me”—then stuck the cigarette behind his ear. He found a place to sit across from me, vigorously scratched his head, his leg, his head again, then reached inside his ratty coat and scratched his belly.

Which, of course, made me aware of my own intimate companions. I started to scratch but stopped and listened as another shell whined over. I didn’t move until it had exploded.

“Anybody who worries as much as you do,” said The Kid, “shouldn’t be here.”

I started to tell him that somebody always has to be in charge of worrying, and because it’s my nature to worry, it always falls on me to be that somebody, but then Aphorisms to Zingers spat ou ...