One Shot Week, Part 2: Cassandra

For the second installment of One-Shot Week, here’s a particularly special one-shot.  It started out as a one-off companion piece to a fan novel then in progress, The Rookie.  It was intended as a thoughtful spin on the source backstory, time travel and the apocalypse. Then I incorporated the vignette into the story that became Cyborg Vs. EXOTROOPERS!, the second in the series and the one that really set it up as a franchise in its own right. I also included the short and the full-length story in a collection I currently have available in print as Night of the Yahoo And Other Stories.  Here’s a different version than has appeared elsewhere: A chunk of material from the original that connects directly to the Exotroopers story, but I have included a little additional material from the completed story, which added a philosophical note and seems to confuse people marginally less.  I have always had a soft spot for the original “punchline”, an inside joke about a religious/ pop culture phenomenon that doesn’t seem quite so funny now.

“You’re not officially cleared to see this yet,” said the lieutenant. “But off the record, it’s a tradition to let every new guy in on what’s housed here. There have been leaks over the years. One of the better ones actually inspired a motion picture franchise decades ago. But, we’re confident none have come from our staff.”

“I’ve already heard some of the leaks,” said the corporal. “It was a crazy story about a flying saucer captured from the Nazis, which they built with either help from aliens or from psychic communications with a super race in the future.”

The lieutenant laughed. “That one’s been kicking around for almost a hundred years. Surrendering Nazis did turn over a few specimens, but there wasn’t anything like a vehicle or weapon among them. And the Third Reich certainly didn’t build them.”

He entered a code, and a door worthy of a bank fault opened.

Inside was a corridor, lined with strange objects. Some looked like pieces of human bodies, some like circuitry, and most like strange combinations thereof. The corporal looked curiously at a severed head whose eyes followed them as they walked. He hastened at the sight of a hand whose fingers wiggled at his approach. Thin circuitry was momentarily visible in the pink tubing that protruded from the wrist.

“We know of 213 of these things, and have physical remains of 57,” said the lieutenant. “Almost all appeared between 1928 and 2000. We don’t know if that’s because that period was of special importance, or just because that’s when people with the means to stop them were looking for them. There’s no serious doubt that they come from the future- or, to put it more accurately, futures.

“Where we can identify a time and place of arrival, witnesses consistently report meteors, ball lightning or `UFOs’- presumably how the alien stories got started. Where we can investigate an undisturbed scene, we find fires and tektites- sand fused into glass by lightning- and sometimes a dish-shaped depression. Once, we found the remains of something like a spherical cage, capable of holding someone in a fetal position. The working components self-destructed, probably as soon as the occupant exited. We don’t think it would have worked in any event; whatever technology is involved seems to require a much larger apparatus that remains in the time of origin, which is what the people actually trying to build a time machine are talking about. We thus refer to our specimens as castaways.

“As far as we can tell, they all arrive naked and unarmed. It was thought at one time that only living tissue, or an object encased in living tissue, could be temporally displaced. That was disproved decades ago. Our best guess at this point is that it’s a matter of blending in. It appears that the senders have poor control over the exact time and place of arrival, and may have limited information about the past in any event. Under the circumstances, being seen in nothing at all would raise less suspicion than wearing clothes from the wrong time period. As for technology, no weapon has ever been built that doesn’t need spare parts or ammo sooner or later, and there’s no reason to think those of the future are any different.”

The corporal’s eyes widened. “If we had this, before 1950… How much technology has been developed from these machines?”

The lieutenant scowled. “Nothing of importance. The need for security limits how often we can bring in qualified specialists to examine the specimens, and when we do, it never does any good. The first of them is supposed to have said, `We don’t have the tools to make the tools.’ What we have learned since is that it would be more accurate to say that we don’t have the materials to make the tools to make the materials.’ The only times they have helped is when they recognized something they had just worked out for themselves.”

He walked back to the severed head. “The main reason we give these tours is to keep anyone from being taken offguard by something like this. There are three specimens here which are sufficiently functional to communicate with us. What is remarkable is that they, along every single other castaway known to have communicated intelligibly, all say something like this.” He looked down at the head. Its eyes rose to look at him. “Specimen 23, meet Cpl. Johnson. Why don’t you tell him what you told the rest of us about Judgement Day.”

“A third of humanity will die, and two-thirds of the ground will be uninhabitable for seven generations times seven,” the head spoke in a sibilant tone. “Fires will make the nights as bright as day, and smoke will make the day as dark as night. Then a new city will descend to the Earth, and all men will come to worship their king, or be destroyed…”

The lieutenant said, kindly but condescendingly: “And when will Judgement Day occur?”

“September 11,” said the head, “1988.”

“The way we figure, a castaway begins changing the shape of history as soon as it arrives,” said the lieutenant. “By the time one gets a chance to kill its victim, things are so different that its mission is no longer important. And whatever it thinks will happen, what did happen in the timeline it came from, is certain not to happen. Remember that, and you will be fine.”

The corporal frowned. “But, if they all speak of judgment day, no matter how different their histories are… might that mean it’s inevitable, in any history? Or that it keeps happening because no one believes it will?”

“Well, I figure, if it’s already failed to happen hundreds of times over, then the odds are it never will.” As the door closed, the lieutenant turned to the corporal, who would one day be a lieutenant who gave the same tour to another corporal, and concluded, “Besides- if it is inevitable, what are we going to do about it?”

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