Legions In Time

by Michael Swanwick

Eleanor Voigt had the oddest job of anyone she knew. She worked eight hours a day in an office where no business was done. Her job was to sit at a desk and stare at the closet door. There was a button on the desk that she was to push if anybody came out that door. There was a big clock on the wall, and, precisely at noon, once a day, she went over to the door and unlocked it with a key she had been given. Inside was an empty closet. There were no trap doors or secret panels in it–she had looked. It was just an empty closet.

If she noticed anything unusual, she was supposed to go back to her desk and press the button.

Unusual in what way? she’d asked when she’d been hired. I don’t understand. What am I looking for?

You’ll know it when you see it, Mr. Tarblecko had said in that odd accent of his. Mr. Tarblecko was her employer, and some kind of foreigner. He was the creepiest thing imaginable. He had pasty white skin and no hair at all on his head, so that when he took his hat off, he looked like some species of mushroom. His ears were small and almost pointed. Ellie thought he might have some kind of disease. But he paid two dollars an hour, which was good money nowadays for a woman of her age.

At the end of her shift, she was relieved by an unkempt young man who had once blurted out to her that he was a poet. When she came in, in the morning, a heavy Negress would stand up wordlessly, take her coat and hat from the rack, and, with enormous dignity, leave.

So all day Ellie sat behind the desk with nothing to do. She wasn’t allowed to read a book, for fear she might get so involved in it that she would stop watching the door. Crosswords were allowed, because they weren’t as engrossing. She got a lot of knitting done, and was considering taking up tatting.

Over time, the door began to loom large in her imagination. She pictured herself unlocking it at some forbidden not-noon time and seeing–what? Her imagination failed her. No matter how vividly she visualized it, the door would open onto something mundane. Brooms and mops. Sports equipment. Galoshes and old clothes. What else would there be in a closet? What else could there be?

Sometimes, caught up in her imaginings, she would find herself on her feet. Sometimes, she walked to the door. Once, she actually put her hand on the knob before drawing away. But always the thought of losing her job stopped her.

It was maddening.


Twice, Mr. Tarblecko had come to the office while she was on duty. Each time, he was wearing that same black suit with that same narrow black tie. You have a watch? he’d asked.

Yes, sir. The first time, she’d held forth her wrist to show it to him. The disdainful way he ignored the gesture ensured she did not repeat it on his second visit.

Go away. Come back in forty minutes.

So she had gone out to a little tearoom nearby. She had a bag lunch back in her desk, with a baloney-and-mayonnaise sandwich and an apple, but she’d been so flustered she’d forgotten it, and then feared to go back after it. She’d treated herself to a dainty lady lunch that she was in no mood to appreciate, left a dime tip for the waitress, and was back in front of the office door exactly thirty-eight minutes after she’d left.

At forty minutes, exactly, she reached for the door.

As if he’d been waiting for her to do so, Mr. Tarblecko breezed through the door, putting on his hat. He didn’t acknowledge her promptness or her presence. He just strode briskly past, as though she didn’t exist.

Stunned, she went inside, closed the door, and returned to her desk.

She realized then that Mr. Tarblecko was genuinely, fabulously rich. He had the arrogance of those who are so wealthy that they inevitably get their way in all small matters because there’s always somebody there to arrange things that way. His type was never grateful for anything and never bothered to be polite, because it never even occurred to them that things could be otherwise.

The more she thought about it, the madder she got. She was no Bolshevik, but it seemed to her that people had certain rights, and that one of these was the right to a little common courtesy. It diminished one to be treated like a stick of furniture. It was degrading. She was damned if she was going to take it.

Six months went by.

The door opened and Mr. Tarblecko strode in, as if he’d left only minutes ago. You have a watch?

Ellie slid open a drawer and dropped her knitting into it. She opened another and took out her bag lunch. Yes.

Go away. Come back in forty minutes.

So she went outside. It was May, and Central Park was only a short walk away, so she ate there, by the little pond where children floated their toy sailboats. But all the while she fumed. She was a good employee–she really was! She was conscientious, punctual, and she never called in sick. Mr. Tarblecko ought to appreciate that. He had no business treating her the way he did.

Almost, she wanted to overstay lunch, but her conscience wouldn’t allow that. When she got back to the office, precisely thirty-nine and a half minutes after she’d left, she planted herself squarely in front of the door so that when Mr. Tarblecko left he would have no choice but to confront her. It might well lose her her job, but … well, if it did, it did. That’s how strongly she felt about it.

Thirty seconds later, the door opened and Mr. Tarblecko strode briskly out. Without breaking his stride, or, indeed, showing the least sign of emotion, he picked her up by her two arms, swiveled effortlessly, and deposited her to the side.

Then he was gone. Ellie heard his footsteps dwindling down the hall.

The nerve! The sheer, raw gall of the man!

Ellie went back in the office, but she couldn’t make herself sit down at the desk. She was far too upset. Instead, she walked back and forth the length of the room, arguing with herself, saying aloud those things she should have said and would have said if only Mr. Tarblecko had stood still for them. To be picked up and set aside like that … well, it was really quite upsetting. It was intolerable.

What was particularly distressing was that there wasn’t even any way to make her displeasure known.

At last, though, she calmed down enough to think clearly, and realized that she was wrong. There was something–something more symbolic than substantive, admittedly–that she could do.

She could open that door.


Ellie did not act on impulse. She was a methodical woman. So she thought the matter through before she did anything. Mr. Tarblecko very rarely showed up at the office–only twice in all the time she’d been here, and she’d been here over a year. Moreover, the odds of him returning to the office a third time only minutes after leaving it were negligible. He had left nothing behind–she could see that at a glance; the office was almost Spartan in its emptiness. Nor was there any work here for him to return to.

Just to be safe, though, she locked the office door. Then she got her chair out from behind the desk and chocked it up under the doorknob, so that even if somebody had a key, he couldn’t get in. She put her ear to the door and listened for noises in the hall.

Nothing.

It was strange how, now that she had decided to do the deed, time seemed to slow and the office to expand. It took forever to cross the vast expanses of empty space between her and the closet door. Her hand reaching for its knob pushed through air as thick as molasses. Her fingers closed about it, one by one, and in the time it took for them to do so, there was room enough for a hundred second thoughts. Faintly, she heard the sound of … machinery? A low humming noise.

She placed the key in the lock, and opened the door.

There stood Mr. Tarblecko.

Ellie shrieked, and staggered backward. One of her heels hit the floor wrong, and her ankle twisted, and she almost fell. Her heart was hammering so furiously her chest hurt.

Mr. Tarblecko glared at her from within the closet. His face was as white as a sheet of paper. One rule, he said coldly, tonelessly. You had only one rule, and you broke it. He stepped out. You are a very bad slave.

I … I … I … Ellie found herself gasping from the shock. I’m not a slave at all!

There is where you are wrong, Eleanor Voigt. There is where you are very wrong indeed, said Mr. Tarblecko. Open the window.

Ellie went to the window and pulled up the blinds. There was a little cactus in a pot on the windowsill. She moved it to her desk. Then she opened the window. It stuck a little, so she had to put all her strength into it. The lower sash went up slowly at first and then, with a rush, slammed to the top. A light, fresh breeze touched her.

Climb onto the windowsill.

I most certainly will– not, she was going to say. But to her complete astonishment, she found herself climbing up onto the sill. She could not help herself. It was as if her will were not her own.

Sit down with your feet outside the window.

It was like a hideous nightmare, the kind that you know can’t be real and struggle to awaken from, but cannot. Her body did exactly as it was told to do. She had absolutely no control over it.

Do not jump until I tell you to do so.

Are you going to tell me to jump? she asked quaveringly. Oh, please, Mr. Tarblecko …

Now look down.

The office was on the ninth floor. Ellie was a lifelong New Yorker, so that had never seemed to her a particularly great height before. Now it did. The people on the sidewalk were as small as ants. The buses and automobiles on the street were the size of matchboxes. The sounds of horns and engines drifted up to her, and birdsong as well, the lazy background noises of a spring day in the city. The ground was so terribly far away! And there was nothing between her and it but air! Nothing holding her back from death but her fingers desperately clutching the window frame!

Ellie could feel all the world’s gravity willing her toward the distant concrete. She was dizzy with vertigo and a sick, stomach-tugging urge to simply let go and, briefly, fly. She squeezed her eyes shut tight, and felt hot tears streaming down her face.

She could tell from Mr. Tarblecko’s voice that he was standing right behind her. If I told you to jump, Eleanor Voigt, would you do so?

Yes, she squeaked.

What kind of person jumps to her death simply because she’s been told to do so?

A … a slave!

Then what are you?

A slave! A slave! I’m a slave! She was weeping openly now, as much from humiliation as from fear. I don’t want to die! I’ll be your slave, anything, whatever you say!

If you’re a slave, then what kind of slave should you be?

A … a … good slave.

Come back inside.

Gratefully, she twisted around, and climbed back into the office. Her knees buckled when she tried to stand, and she had to grab at the windowsill to keep from falling. Mr. Tarblecko stared at her, sternly and steadily.

You have been given your only warning, he said. If you disobey again–or if you ever try to quit–I will order you out the window.

He walked into the closet and closed the door behind him.


There were two hours left on her shift–time enough, barely, to compose herself. When the disheveled young poet showed up, she dropped her key in her purse and walked past him without so much as a glance. Then she went straight to the nearest hotel bar, and ordered a gin and tonic.

She had a lot of thinking to do.

Eleanor Voigt was not without resources. She had been an executive secretary before meeting her late husband, and everyone knew that a good executive secretary effectively runs her boss’s business for him. Before the Crash, she had run a household with three servants. She had entertained. Some of her parties had required weeks of planning and preparation. If it weren’t for the Depression, she was sure she’d be in a much better-paid position than the one she held.

She was not going to be a slave.

But before she could find a way out of her predicament, she had to understand it. First, the closet. Mr. Tarblecko had left the office and then, minutes later, popped up inside it. A hidden passage of some kind? No–that was simultaneously too complicated and not complicated enough. She had heard machinery, just before she opened the door. So … some kind of transportation device, then. Something that a day ago she would have sworn couldn’t exist. A teleporter, perhaps, or a time machine.

The more she thought of it, the better she liked the thought of the time machine. It was not just that teleporters were the stuff of Sunday funnies and Buck Rogers serials, while The Time Machine was a distinguished philosophical work by Mr. H.G. Wells. Though she had to admit that figured in there. But a teleportation device required a twin somewhere, and Mr. Tarblecko hadn’t had the time even to leave the building.

A time machine, however, would explain so much! Her employer’s long absences. The necessity that the device be watched when not in use, lest it be employed by Someone Else. Mr. Tarblecko’s abrupt appearance today, and his possession of a coercive power that no human being on Earth had.

The fact that she could no longer think of Mr. Tarblecko as human.

She had barely touched her drink, but now she found herself too impatient to finish it. She slapped a dollar bill down on the bar and, without waiting for her change, left.

During the time it took to walk the block and a half to the office building and ride the elevator up to the ninth floor, Ellie made her plans. She strode briskly down the hallway and opened the door without knocking. The unkempt young man looked up, startled, from a scribbled sheet of paper.

You have a watch?

Y-yes, but … Mr. Tarblecko …

Get out. Come back in forty minutes.

With grim satisfaction, she watched the young man cram his key into one pocket and the sheet of paper into another and leave. Good slave, she thought to herself. Perhaps he’d already been through the little charade Mr. Tarblecko had just played on her. Doubtless every employee underwent ritual enslavement as a way of keeping them in line. The problem with having slaves, however, was that they couldn’t be expected to display any initiative…. Not on the master’s behalf, anyway.

Ellie opened her purse and got out the key. She walked to the closet.

For an instant, she hesitated. Was she really sure enough to risk her life? But the logic was unassailable. She had been given no second chance. If Mr. Tarblecko knew she was about to open the door a second time, he would simply have ordered her out the window on her first offense. The fact that he hadn’t meant that he didn’t know.

She took a deep breath and opened the door.

There was a world inside.


For what seemed like forever, Ellie stood staring at the bleak metropolis so completely unlike New York City. Its buildings were taller than any she had ever seen–miles high!–and interlaced with skywalks, like those in Metropolis. But the buildings in the movie had been breathtaking, and these were the opposite of beautiful. They were ugly as sin: windowless, grey, stained, and discolored. There were monotonous lines of harsh lights along every street, and under their glare trudged men and women as uniform and lifeless as robots. Outside the office, it was a beautiful bright day. But on the other side of the closet, the world was dark as night.

And it was snowing.

Gingerly, she stepped into the closet. The instant her foot touched the floor, it seemed to expand to all sides. She stood at the center of a great wheel of doors, with all but two of them–to her office and to the winter world–shut. There were hooks beside each door, and hanging from them were costumes of a hundred different cultures. She thought she recognized togas, Victorian opera dress, kimonos…. But most of the clothing was unfamiliar.

Beside the door into winter, there was a long cape. Ellie wrapped it around herself, and discovered a knob on the inside. She twisted it to the right, and suddenly the coat was hot as hot. Quickly, she twisted the knob to the left, and it grew cold. She fiddled with the thing until the cape felt just right. Then she straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath, and stepped out into the forbidding city.

There was a slight electric sizzle, and she was standing in the street.

Ellie spun around to see what was behind her: a rectangle of some glassy black material. She rapped it with her knuckles. It was solid. But when she brought her key near its surface, it shimmered and opened into that strange space between worlds again.

So she had a way back home.

To either side of her rectangle were identical glassy rectangles faceted slightly away from it. They were the exterior of an enormous kiosk, or perhaps a very low building, at the center of a large, featureless square. She walked all the way around it, rapping each rectangle with her key. Only the one would open for her.

The first thing to do was to find out where–or, rather, when–she was. Ellie stepped in front of one of the hunched, slow-walking men. Excuse me, sir, could you answer a few questions for me?

The man raised a face that was utterly bleak and without hope. A ring of grey metal glinted from his neck. Hawrzat dagtiknut? he asked.

Ellie stepped back in horror, and, like a wind-up toy temporarily halted by a hand or a foot, the man resumed his plodding gait.

She cursed herself. Of course language would have changed in the however-many-centuries future she found herself in. Well … that was going to make gathering information more difficult. But she was used to difficult tasks. The evening of James’s suicide, she had been the one to clean the walls and the floor. After that, she’d known that she was capable of doing anything she set her mind to.

Above all, it was important that she not get lost. She scanned the square with the doorways in time at its center–mentally, she dubbed it Times Square–and chose at random one of the broad avenues converging on it. That, she decided would be Broadway.

Ellie started down Broadway, watching everybody and everything. Some of the drone-folk were dragging sledges with complex machinery on them. Others were hunched under soft translucent bags filled with murky fluid and vague biomorphic shapes. The air smelled bad, but in ways she was not familiar with.

She had gotten perhaps three blocks when the sirens went off–great piercing blasts of noise that assailed the ears and echoed from the building walls. All the streetlights flashed off and on and off again in a one-two rhythm. From unseen loudspeakers, an authoritative voice blared, Akgang! Akgang! Kronzvarbrakar! Zawzawkstrag! Akgang! Akgang….

Without hurry, the people in the street began turning away, touching their hands to dull grey plates beside nondescript doors and disappearing into the buildings.

Oh, cripes! Ellie muttered. She’d best–

There was a disturbance behind her. Ellie turned and saw the strangest thing yet.

It was a girl of eighteen or nineteen, wearing summer clothes–a man’s trousers, a short-sleeved flower-print blouse–and she was running down the street in a panic. She grabbed at the uncaring drones, begging for help. Please! she cried. Can’t you help me? Somebody! Please … you have to help me! Puffs of steam came from her mouth with each breath. Once or twice she made a sudden dart for one of the doorways and slapped her hand on the greasy plates. But the doors would not open for her.

Now the girl had reached Ellie. In a voice that expected nothing, she said, Please?

I’ll help you, dear, Ellie said.

The girl shrieked, then convulsively hugged her. Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, she babbled.

Follow close behind me. Ellie strode up behind one of the lifeless un-men and, just after he had slapped his hand on the plate, but before he could enter, grabbed his rough tunic and gave it a yank. He turned.

Vamoose! she said in her sternest voice, and jerked a thumb over her shoulder.

The un-man turned away. He might not understand the word, but the tone and the gesture sufficed.

Ellie stepped inside, pulling the girl after her. The door closed behind them.

Wow, said the girl wonderingly. How did you do that?

This is a slave culture. For a slave to survive, he’s got to obey anyone who acts like a master. It’s that simple. Now, what’s your name and how did you get here? As she spoke, Ellie took in her surroundings. The room they were in was dim, grimy–and vast. So far as she could see, there were no interior walls, only the occasional pillar, and, here and there, a set of functional metal stairs without railings.

Nadine Shepard. I … I … There was a door! And I walked through it and I found myself here! I …

The child was close to hysteria. I know, dear. Tell me, when are you from?

Chicago. On the North Side, near …

Not where, dear, when? What year is it?

Uh … two thousand and four. Isn’t it?

Not here. Not now. The grey people were everywhere, moving sluggishly, yet always keeping within sets of yellow lines painted on the concrete floor. Their smell was pervasive, and far from pleasant. Still …

Ellie stepped directly into the path of one of the sad creatures, a woman. When she stopped, Ellie took the tunic from her shoulders and then stepped back. Without so much as an expression of annoyance, the woman resumed her plodding walk.

Here you are. She handed the tunic to young Nadine. Put this on, dear, you must be freezing. Your skin is positively blue. And, indeed, it was not much warmer inside than it had been outdoors. I’m Eleanor Voigt. Mrs. James Voigt.

Shivering, Nadine donned the rough garment. But instead of thanking Ellie, she said, You look familiar.

Ellie returned her gaze. She was a pretty enough creature though, strangely, she wore no makeup at all. Her features were regular, intelligent–You look familiar too. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but …

Okay, Nadine said, now tell me. Please. Where and when am I, and what’s going on?

I honestly don’t know, Ellie said. Dimly, through the walls, she could hear the sirens and the loudspeaker-voice. If only it weren’t so murky in here! She couldn’t get any clear idea of the building’s layout or function.

But you must know! You’re so … so capable, so in control. You …

I’m a castaway like you, dear. Just figuring things out as I go along. She continued to peer. But I can tell you this much: We are far, far in the future. The poor degraded beings you saw on the street are the slaves of a superior race–let’s call them the Aftermen. The Aftermen are very cruel, and they can travel through time as easily as you or I can travel from city to city via inter-urban rail. And that’s all I know. So far.

Nadine was peering out a little slot in the door that Ellie hadn’t noticed. Now she said, What’s this?

Ellie took her place at the slot, and saw a great bulbous street-filling machine pull to a halt a block from the building. Insectoid creatures that might be robots or might be men in body armor poured out of it, and swarmed down the street, examining every door. The sirens and the loudspeakers cut off. The streetlights returned to normal. It’s time we left, Ellie said.

An enormous artificial voice shook the building. Akbang! Akbang! Zawzawksbild! Alzowt! Zawzawksbild! Akbang!

Quickly!

She seized Nadine’s hand, and they were running.

Without emotion, the grey folk turned from their prior courses and unhurriedly made for the exits.

Ellie and Nadine tried to stay off the walkways entirely. But the air began to tingle, more on the side away from the walkways than the side toward, and then to burn and then to sting. They were quickly forced between the yellow lines. At first they were able to push their way past the drones, and then to shoulder their way through their numbers. But more and more came dead-stepping their way down the metal stairways. More and more descended from the upper levels via lifts that abruptly descended from the ceiling to disgorge them by the hundreds. More and more flowed outward from the building’s dim interior.

Passage against the current of flesh became first difficult, and then impossible. They were swept backward, helpless as corks in a rain-swollen river. Outward they were forced and through the exit into the street.

The police were waiting there.

At the sight of Ellie and Nadine–they could not have been difficult to discern among the uniform drabness of the others–two of the armored figures stepped forward with long poles and brought them down on the women.

Ellie raised her arm to block the pole, and it landed solidly on her wrist.

Horrid, searing pain shot through her, greater than anything she had ever experienced before. For a giddy instant, Ellie felt a strange elevated sense of being, and she thought, If I can put up with this, I can endure anything. Then the world went away.


Ellie came to in a jail cell.

At least, that’s what she thought it was. The room was small, square, and doorless. A featureless ceiling gave off a drab, even light. A bench ran around the perimeter, and there was a hole in the middle of the room whose stench advertised its purpose.

She sat up.

On the bench across from her, Nadine was weeping silently into her hands.

So her brave little adventure had ended. She had rebelled against Mr. Tarblecko’s tyranny and come to the same end that awaited most rebels. It was her own foolish fault. She had acted without sufficient forethought, without adequate planning, without scouting out the opposition and gathering information first. She had gone up against a Power that could range effortlessly across time and space, armed only with a pocket handkerchief and a spare set of glasses, and inevitably that Power had swatted her down with a contemptuous minimum of their awesome force.

They hadn’t even bothered to take away her purse.

Ellie dug through it, found a cellophane-wrapped hard candy, and popped it into her mouth. She sucked on it joylessly. All hope whatsoever was gone from her.

Still, even when one has no hope, one’s obligations remain. Are you all right, Nadine? she forced herself to ask. Is there anything I can do to help?

Nadine lifted her tear-stained face. I just went through a door, she said. That’s all. I didn’t do anything bad or wrong or … or anything. And now I’m here! Fury blazed up in her. Damn you, damn you, damn you!

Me? Ellie said, astonished.

You! You shouldn’t have let them get us. You should’ve taken us to some hiding place, and then gotten us back home. But you didn’t. You’re a stupid, useless old woman!

It was all Ellie could do to keep from smacking the young lady. But Nadine was practically a child, she told herself, and it didn’t seem as if they raised girls to have much gumption in the year 2004. They were probably weak and spoiled people, up there in the twenty-first century, who had robots to do all their work for them, and nothing to do but sit around and listen to the radio all day. So she held not only her hand, but her tongue. Don’t worry, dear, she said soothingly. We’ll get out of this. Somehow.

Nadine stared at her bleakly, disbelievingly. How? she demanded.

But to this Ellie had no answer.


Time passed. Hours, by Ellie’s estimation, and perhaps many hours. And with its passage, she found herself, more out of boredom than from the belief that it would be of any use whatsoever, looking at the situation analytically again.

How had the Aftermen tracked her down?

Some sort of device on the time-door might perhaps warn them that an unauthorized person had passed through. But the police had located her so swiftly and surely! They had clearly known exactly where she was. Their machine had come straight toward the building they’d entered. The floods of non-men had flushed her right out into their arms.

So it was something about her, or on her, that had brought the Aftermen so quickly.

Ellie looked at her purse with new suspicion. She dumped its contents on the ledge beside her, and pawed through them, looking for the guilty culprit. A few hard candies, a lace hankie, half a pack of cigarettes, fountain pen, glasses case, bottle of aspirin, house key … and the key to the time closet. The only thing in all she owned that had come to her direct from Mr. Tarblecko. She snatched it up.

It looked ordinary enough. Ellie rubbed it, sniffed it, touched it gently to her tongue.

It tasted sour.

Sour, the way a small battery tasted if you touched your tongue to it. There was a faint trickle of electricity coming from the thing. It was clearly no ordinary key.

She pushed her glasses up on her forehead, held the thing to her eye, and squinted. It looked exactly like a common everyday key. Almost. It had no manufacturer’s name on it, and that was unexpected, given that the key looked new and unworn. The top part of it was covered with irregular geometric decorations.

Or were they decorations?

She looked up to see Nadine studying her steadily, unblinkingly, like a cat. Nadine, honey, your eyes are younger than mine–would you take a look at this? Are those tiny … switches on this thing?

What? Nadine accepted the key from her, examined it, poked at it with one nail.

Flash.

When Ellie stopped blinking and could see again, one wall of their cell had disappeared.

Nadine stepped to the very edge of the cell, peering outward. A cold wind whipped bitter flakes of snow about her. Look! she cried. Then, when Ellie stood beside her to see what she saw, Nadine wrapped her arms about the older woman and stepped out into the abyss.

Ellie screamed.


The two women piloted the police vehicle up Broadway, toward Times Square. Though a multiplicity of instruments surrounded the windshield, the controls were simplicity itself: a single stick that, when pushed forward, accelerated the vehicle, and, when pushed to either side, turned it. Apparently, the police did not need to be particularly smart. Neither the steering mechanism nor the doors had any locks on them, so far as Ellie could tell. Apparently, the drone-men had so little initiative that locks weren’t required. Which would help explain how she and Nadine had escaped so easily.

How did you know this vehicle was beneath us? Ellie asked. How did you know we’d be able to drive it? I almost had a heart attack when you pushed me out on top of it.

Way rad, wasn’t it? Straight out of a Hong Kong video. Nadine grinned. Just call me Michelle Yeoh.

If you say so. She was beginning to rethink her hasty judgment of the lass. Apparently the people of 2004 weren’t quite the shrinking violets she’d made them out to be.

With a flicker and a hum, a square sheet of glass below the windshield came to life. Little white dots of light danced, jittered, and coalesced to form a face.

It was Mr. Tarblecko.

Time criminals of the Dawn Era, his voice thundered from a hidden speaker. Listen and obey.

Ellie shrieked, and threw her purse over the visi-plate. Don’t listen to him! she ordered Nadine. See if you can find a way of turning this thing off !

Bring the stolen vehicle to a complete halt immediately!

To her horror, if not her surprise, Ellie found herself pulling the steering-bar back, slowing the police car to a stop. But then Nadine, in blind obedience to Mr. Tarblecko’s compulsive voice, grabbed for the bar as well. Simultaneously, she stumbled, and, with a little eep noise, lurched against the bar, pushing it sideways.

The vehicle slewed to one side, smashed into a building wall, and toppled over.

Then Nadine had the roof-hatch open and was pulling her through it. C’mon! she shouted. I can see the black doorway-thingie–the, you know, place!

Following, Ellie had to wonder about the educational standards of the year 2004. The young lady didn’t seem to have a very firm grasp on the English language.

Then they had reached Times Square and the circle of doorways at its center. The street lights were flashing and loudspeakers were shouting Akbang! Akbang! and police vehicles were converging upon them from every direction, but there was still time. Ellie tapped the nearest doorway with her key. Nothing. The next. Nothing. Then she was running around the building, scraping the key against each doorway, and … there it was!

She seized Nadine’s hand, and they plunged through.

The space inside expanded in a great wheel to all sides. Ellie spun about. There were doors everywhere–and all of them closed. She had not the faintest idea which one led back to her own New York City.

Wait, though! There were costumes appropriate to each time hanging by their doors. If she just went down them until she found a business suit …

Nadine gripped her arm. Oh, my God!

Ellie turned, looked, saw. A doorway–the one they had come through, obviously–had opened behind them. In it stood Mr. Tarblecko. Or, to be more precise, three Mr. Tarbleckos. They were all as identical as peas in a pod. She had no way of knowing which one, if any, was hers.

Through here! Quick! Nadine shrieked. She’d snatched open the nearest door.

Together, they fled.


Oolohstullalu ashulalumoota! a woman sang out. She wore a jumpsuit and carried a clipboard, which she thrust into Ellie’s face. Oolalulaswula ulalulin.

I … I don’t understand what you’re saying, Ellie faltered. They stood on the green lawn of a gentle slope that led down to the ocean. Down by the beach, enormous construction machines, operated by both men and women (women! of all the astonishing sights she had seen, this was strangest), were rearing an enormous, enigmatic structure, reminiscent to Ellie’s eye of Sunday school illustrations of the Tower of Babel. Gentle tropical breezes stirred her hair.

Dawn Era, Amerlingo, the clipboard said. Exact period uncertain. Answer these questions. Gas–for lights or for cars?

For cars, mostly. Although there are still a few–

Apples–for eating or computing?

Eating, Ellie said, while simultaneously Nadine said, Both.

Scopes–for dreaming or for resurrecting?

Neither woman said anything.

The clipboard chirped in a satisfied way. Early Atomic Age, pre- and post-Hiroshima, one each. You will experience a moment’s discomfort. Do not be alarmed. It is for your own good.

Please. Ellie turned from the woman to the clipboard and back, uncertain which to address. What’s going on? Where are we? We have so many–

There’s no time for questions, the woman said impatiently. Her accent was unlike anything Ellie had ever heard before. You must undergo indoctrination, loyalty imprinting, and chronomilitary training immediately. We need all the time-warriors we can get. This base is going to be destroyed in the morning.

What? I …

Hand me your key.

Without thinking, Ellie gave the thing to the woman. Then a black nausea overcame her. She swayed, fell, and was unconscious before she hit the ground.


Would you like some heroin?

The man sitting opposite her had a face that was covered with blackwork tattoo eels. He grinned, showing teeth that had all been filed to a point.

I beg your pardon? Ellie was not at all certain where she was, or how she had gotten here. Nor did she comprehend how she could have understood this alarming fellow’s words, for he most certainly had not been speaking English.

Heroin. He thrust the open metal box of white powder at her. Do you want a snort?

No, thank you. Ellie spoke carefully, trying not to give offense. I find that it gives me spots.

With a disgusted noise, the man turned away.

Then the young woman sitting beside her said in a puzzled way, Don’t I know you?

She turned. It was Nadine. Well, my dear, I should certainly hope you haven’t forgotten me so soon.

Mrs. Voigt? Nadine said wonderingly. But you’re … you’re … young!

Involuntarily, Ellie’s hands went up to her face. The skin was taut and smooth. The incipient softening of her chin was gone. Her hair, when she brushed her hands through it, was sleek and full.

She found herself desperately wishing she had a mirror.

They must have done something. While I was asleep. She lightly touched her temples, the skin around her eyes. I’m not wearing any glasses! I can see perfectly! She looked around her. The room she was in was even more Spartan than the jail cell had been. There were two metal benches facing each other, and on them sat as motley a collection of men and women as she had ever seen. There was a woman who must have weighed three hundred pounds–and every ounce of it muscle. Beside her sat an albino lad so slight and elfin he hardly seemed there at all. Until, that is, one looked at his clever face and burning eyes. Then one knew him to be easily the most dangerous person in the room. As for the others, well, none of them had horns or tails, but that was about it.

The elf leaned forward. Dawn Era, aren’t you? he said. If you survive this, you’ll have to tell me how you got here.

I–

They want you to think you’re as good as dead already. Don’t believe them! I wouldn’t have signed up in the first place, if I hadn’t come back afterward and told myself I’d come through it all intact. He winked and settled back. The situation is hopeless, of course. But I wouldn’t take it seriously.

Ellie blinked. Was everybody mad here?

In that same instant, a visi-plate very much like the one in the police car lowered from the ceiling, and a woman appeared on it. Hero mercenaries, she said, I salute you! As you already know, we are at the very front lines of the War. The Aftermen Empire has been slowly, inexorably moving backward into their past, our present, a year at time. So far, the Optimized Rationality of True Men has lost five thousand three hundred and fourteen years to their onslaught. Her eyes blazed. That advance ends here! That advance ends now! We have lost so far because, living down-time from the Aftermen, we cannot obtain a technological superiority to them. Every weapon we invent passes effortlessly into their hands.

So we are going to fight and defeat them, not with technology but with the one quality that, not being human, they lack–human character! Our researches into the far past have shown that superior technology can be defeated by raw courage and sheer numbers. One man with a sunstroker can be overwhelmed by savages equipped with nothing more than neutron bombs–if there are enough of them, and they don’t mind dying! An army with energy guns can be destroyed by rocks and sticks and determination.

In a minute, your transporter and a million more like it will arrive at staging areas afloat in null-time. You will don respirators and disembark. There you will find the time-torpedoes. Each one requires two operators–a pilot and a button-pusher. The pilot will bring you in as close as possible to the Aftermen time-dreadnoughts. The button-pusher will then set off the chronomordant explosives.

This is madness, Ellie thought. I’ll do no such thing. Simultaneous with the thought came the realization that she had the complex skills needed to serve as either pilot or button-pusher. They must have been given to her at the same time she had been made young again and her eyesight improved.

Not one in a thousand of you will live to make it anywhere near the time-dreadnoughts. But those few who do will justify the sacrifices of the rest. For with your deaths, you will be preserving humanity from enslavement and destruction! Martyrs, I salute you. She clenched her fist. We are nothing! The Rationality is all!

Then everyone was on his or her feet, all facing the visi-screen, all raising clenched fists in response to the salute, and all chanting as one, We are nothing! The Rationality is all!

To her horror and disbelief, Ellie discovered herself chanting the oath of self-abnegation in unison with the others, and, worse, meaning every word of it.

The woman who had taken the key away from her had said something about loyalty imprinting. Now Ellie understood what that term entailed.


In the gray not-space of null-time, Ellie kicked her way into the time-torpedo. It was, to her newly sophisticated eyes, rather a primitive thing: Fifteen grams of nano-mechanism welded to a collapsteel hull equipped with a noninertial propulsion unit and packed with five tons of something her mental translator rendered as annihilatium. This last, she knew to the core of her being, was ferociously destructive stuff.

Nadine wriggled in after her. Let me pilot, she said. I’ve been playing video games since Mario was the villain in Donkey Kong.

Nadine, dear, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. Ellie settled into the button-pusher slot. There were twenty-three steps to setting off the annihilatium, each one finicky, and if even one step were taken out of order, nothing would happen. She had absolutely no doubt she could do it correctly, swiftly, efficiently.

Yes?

Does all that futuristic jargon of yours actually mean anything?

Nadine’s laughter was cut off by a squawk from the visi-plate. The woman who had lectured them earlier appeared, looking stern. Launch in twenty-three seconds, she said. For the Rationality!

For the Rationality! Ellie responded fervently and in unison with Nadine. Inside, however, she was thinking, How did I get into this? and then, ruefully, Well, there’s no fool like an old fool.

Eleven seconds … seven seconds … three seconds … one second.

Nadine launched.

Without time and space, there can be neither sequence nor pattern. The battle between the Aftermen dreadnoughts and the time-torpedoes of the Rationality, for all its shifts and feints and evasions, could be reduced to a single blip of instantaneous action and then rendered into a single binary datum: win/lose.

The Rationality lost.

The time-dreadnoughts of the Aftermen crept another year into the past.

But somewhere in the very heart of that not-terribly-important battle, two torpedoes, one of which was piloted by Nadine, converged upon the hot-spot of guiding consciousness that empowered and drove the flagship of the Aftermen time-armada. Two button-pushers set off their explosives. Two shock-waves bowed outward, met, meshed, and merged with the expanding shock-wave of the countermeasure launched by the dreadnought’s tutelary awareness.

Something terribly complicated happened.

Ellie found herself sitting at a table in the bar of the Algonquin Hotel, back in New York City. Nadine was sitting opposite her. To either side of them were the clever albino and the man with the tattooed face and the filed teeth.

The albino smiled widely. Ah, the primitives! Of all who could have survived–myself excepted, of course–you are the most welcome.

His tattooed companion frowned. Please show some more tact, Sev. However they may appear to us, these folk are not primitives to themselves.

You are right as always, Dun Jal. Permit me to introduce myself. I am Seventh-Clone of House Orpen, Lord Extratemporal of the Centuries 3197 through 3992 Inclusive, Backup Heir Potential to the Indeterminate Throne. Sev, for short.

Dun Jal. Mercenary. From the early days of the Rationality. Before it grew decadent.

Eleanor Voigt, Nadine Shepard. I’m from 1936, and she’s from 2004. Where–if that’s the right word–are we?

Neither where nor when, delightful aboriginal. We have obviously been thrown into hypertime, that no-longer-theoretical state informing and supporting the more mundane seven dimensions of time with which you are doubtless familiar. Had we minds capable of perceiving it directly without going mad, who knows what we should see? As it is, he waved a hand, all this is to me as my One-Father’s clonatorium, in which so many of I spent our minority.

I see a workshop, Dun Jal said.

I see– Nadine began.

Dun Jal turned pale. A Tarbleck-null! He bolted to his feet, hand instinctively going for a side-arm which, in their current state, did not exist.

Mr. Tarblecko! Ellie gasped. It was the first time she had thought of him since her imprinted technical training in the time-fortress of the Rationality, and speaking his name brought up floods of related information: That there were seven classes of Aftermen, or Tarblecks as they called themselves. That the least of them, the Tarbleck-sixes, were brutal and domineering overlords. That the greatest of them, the Tarbleck-nulls, commanded the obedience of millions. That the maximum power a Tarbleck-null could call upon at an instant’s notice was four quads per second per second. That the physical expression of that power was so great that, had she known, Ellie would never have gone through that closet door in the first place.

Sev gestured toward an empty chair. Yes, I thought it was about time for you to show up.

The sinister grey Afterman drew up the chair and sat down to their table. The small one knows why I am here, he said. The others do not. It is degrading to explain myself to such as you, so he shall have to.

I am so privileged as to have studied the more obscure workings of time, yes. The little man put his fingertips together and smiled a fey, foxy smile over their tips. So I know that physical force is useless here. Only argument can prevail. Thus … trial by persuasion it is. I shall go first.

He stood up. My argument is simple: As I told our dear, savage friends here earlier, an heir-potential to the Indeterminate Throne is too valuable to risk on uncertain adventures. Before I was allowed to enlist as a mercenary, my elder self had to return from the experience to testify I would survive it unscathed. I did. Therefore, I will.

He sat.

There was a moment’s silence. That’s all you have to say? Dun Jal asked.

It is enough.

Well. Dun Jal cleared his throat and stood. Then it is my turn. The Empire of the Aftermen is inherently unstable at all points. Perhaps it was a natural phenomenon–once. Perhaps the Aftermen arose from the workings of ordinary evolutionary processes, and could at one time claim that therefore they had a natural place in this continuum. That changed when they began to expand their Empire into their own past. In order to enable their back-conquests, they had to send agents to all prior periods in time to influence and corrupt, to change the flow of history into something terrible and terrifying, from which they might arise. And so they did.

Massacres, death-camps, genocide, World Wars … (There were other terms that did not translate, concepts more horrible than Ellie had words for.) You don’t really think those were the work of human beings, do you? We’re much too sensible a race for that sort of thing–when we’re left to our own devices. No, all the worst of our miseries are instigated by the Aftermen. We are far from perfect, and the best example of this is the cruel handling of the War in the final years of the Optimized Rationality of True Men, where our leaders have become almost as terrible as the Aftermen themselves–because it is from their very ranks that the Aftermen shall arise. But what might we have been?

Without the interference of the Aftermen might we not have become something truly admirable? Might we not have become not the Last Men, but the First truly worthy of the name? He sat down.

Lightly, sardonically, Sev applauded. Next?

The Tarbleck-null placed both hands heavily on the table, and, leaning forward, pushed himself up. Does the tiger explain himself to the sheep? he asked. Does he need to explain? The sheep understand well enough that Death has come to walk among them, to eat those it will and spare the rest only because he is not yet hungry. So too do men understand that they have met their master. I do not enslave men because it is right or proper, but because I can. The proof of which is that I have!

Strength needs no justification. It exists or it does not. I exist. Who here can say that I am not your superior? Who here can deny that Death has come to walk among you? Natural selection chose the fittest among men to become a new race. Evolution has set my foot upon your necks, and I will not take it off.

To universal silence, he sat down. The very slightest of glances he threw Ellie’s way, as if to challenge her to refute him. Nor could she! Her thoughts were all confusion, her tongue all in a knot. She knew he was wrong–she was sure of it!–and yet she could not put her arguments together. She simply couldn’t think clearly and quickly enough.

Nadine laughed lightly.

Poor superman! she said. Evolution isn’t linear, like that chart that has a fish crawling out of the water at one end and a man in a business suit at the other. All species are constantly trying to evolve in all directions at once–a little taller, a little shorter, a little faster, a little slower. When that distinction proves advantageous, it tends to be passed along. The Aftermen aren’t any smarter than Men are–less so, in some ways. Less flexible, less innovative … look what a stagnant world they’ve created! What they are is more forceful.

Forceful? Ellie said, startled. Is that all?

That’s enough. Think of all the trouble caused by men like Hitler, Mussolini, Caligula, Pol Pot, Archers-Wang 43…. All they had was the force of their personality, the ability to get others to do what they wanted. Well, the Aftermen are the descendants of exactly such people, only with the force of will squared and cubed. That afternoon when the Tarbleck-null ordered you to sit in the window? It was the easiest thing in the world to one of them. As easy as breathing.

That’s why the Rationality can’t win. Oh, they could win, if they were willing to root out that streak of persuasive coercion within themselves. But they’re fighting a war, and in times of war one uses whatever weapons one has. The ability to tell millions of soldiers to sacrifice themselves for the common good is simply too useful to be thrown away. But all the time they’re fighting the external enemy, the Aftermen are evolving within their own numbers.

You admit it, the Tarbleck said.

Oh, be still! You’re a foolish little creature, and you have no idea what you’re up against. Have you ever asked the Aftermen from the leading edge of your Empire why you’re expanding backward into the past rather than forward into the future? Obviously because there are bigger and more dangerous things up ahead of you than you dare face. You’re afraid to go there–afraid that you might find me! Nadine took something out of her pocket. Now go away, all of you.

Flash.

Nothing changed. Everything changed.

Ellie was still sitting in the Algonquin with Nadine. But Sev, Dun Jal, and the Tarbleck-null were all gone. More significantly, the bar felt real in a way it hadn’t an instant before. She was back home, in her own now and her own when.

Ellie dug into her purse and came up with a crumpled pack of Lucky Strike Greens, teased one out, and lit it. She took a deep drag on the cigarette and then exhaled. All right, she said, who are you?

The girl’s eyes sparkled with amusement. Why, Ellie, dear, don’t you know? I’m you!


So it was that Eleanor Voigt was recruited into the most exclusive organization in all Time–an organization that was comprised in hundreds of thousands of instances entirely and solely of herself. Over the course of millions of years, she grew and evolved, of course, so that her ultimate terrifying and glorious self was not even remotely human. But everything starts somewhere, and Ellie of necessity had to start small.

The Aftermen were one of the simpler enemies of the humane future she felt that Humanity deserved. Nevertheless they had to be–gently and nonviolently, which made the task more difficult–opposed.

After fourteen months of training and the restoration of all her shed age, Ellie was returned to New York City on the morning she had first answered the odd help wanted ad in the Times. Her original self had been detoured away from the situation, to be recruited if necessary at a later time.

Unusual in what way? she asked. I don’t understand. What am I looking for?

You’ll know it when you see it, the Tarbleck-null said.

He handed her the key.

She accepted it. There were tools hidden within her body whose powers dwarfed those of this primitive chrono-transfer device. But the encoded information the key contained would lay open the workings of the Aftermen Empire to her. Working right under their noses, she would be able to undo their schemes, diminish their power, and, ultimately, prevent them from ever coming into existence in the first place.

Ellie had only the vaguest idea how she was supposed to accomplish all this. But she was confident that she could figure it out, given time. And she had the time.

All the time in the world.