Fighting in the Streets
of the City of Time
by William B. Squirrell
“I have seen the light go out of more eyes than there are stars in your sky,” said the man on the other side of the desk, and he leaned forward to stare even more intently into his interviewer’s face.
“I have put my boots to the Reds and the Faggots and the Jews; I have seen the bodies swinging in the torch-lit trees; I have seen rivers of blood washing the dirty towns clean.”
Jimmy sighed. He hated decommissioning these old veterans. Although “old” wasn’t quite the right word; many of them had been born decades after him. Even if they weren’t, they still all seemed so young. And, invariably, they were very good-looking.
There were obviously aspects to recruitment that were not made explicit in the protocols he had clearance to read. This fellow for instance, despite the deadness of expression so typical of a long field-career at Ultimate Outcomes, was genuinely beautiful.
Jimmy frowned thoughtfully and rubbed a patch of dry scalp behind his ear. He shuffled the papers about and then looked up hopefully to find Taylor was still staring at him.
“It says here,” Jimmy began nervously. “That after you completed your second round of comprehensive training you specialized in search-and-extraction until—”
Taylor interrupted him. “We are the wolves on the other side of the river, waiting for the freeze.”
Christ, thought Jimmy, this one’s been out in the fog a bit too long.
* * *
“Their brains don’t age, not technically, but their minds sure do,” Mike had told him once over beers, before he had been transferred to payroll.
All those minutes, hours, days, months, and years, accumulating on them almost imperceptibly, like dust or snow; the dead weight of centuries slowly flattening out their memories, compressing them, transforming childhood and youth into the fossils of strange distorted monsters, impossibilities.
“After a while it’s not vertical like ours anymore,” Mike said. “It’s a horizontal memory. They can’t tell where they started by going backwards any more, they can only move sideways. They scuttle about in there like a crab in a maze.”
But then Mike was a deep thinker, and he’d always wanted to be a jumper. Not Jimmy, even before he realized how utterly nuts the poor bastards were, the idea of stepping outside of the present had freaked him out. Would it even be you anymore when you got back?
Not that his “you” was so fabulous, but still. Sure it was exciting to think about dinosaurs and Egyptians and knights and castles and all of that crap when he was a kid, but it was all so juvenile in the end. If you were a real man, you faced up to the reality of your life.
Besides, he could never have passed the physicals or survived the rigors of training. Nor could have Mike for that matter, with his asthma and bad knees. It didn’t matter how much a guy like Mike knew about the history of the company or the technological nuances of cliometric engineering, or what type of gun fired what type of bullet at what kind of a target. He just didn’t have the right stuff.
* * *
“As I was saying, Mr. Taylor,” — Jimmy cleared his throat — “it says here you were promoted into one of the Infiltration Units after your third tour. The unit was led by a Lieutenant Ed Heines?”
“Heines,” Taylor said dreamily. “My captain. Our captain. Heines.”
“Lieutenant actually,” said Jimmy and shuffled his papers about again. “Never made it past Lieutenant.”
Taylor ignored the correction. “He cut open the throat of that goat. I can still hear its hind legs kicking out a tattoo against the wooden beer hall floor. It was Munich in 1919. He pressed a gory hand against each of our bare chests, painted a circle dripping on the wall, and opened a door into time. We followed him through into glory. History shattered like a great mirror, and we ground its shards into sand under our heels.”
“Right,” Jimmy pretended to make a note in his margins. “So that’s a ‘yes’, then.”
“There was brightness in those days, a sharp prophetic clarity,” said Taylor and the faint hint of a smile played at the corners of his mouth. “I could have torn out both my eyes and still seen; torn out my tongue and still sung.”
“It’s not uncommon,” replied Jimmy, “to feel invigorated like that. Most of our field employees report that they quite enjoyed the initial stages of the job. It’s always much later that the complications develop. Is that how it was with you? When did you first begin to feel frustration with your work? What you described to your psychiatric liaison as, let’s see, it was a very dramatic turn of phrase...” Jimmy flipped back and forth through his papers for a few seconds.
“Ah!” he said. “Here it is. ‘The crushing despair of eternal return’.”
“The silt of experience began settling on me even as I watched a sun three thousand years younger than myself sparkling on the wine-dark seas. I was dusted with ash even as I marveled at the waves of white fire which silently swept away nations not yet born.”
“I understand you are experiencing a touch of chronological confusion here, Mr. Taylor. Part of the job, I’m afraid, but for insurance purposes the Company needs us to try and pinpoint as best we can on which mission you first began to feel significant emotional wear-and-tear.”
Taylor stared at him. They were approaching what Mike used to call “ground zero,” the moment when the veteran realized he had fallen out of eternity and back into time, and that he was stuck here. The trick was to shepherd them through that realization without getting them angry or upset, to make them think they reached the necessary conclusions on their own.
“You complained of headaches after both Venezuela in 2010 and Tenochtitlan in 1495, but it was only after the long mission to the Scythians in the third century that anyone recorded concerns about your psychological well-being.
“And it was much later, after Lisbon in 1976, I believe, that you started writing your poetry. I was wondering if you might comment on what you personally, as it were, see as the origins of your...” — Jimmy cleared his throat and scratched behind his ear again — “current xenophobic preoccupations.”
“I was conceived in the trenches of the Great War,” said Taylor. “And born in a riot on the streets of Munich.”
“Mr. Taylor,” said Jimmy, perhaps a little sharply. “You have mentioned Munich twice, but according to your file you’ve never been there. Could you please try a little harder to concentrate on what actually happened rather than on what you wish had happened?”
“Who are you?” asked Taylor abruptly. “Who are you to talk to me like that?”
“I’m your retirement counselor, Mr. Taylor,” said Jimmy calmly. They had reached ground zero. The key was to stay matter-of-fact, a little weary, disengaged. “I’m here to help you make the transition to civilian life.”
“Yes, Mr. Taylor, civilian life. It happens to everyone eventually: death and taxes and returning to the land of the living, and so on and so forth. Now could you please start concentrating again? When did you first notice yourself indulging in violent and anti-social fantasies?”
“Yes, Mr. Taylor: fantasies. When precisely did you begin to feel dissatisfied with your career path here at Ultimate Outcomes?”
Taylor frowned. “It is true that we were raging angels once,” he began. “That we had ripped down the curtains of the mundane and stood illuminated in the blinding intensity of being.”
Taylor paused, looking meditative, and Jimmy waited with his pen poised.
“It is true. But repetition is death,” Taylor continued and at once Jimmy began scribbling away. “Repetition is death. Somehow that blinding intensity dimmed. Where there were once dizzying heights and demonic depths, glorious contradictions resolved in ecstasy, there was eventually nothing but a flat horizon and featureless ground.
“I still fought the Revolution in the streets of the city of time, I still fought the anarchists and the communists and the degenerates. I still fought, but the raging hammer of my heart no longer threatened to blow my ribs apart.”
“Yes. Exactly, Mr. Taylor, that sort of thing exactly,” Jimmy looked up encouragingly from his doodles. “You became bored with your work and distracted. You started to daydream. You started to have these inappropriate ideas about destiny and soil and blood. The ideas your liaison officer reported to us.”
“Bored?” asked Taylor.
“Yes,” Jimmy reminded himself to control his exasperation, to feel pity for his client rather than irritation. “Bored.”
“It’s true,” said Taylor. “It’s true. I am so bored.”
And Jimmy knew that Taylor understood. Taylor knew his beautiful blue eyes no longer shone like twin lightning strikes.
“I’m so bored,” he repeated, and they both knew his shadow no longer leapt so far ahead of him that it fell across the icy moons of Jupiter.
“I’m so bored.” And no longer would the limbs of shattered men and women and children be swept up into the hurricane of his will.
“It’s all been done to death,” he groaned and threw himself back into his chair. “The car bombs, the knifings, the light bulbs filled with acid.”
Jimmy cringed. He did hate it when they mentioned operational details. Mike had loved that stuff of course, lived for it.
“It’s not murder if they’re already dead.” Mike had laughed at Jimmy’s qualms. “You can’t kill someone who’s never been born.”
But that was Mike. He had two flags on his desk: the stars-and-stripes and Ultimate Outcome’s yellow-and-black. And his office walls were plastered with campy old posters: “Epic Solutions for Epic Problems,” “Have you ever chanced to dream a dream?” “Make some history to make some profits!”
Every year at the Christmas party, Mike had tried to convince that public relations guy Meyers to talk to the men upstairs about commissioning him to write a book about the company. But Jimmy wasn’t so gung-ho as Mike; he liked his job fine: good pay and good benefits. But when he thought about what actually happened out there, in what the men who had been in it called “the fog,” he felt a touch of squeamishness.
“It’s all been done to death, and I’m so bored,” said Taylor. “I have become what I hate; I am tiresome; I am banal; I am dull. I am repetition.”
“Well, that’s one way of looking at it, I suppose,” said Jimmy brightly, and he gathered himself together to start closing the deal. “But on the other hand you might think of this as a chance to start afresh. You’ve fought for freedom for so long, now you can finally start to enjoy it.
“Ultimate Outcomes has some wonderful retirement packages. Your friend Ed Heines for instance, has a condominium in Palm Springs and, from what I hear, he has become an excellent tennis player and golfer. Apparently, he’s even started dating.
“But if we could get back to determining when you first began to feel bored, Mr. Taylor. For the insurance company, you see. It helps us determine appropriate numbers. To decide what’s best for your future.” Jimmy cleared his throat and smiled weakly. “To decide what is your best ultimate outcome.”
Jimmy was trying to be reassuring and calm. He looked earnestly into Taylor’s eyes, but there was no need; there was nothing there, the light had gone out of them.
Another day, another victim, Jimmy thought, and his mood began to lift. Poor, pathetic bastard.
“Ride of the Valkyries” began to run through his head and it was everything he could do not to start whistling along. He started to think about lunch. He thought maybe he would call up Mike, maybe go to the buffet at the Montcalm Hotel and watch the strippers, maybe even risk the sleepiness and have a beer. Maybe.
He opened the drawer to get out the immediate voluntary retirement and disability insurance paperwork. Taylor sat across the table from him, slightly slumped, hands on his lap, staring at the desk. It was as if, Jimmy thought, someone had switched him off, or a puppeteer had dropped the strings.
Copyright © 2015 by William B. Squirrell