The Story

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I have seen our future.

I was on a research mission, ten years forward from my present time. I was hiking through the fringes of a forest, looking for a way to enter the city without being detected. After my previous mission--a botched rescue of a diplomat who is important to someone in the future--I'd been demoted to reconnaissance. I didn't mind. I was still working through my failure and working off the cost of fixing it. I didn't need the added pressure.

Angling myself behind a tree, I peered down an alley. The lenses in my eyes magnified the scene for me after I executed the right sequence of blinks. The alley was clear of people, so I pulled off my camouflage jumpsuit to reveal an unassuming black pants-and-shirt combination. The jumpsuit shrank into itself, and I slipped the little pouch into my satchel as I ran.

I was slinking along the alleyway when my vision blurred and I felt the strange twisting and tightening in my gut that meant I was about to time-jump. Specialist Green must have noticed some unforecasted risk and decided to pull me back. I took a deep breath and released it, shut my eyes and tried to relax my muscles to make the jump bearable.

Something was wrong, though. The gyrating waves of color I saw, or that were my brain's interpretation of the fabric of space-time, were a vibrant red instead of the deep blue that meant a jump backward in time. Shit. I tried to stay relaxed as my heart hammered against my ribcage. I was heading further into the future, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

As soon as my feet hit solid ground again, I opened my eyes and tried to reorient myself. This wasn't part of my mission, and I had no idea what danger might be waiting. I shook my head, not able to comprehend the landscape before me. The complete lack of color was the first thing that struck me, and I grabbed the camouflage pouch from my bag to make sure I hadn't been sent to some other, colorless dimension. I stared at the pixelated greens in my still-brown hand and then back at the grey wasteland surrounding me.

There had been a city in front of me before I'd jumped, but now there was just a dingy sea of rubble. I turned, slowly--the usual nausea from the jump hadn't quite dissipated--and inhaled sharply. Where a sprawling, verdant forest had been there were now only blackened trunks that clawed at the clouded sky with their leafless branches. Warnings from my life-stabilizing chip interrupted my thoughts. Radiation: 1.2 mSv/hour. Temperature: 2.3°C.

I pulled the thermal suit from my bag and donned it. I found my transmitter and sent an alert back to Specialist Green. He'd figure out what was going on and pull me back soon, I told myself. Just thirty minutes in this radiation level and I'd be facing irreversible damage. In the meantime, I'd do my job.

Another warning: UV index: 9.67. Shit, I hadn't brought any sunscreen patches. What the hell was Green doing? I swallowed back my panic as I trekked through the once-city.

Was anything alive in this godforsaken world? I struggled to remember the blink pattern for the infrared imager in my lenses. I tried: three short blinks, long blink, short. To my surprise it worked, so I turned my body, taking in a slow panorama of the destruction around me. The scene remained unhopeful shades of purple. I swallowed. There had to be something; life couldn't be completely wiped out.

Wait--there. I zoom-blinked again. It was a spot of yellow to my left, possibly large enough to be a human.

I closed my eyes for a half second, resetting my vision, and was startled again by the complete, engulfing grey. I tried to locate the sun in the sky, to guess the cardinal directions, but it was nowhere to be seen. The clouds hung motionless above me, their hues closer to black than white. Shivering, I tightened the thermal suit around me, though I could tell it wasn't helping. I checked my transmitter. It had been nearly eight minutes since I'd sent the distress pulse. Damn it, Green. Pull me back.

Just a few yards into my trudge toward the yellow IR smudge, I was panting. I'd thought anxiety was causing the labored breaths, but then I realized it was the air. I hadn't brought any oxygen tanks with me, nor a mask to filter out the sooty air. If I was still on the mission I was meant to be on, I wouldn't need them. Fix the fucking problem, Green. I'd really like to live past the next--I checked the transmitter--nineteen minutes.

I switched the infrared back on for a moment to check my direction. The smudge had grown larger in my vision; if it was human, it might be within hearing distance now. "Hello!" I shouted. My voice sounded empty, like the atmosphere wasn't thick enough to carry it very far. I thought I heard a reply, but it could have been an echo. Quickening my pace through the debris, I pulled my shirt collar over my nose to see if it would help me breathe. It didn't.

I sat on a pile of toppled bricks and tried to catch my breath. That was when I saw an ash-covered hand sticking out from under the bricks I was on. I scrambled backward, only to have my hand come into contact with a cold torso. I yelped, stepped away and brushed the corpse's soot off on my pants, repeatedly. I tried not to panic when it wouldn't come off. How long ago had these people died? There was nothing left alive to start the usual cycle of decay.

There was a sound again--a voice, I thought--so I swallowed my bile and turned my attention back to the search. I finally registered a break from the overwhelming grey. It was a girl. She was about fifty yards away and waving her hands frantically in the air. If I could make it to her, just grab her hand, I could take her back with me when Green finally got his shit together. I could save her. I ran, straining to stay afloat above the city's remains as I leaped over the wreckage. My lungs wheezed and I grew dizzy. Hurry the fuck up, Green.

I was a few yards away when the familiar stomach-tightening began. Shit. I kept going, tumbling over the rubble, scraping my hands and knees. My vision blurred and I reached out my hand. The girl's leg was pinned under a beam, but she stretched her hands toward me. Our fingers almost brushed before I was pulled away.

The image of her gaunt face and azure eyes was drowned out by the blue undulations dancing behind my eyelids. I'd ventured too far from where I'd landed, so I was pulled sickeningly sideways as I was deposited, limbs tangled, in the capsule. I saw Specialist Green sitting at the controls through the opening capsule door.

"I'm really sorry about that," he said as I retched into a nearby trash bin. "I fell asleep, and my hand must have fallen across the screen."

"How far?" I managed, before I heaved up more of my stomach contents. "How far forward did I go?"

"I'm not sure. Your distress pulse woke me up, but it took me a while to figure out what happened and how to get you back. I'm really sorry, but with the newborn and all, it's been rough getting enough shuteye."

I wiped my mouth on my sleeve and grabbed Green's soldiers, shaking them. "How. Far. Forward."

He shrugged my hands off, wrinkles appearing on his forehead. "Let me check," he said. There was a flurry of keystrokes as he pulled up the logs. "It doesn't say," he said. "According to this, you were on the original mission the whole time. That's good for me, I won't get caught for falling asleep at my post."

I collapsed onto the floor, and he finally looked at me. "Why?" he asked, fear creeping into his voice as he studied my face. "What did you see?"

"The end," I said, staring at the soot still embedded in my fingertips. A tear slid down my cheek. I didn't save her. And we couldn't send someone to fix my mistake this time.

I couldn't save humanity, either. I don't know what happens exactly, or when it will occur. I can't prevent it, and not even Green believes my story. 

But I have seen our future. And the truth is, we don't have one.

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