Morning light flooded in from the transparent ceiling as Shama lay down on a hard table. She reminded herself what Perbile had told her, “The procedure is standard for fifth years. And it only takes a few minutes.” She knew that she could do anything the fifth year kids could do. This was supposed to be an elite military Academy, but these kids, even the teachers, seemed so soft. She tried to ignore her sweaty palms.
Through the glass wall, Perbile nodded as if to say, “It’s time.”
As Perbile backed away, Shama touched the nodule that he had stuck on her forehead. It was lightweight and didn’t feel sticky.
The table grew warm beneath her, and she realized that the EMS scan had begun.
“Ouch.” A sharp pain knifed her head, and Shama remembered one of the slogans on the classroom wall of Stress and Adaptation: Pain is too painful to waste.
When Chronos wasn’t using words too big to understand, they talked in riddles, but it was true that you should never waste anything. In Shama’s old life, the cast-off Fly Away sandals she found in the alley had molded perfectly to fit her feet. Her favorite, Chips are a Nutritional Meal t-shirt had been her mother’s. Her back pack, discarded by some rich kid at the mall just because the ionic snap didn’t fasten, had worked for her for two years.
The Chronos slogan made pain sound good, but no one in Chronos had ever felt any pain. They lived in an UpCity, where everyone behaved, and no one caused any trouble. They never went hungry. Stray pain beams didn’t hit them. They were never so hot they felt like they were going to melt. Of course, UpCity people did die; even they hadn’t figured out how to escape that.
Death. Her mother died. That was the worst pain.
Shama pictured her hut. One night many years ago, she had repeated the nonsense words that opened the door, barbla4g and stepped inside. Her mother had died several months before, but for the first time looking around at her surroundings, bare except for a cot and a cooler, Shama realized that she was all alone. Her mother was truly gone. As Shama was pondering this, she heard her mother’s soft voice. Mama was singing.
“Let the trees, the grass, the lakes return…” Her mother’s voice trailed off.
The song! Shama wanted to remember the rest of the words. Sir Gumby had said that she would need the song if she was ever sad. Well, she was sad now.
But then, the world around her started to shrink. The song, the clinic, Perbile, the Academy, fell away until everything was gone; all that she had left was a searing pain that filled her mind and flooded her body.
Shama managed to lift her arm, even though it felt as if it weighed more than she did. Her fingernails dug into her forehead, trying to rip the nodule off.
The thing didn’t budge. She’d tear off her own head, if only she had the strength. Her hand dropped uselessly to her side.
Perbile had promised her that this test wouldn’t hurt. Liar!
A groan escaped from between her lips. She wished Perbile would come back. She’d claw out his lying Wander Eye. But hurt squeezed her brain and sent its tentacles racing throughout her body, stinging her arms, her legs, her every last cell, and she forgot all about Perbile. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t even blink.
She didn’t exist anymore. The pain was her. She was the pain.
Shama didn’t know how long she stayed frozen. A minute. Thirty seconds. Two days.
Then, from far away or from deep inside of herself, Shama heard her mother’s voice again. She strained to listen.
“Changing the past. Few last.”
Her mother’s voice grew stronger, and Shama felt something odd happening. The pain had started shivering.
“In the moment.”
As the song grew louder, the pain shriveled, shrank, and backed down. Finally, she was able to lift her hand and wipe away the sweat that ran down her face and burned her eyes.
Although she struggled to sit up and couldn’t, still Mama’s song appeared to be winning the fight.
“The free will of the Time Angel. Will stave off hurt.”
More relaxed, Shama hummed the next line along with her mother:
“Will spare those she can.”
Her mother’s voice died away, but Shama found that she was able to finish the song
alone: “And by so doing will find herself.”
Shama felt the bite of the hard table against her back; a rush of cool air tingled her skin. Excitement surged through her; she was lighter somehow. The pain was gone. Breathing even felt different. Like a gift. Her mother had given her the song.
Shama spotted Perbile framed in the doorway.
“That wasn’t a scan.” She paused to regain her breath. “That was torture.”
Perbile walked over to her. “What are you talking about?” His face was bland, as if he hadn’t nearly murdered her.
“We’ve administered that test a thousand times,” Perbile said. “No one has ever complained before.”
Shama struggled to sit up.
Perbile waved his identity wand over her head.
The nodule came unstuck and fell on the floor, just a harmless black plug.
When Shama looked up, a picture of a blob flashed on the wall, a brain. It was gray except for one part which was bright purple and shaped like a squashed grape.
Perbile stood rigid, gazing at the wall.
“Nothing,” Perbile said. “I’m not a neuroscientist. I’ll have to check these results. Your broca…” He paused. “Cadet Katooee, you’re dismissed.”
He turned on his heels, exposing the back of his bald, bumpy head and left the room.
The rest of the first years were in Study Hall when Shama stopped by the Mess Hall to order two slices of chocolate cake for breakfast. On her way to her first class, she passed several upper classmen who smiled at her. She overhead one of them say, “She’s so short. She even looks like a tele-school kid.” Shama resisted the urge to shout back at them. I’d like to see you get by in LowCity. For even a week.
As she swung around, she bumped into someone, her gaze almost level with his. “Sorry,” she apologized.
Colonel Pink-Branch, the professor of HoloDesigns, was shorter than the rest of the professors, almost as short as she was, and it occurred to Shama that maybe it wasn’t just her unhealthy LowCity diet that had stunted her growth. When he recognized her, Colonel Pink-Branch lit up, unlike Lieutenant Bazel who was with him.
Bazel’s hooded eyes were fixed on his communicator. He didn’t even lift his head, just continued muttering to whomever was on the other end.
“Cadet Katooee, it’s good to see you,” Pinkie spoke up. The teacher of HoloDesign had a snub nose, upright eyebrows and droopy ear-lobes. “I’ve been meaning to check in with you. How are you?”
His warm tone caught her by surprise, and Shama felt tears spring to her eyes. Maybe she was just tired from getting up so early. But for a moment, she didn’t trust herself to speak.
Looking up from his screen, Bazel interrupted, “Hello, Cadet Katooee. I thought you were still at the clinic.”
“I got out yesterday,” Shama said.
Bazel nodded. Then, he returned his attention to the device ionized to his wrist. “No sense arguing,” he said into his communicator.
“It’s great to get a chance to talk to you in person,” Pinkie said. “No headaches? No nothing?”
Shama’s head felt weird, but the tingly feeling was sad, not achy. She shook her head.
Pinkie smiled. “Fantastic.” He leaned in close. “Still, there’s the curious case of your eyes.” He looked over at the Lieutenant standing beside him. “Lieutenant, what do you think about that?”
Bazel barked into the communicator, “We don’t have time to consider other options. Our course is pre-determined.”
When Shama noticed Bazel studying her, she dropped her gaze.
“You know,” Pinkie said. “Dean Perbile has been peppering the command staff with
data on you.”
“What kind of data, Colonel?” Shama asked.
“We share the same goal.” Speaking into his communicator, Bazel’s voice rose. “We want to improve lives. I’m sure…”
Pinkie grinned at Shama. “I’m not sure,” he said. “We’ve been too busy to read the Dean’s reports.” He paused. “But perhaps I should.”
Pinkie shot a quick glance at Bazel. But Bazel didn’t give him a chance to speak. “Colonel, Pink-Branch, we’re needed in the Control Center.” Without more, he turned his back on them.
“Could I come by and see you?” Shama said to Bazel.
Bazel didn’t turn around.
“Sir?” Shama called after him.
As Shama watched Bazel hurry off down the hallway, her situation was clear to her. Perbile disliked her for being on Bazel’s team. Yet Bazel wouldn’t talk to her.
Shama was late for Time Keeping and needed to go, but with Pinkie staring off into space, she sensed he wasn’t quite finished with her.
“Please, come see me. This afternoon at 1600 hours, sharp,” Pinkie said. A strand of wavy hair stuck out of the back of his cap as he rushed off.
Standing at the doorway, Shama peeked in at the auditorium filled with kids, all of the first years, sitting in uneven rows of Flairs. They were wearing their identical tan uniforms. Although the auditorium was sparsely furnished, Shama knew from experience that its laser equipment was state of the art. With a push of a button, the Dean could use light-based architecture to transform the cavernous room into anything from a banquet hall in the Middle Ages to a glacier in Antarctica before climate change.
This morning, Dean Perbile paced the bare stage, alone. “Time Keeping or as we sometimes call it, Time Fundamentalism, is the most important class you will take at the Academy,” he was saying.
A free-standing closet dominated the stage, with a sign, in camo colors: TrainingStation.
As Shama began walking down the aisle, she noticed the scoreboard on the right wall. Next to a clock that said 0917, the board listed the names of every cadet with his or her points: Deza Uber, 1,236, Tres Mungo, 1,004…
She was about to plop down into an open seat in back when Dean Perbile called out, “Class started ten minutes ago, Cadet Katooee.”
Every kid in the room turned and stared at Shama.
Shama felt her face begin to grow hot.
“The girl who Traveled.”
“If you ask me, she’s nothing special.”
Shama spotted Liberty and Gleer, sitting in the middle section. She was waving at her friends, when Perbile pointed at the section directly in front of the stage. “There’s a seat on the front row, Cadet Katooee.”
Shama had no choice but to walk down the aisle.
Perbile said, “I know everyone is excited about the TimeProbe, but I’d like to resume.”
Taking two steps at once, Shama reached the front row. By the time, she slipped
into the aisle seat next to Tres and Kardo, the auditorium had grown quiet.
“As you have all heard, Lieutenant Bazel drafted a new student, Cadet Katooee and sent her to the past. Her successful mission paved the way for the TimeProbe,” Perbile said.
“Yeah, TimeProbe.” The auditorium broke out into cheers.
“Cadets!” Frowning, Perbile’s Wander Eye patrolled the auditorium.
The noise died down.
“We are good soldiers and will perform our orders, but I want you to remember something— Lieutenant Bazel’s experiments…” His mouth twisted around experiments as if the word were a sour lemon chip. “Go against forty years of Chronos tradition.” He paused. “You know that too, don’t you, Cadet Katooee?”
Shama nodded. “I know that the TimeProbe is not my fault.” She was speaking to herself, but Kardo murmured. “Are you kidding? We all think what you did was great. Temporal experimentation is long overdue. Forty years of watching is enough. ”
Tres cleared her throat. “We’re grateful.” Then as if she had just realized that she might have said something nice, she added, “Even though the only reason you got to Travel was…” She paused. “Your circumstances.”
Kardo leaned toward Tres.
“No matter what you think,” Tres said, cutting Kardo off. “I’m not jealous.” She finished in a stage whisper, “Of a scholarship kid.”
Once a lab rat and now a charity case that the Academy was being nice to. “I’m more than that,” Shama said to Tres. She would show Tres. She would to prove it to all of these kids.
Perbile’s Wander Eye fixed on the front row, and Tres and Kardo both straightened in their seats and gazed at the stage—model students.
Tres waited until Perbile shifted his attention away from them to turn to Shama and smirk.
“Thirty years ago, when Hiriam Lassemer realized that he didn’t have much longer to live, he created a teaching tool called the TrainingStation,” Perbile said. “During Orientation, you’ve already watched his series of talks on Time Keeping, but in the light of recent developments, I think it’s important for you to see them again.”
Around the auditorium, kids shuffled in their seats.
But Shama’s spirits lifted. The TrainingStation didn’t look like a regular, boring lecture.
“Another trip through the TrainingStation should remind you of the perils of this TimeProbe which you are all so enthusiastic about,” Perbile said. “I’ll expect you to reference these lectures as a source in your report. You have plenty of work to do. Let’s get started.”
Issuing commands into his communicator, Perbile disappeared into the room in back of the stage.
With Perbile gone for the moment, Shama turned to Kardo. “What report?”
“It’s not a long one, only ten pages,” Tres broke in.
Ten pages. The longest report Shama had ever written was two paragraphs.
“Because of the TimeProbe, the report’s not due until Saturday morning,” Kardo said. “In lower school, we ran our reports through the holoscanner and changed the words into holograms.”
Holographic texts. Tele-school couldn’t afford the technology.
Tres piped up, “Everyone walks around the stage, reading the reports.”
Shama pictured fifty or so holoreports lit up on this stage, all the thousands and thousands of holowords, and her report, blank except for her name.
Tres sniffed. “It’s an easy topic. We’re supposed to apply the lessons of the environmental movement to time management.”
Confused, Shama said, “How does the environment move?”
Tres rolled her eyes.
Kardo threw back his head and laughed. “It’s really simple,” he said. “Bazel is the Academy’s most fanatical Time Changer; Perbile’s the most fanatical Time Keeper. After your successful trip, the World Council ordered Bazel to experiment with Time. Now Perbile is retaliating against Bazel by making us repeat the outdated Keeper line.”
Shama thought of dusty hot LowCity. “So Perbile wants us to talk about how men destroyed the environment?”
“Yeah.” Kardo nodded. “Even though you proved his theory wrong, Perbile thinks that Travel is more damaging to Time than cars were to the environment.”
“Time, the last unspoiled resource,” Tres was saying in a bored tone when Perbile returned to the stage.
Shama considered long-ago earth once green, with four, separate seasons and she thought of Time with a beginning, a middle, and an end. She knew what it was like to live in hot, dusty LowCity. But she wondered what polluted Time would feel like. A picture flashed into her mind of a clock with spinning hands.
Perbile clapped his hands. “Attention cadets.”
Around Shama, kids coughed and shifted in their seats. Feet shuffled.
Suddenly, a sleek holotrailer, made out of long slats of xiathium lit up. The holotrailer zigzagged across the stage, and dead-ended in the TrainingStation.
Perbile walked to the edge of the stage. “We’re breaking up into small groups today. From the front row, Cadets Felix, Mungo, Katooee, and Reese come on up. While waiting for your turn, the rest of you should be reading your assigned text in Time Keeper’s Guide and working on your reports.”
Shama followed Tres and Kardo down the aisle, up onto the stage and joined them in front of the TrainingStation.
Perbile pointed at Kardo, who stood at the front of the line. “You know the drill, Cadet Felix.”
Before Kardo disappeared inside, he turned and smiled at Tres.
Tres smiled back at him. As soon as he had disappeared, she whipped around and faced Shama. “I want to be honest with you,” she said. Her hands gripped her hips; her lips were pursed. “If you want to get along here, you need to stop hogging all the attention.”
“What?” Shama said. “I’m not hogging attention.”
Huego Reese, who stood behind them, touched Tres on the shoulder. “Your turn.”
Perbile pointed at the door to the TrainingStation.
Tres smoothed her hair and threw her shoulders back before she passed inside.
The cybratom door closed, leaving Shama first in the line. “Dean, about this assignment…”
Perbile’s Wander Eye passed over Shama as if he didn’t see her.
“You see,” Shama explained. “I can’t write a paper in two days.”
The door to the TrainingStation flashed green.
Perbile nodded. “Do your best, Cadet Katooee.”
“My best won’t be enough,” Shama said. “So I thought—”
“Go,” Perbile intoned.
Shama was about to turn toward the TrainingStation, when Perbile’s thoughtvoice surprised her: I have your best interests at heart.
I didn’t know you had a heart, she thoughtback.
Perbile just stared mildly at her. Thank Flade he hadn’t heard her. Nothing to do but to go inside.
The Zone in the Future
Barb dropped down into the Flair behind his desk. The tingling feeling that he’d had on and off all morning had returned.
His dry mouth still tasted like baked dust as he allowed himself to probe the important question. The question that he hadn’t been able to ask Xt. Was Anna still alive?
He saw her face clearly before him. Her golden eyes trained on him. He could hear her voice, singing. Always singing when she wasn’t at work. Let the trees, the grass, the lakes return.
What had Xt said exactly? By this afternoon, we’ll have the daughter under surveillance.
The daughter under surveillance, not Anna …
When Chronos made the unusual decision to hire Anna Ka 2 E from the outside, as a widower, Barb would have been within his rights to nominate Anna for membership in his urban tribe. But he had been so absorbed in his work that the thought hadn’t occurred to him. Anna had appeared at his office a year earlier. At that time, the first wave of Mad Hat had quieted, and no one had known that a second wave of the fatal disease would plunge the world’s entire population into near extinction. Still the threat of the disease’s spread had kept him working late night after night in a vain attempt to forestall more deaths. He had no time left over for his personal life. That is until one night when he found himself alone with Anna.
Despite being trained on the outside, Anna was the best program mechanic that Chronos had. One evening after midnight, Anna had come to his office to report a problem with the Q-time’s duplicator. Her plain face, without implants, was as much an anachronism as her first name, Anna. In an increasingly competitive world, parents generally named their children action verbs, or flattering adjectives, not meaningless nouns like Anna.
Besides this new piece of equipment, Barb had thought. Do you need anything else, Sergeant Ka 2 E?
No, Anna had answered, but she made no move to go.
Had Barb been able to see into the future, he would have hesitated before he nodded. Sit down.
Barb had only a vague recollection of the details of his first conversation with Anna, and he had no desire to turn on his internal processor and access that memory file—too much information, and with hindsight, much of it painful.
He pictured her. Another oddity. Usually men and women who elected not to purchase a designer face were either very poor or strikingly beautiful. Anna was neither. Although she made a decent salary as program mechanic, with a thin straight nose and even a little gap between her teeth, she was almost homely. But no designer could improve upon her eyes.
When Anna trained her gaze on him, her eyes, deeply set and cast in gold, blazed like distant stars.