This is my entry to the Telegraph Short Story competition for May 2012. The subject is ‘Time-shift’ with a bit of jubilee nostalgia thrown in. The rest of the stories from the competition can be found here.
Blink of an Eye
It’s a far, far stranger thing that I feel now than I have ever felt before. My vision is clear and hearing acute but my brain refuses to grant detail. I feel disconnected from my body, like a dormant computer waiting idly for its master. My chest is pinned tightly under twisted metal. A breath ago our driverless vehicle was hit by another. Whoever sat beside me is now screaming to high heaven, but the noise, the sight and recollection of who they are isn’t forthcoming. Despite my situation, I struggle to feel bothered, pulled by the allure of old memories.
As a child my dad and I used to watch old blockbuster movies.
“These movies never get the future right,” he’d say.
And he was right. If you ever get a chance to see one of the old 2D films you’ll see vast interstellar ships, gargantuan in size, often float into port earning not so much as a scratch from such delicate manoeuvre while people teleport from place to place, taking in beach, mountain and space station without even batting an eyelid and characters are all sharply dressed, not a single hair out-of-place, each and every person only benefiting from the abilities technology brings.
My dad used to relish telling me how the movies always ignored the small, personal tragedies of everyday citizens, how when it came to it most people were frustrated with new technology because new invention always brought new difficulty. He particularly loved telling the tale of how each and every movie missed the fall of capitalism and the British monarchy, how both ended when everything was automated to a single button press leaving humanity to merely consume and the monarchy to be totally ignored. In movies, he’d say, such complex concepts were rarely considered, making way instead for alien invasions or other ‘popcorn-fluff’. What happened to the general populace in films was never much more than an afterthought.
Trapped by the crushed steel-alloy of my car I too feel like an afterthought. Despite my skull being firmly pressed against the dashboard by the broken headrest and my eyes now tightly closed covered in a liquid I know to be my own blood I feel somewhat at peace. However that peace, through continued recollection, shatters.
I’d grown into a world that was less equal, more hostile and totally lacking in the optimism the old 2D colour films had promised; soon I too became abrasive and emotionless. When the war they all called ‘World War Three’ came it wasn’t aliens that caused it, just your usual political, religious and extremist bullshit. Instead of following the philosophy I’d grown up with I signed up for the Republic Air Force and found myself a pilot in the Skylon Strategic Bombing corps. I piloted the Skylon Stratofortress, Cheery Loner.
Although my country the United Republic joined the war late, its entry brought weapons the world had never seen – Time Bombs. With their power we had the ability to tear at the very fabric of reality meaning we could speed up or slow down events however we saw fit.
Initially we only targeted enemy military assets; during one of my early missions I dropped a fast-bomb on a naval armada. Within seconds of the explosion the ships burned all their fuel, food rotted, milk soured, bulkheads rusted and people aged. But we didn’t stop at military targets.
Combining a slow-bomb and an old nuclear warhead together we developed the ultimate offensive weapon and propaganda tool. Hiroshima was bad, but it was over too quickly. What nation could stand to see their capital reduced to dust behind an impenetrable barrier of time? We set the timer to eighty years and dropped the bomb. Behind my plane the time explosion occurred, creating a dome of ‘slow-time’. Five real-time minutes later (an instant to anyone inside the dome) the nuke went off. As distant as my plane was the spark looked bright, but small, like a distant star. I didn’t care to look further; seeing family, friends and fellow citizens slowly burned and annihilated was for the enemy to suffer, not me.
Anyone who dared press a finger into the slow-time dome would become trapped part in normal time and part in slow time. Blood that would flow from heart to arm, to outstretched palm would enter fingertips held within-slow-time, thus not return to the heart at the normal rate. Without urgent amputation anyone foolish enough to touch the barrier would end with their fingers bursting apart or body-rocking heart attacks. This fact wouldn’t stop relatives committing suicide this way.
The rights and wrongs of what I did weren’t for me to contemplate. I told myself I was just a pilot, soldier and tool of the country’s aims and it wasn’t my place to worry about the morality of our actions.
After the explosion arrived my just desserts. We’d been too arrogant believing our aging Skylon fleet was quicker than ground-to-air missiles and too low for orbiting space ships to attack. We’d though we could attack with impunity. How wrong we were. Fifteen minutes into my flight home the proximity alarm sounded. From above a hulking space ship foolishly entered the atmosphere, desperately trying to destroy the aircraft responsible for the sentencing their capital city to a lingering death.
Recklessly they followed me as I dived lower. The protective plating sheared from their hull, but still they continued, my attempts at evasion merely hardening their resolve. Their weapons systems, meant for bigger prey, missed me but burned the air for tens of miles. Finally, despite my best efforts, one shot glanced across my bow. The reverberation was bone-shattering, two of my engines disintegrated leaving my plane to enter a death spiral.
Now, in the crumpled remnants of this car I can still clearly see the bomber spinning and lurching, the air filled with shrapnel, the remains of my colleagues and copious amounts of vomit. In the distance the spaceship pulled away, back to the safety of space. I’d plummeted to Earth, continually turning and twirling in a downward spiral of death. At some point I’d blacked out.
I can hear the emergency services cutting the frame of the car. Before this accident I remember travelling on the road, having been programmed by my friend… Michael Emery (I think that’s his name, although something about him looks… wrong). But I don’t remember getting into the car with him; I don’t remember where we came from or where we were going to. In fact, the only thing I remember before the car, the crash and the impending rescue is the plane and the bombing.
Like drifting on a cloud I’m pulled from the car, my body so badly beaten that it doesn’t even bother to try accounting for the pain. Lifting my arm it’s not the blood, bruises and pierced skin that shock me. My skin is haggard, withered and drained. When I was a pilot I was a naive twenty-one year old, now as I’m placed in the ambulance I’m certain my thoughts are held within the body of a pensioner.
Confused thoughts start whirring through my mind only to be cut short as I finally, thankfully, black out.
Sometime later, in a nearby hospital
I open my eyes, just for a moment and see my friend, wheelchair bound and in conversation with an artificial intelligence.
“Is he going to be alright?” Michael Emery asks.
The A.I. responds coolly, “Saul Tibbley suffered major trauma to his body, brain and neck. Saul’s neck will be restored in approximately six months, his arms, legs and soft tissue in a matter of weeks. His brain shows signs of historic scarring meaning my analysis of the effects of the accident cannot be completed.”
“Ok, thank you. Can you check just one area for me? Please review all areas of his brain associated with short-term memory.”
“I will report back to you in six hours,” the A.I. answers.
That short snippet of conversation is enough to drain what little energy reserves I have and I fall into a deep, dark sleep.
Many weeks later
I wake up into a dark, quiet room. Immediately the plethora of machines surrounding me tells me my location – a hospital. It’s too quiet, there isn’t a sound of a nurse wandering or even the gentle snoring of other patients. I’m on my own in this darkened room.
My body aches through lack of movement. My arms and legs feel especially weak from where pins have recently been removed. However as I bring my palms over my body it’s not the wires or the scars that take my attention. My skin feels mottled and… burnt? I don’t remember a fire in the car. Assessing my memory for other causes of my skin’s complexion I realise again that I can’t remember anything between dropping the bomb and the car crash.
Raising my hands to my head I feel a hair-free scalp and a ridge of scar-tissue where my skull has been glued back together. My memory is missing.
In fear I shout, “Doctor!”
Immediately the lights turn on and the same A.I. as before enters the room. As soon as it reaches my bed I ask, “What’s happened to me? Why can’t I remember anything?”
In return the A.I. remains as calm as ever and simply states, “I cannot answer your question but have contacted the individual with the right authority to do so. Your friend, Michael Emery, will be present shortly. Please do not raise your stress levels.”
Confused and angry I attempt to lift myself up, only to be defeated by unused muscle. With a little effort I use creaking fingers to raise my bed into a seated position. When ready I ask, “Why won’t you tell me what has happened?”
“I have been instructed not to do so. Michael will be here in a moment.”
As I resolve to wait, knowing it’s pointless battling an A.I., I become acutely aware of my withered bodily frame. Something isn’t right.
Finally I hear the door opening.
Michael Emery, now healed from his injury strides toward me. With an outstretched hand he grabs my palm and shakes it. “It’s so good to see you up,” he says.
Staring at him I feel momentary comfort, his identity a memory I can access. Michael is an old friend I met when signing up for the RAF… but something about him looks strange, different and once more I’m perturbed. “What’s happened to me?” I ask.
Michael perches at the bottom of my bed, fidgets for a moment then stares me in the eyes.
“We were in a car crash. Someone hacked the other driverless car’s computer and crashed it into ours. We both nearly died.”
“Who would do that?”
Michael takes a breath, “Do you remember your name? Can you tell me who you are?”
“Of course I remember my name,” I balk, “I’m Saul Tibbley, RAF pilot number 06081945. And I wasn’t asking about the crash, I remember that. I was asking why I don’t remember anything between my plane crashing and waking in a car crash. Has… has my brain been damaged? Have I lost my memory? You can tell me… be honest.”
The look Michael gives clearly hides deep emotion, “Saul… the car crash didn’t damage your brain.”
“Then why can’t I remember?”
Michael gulps, “The crash… it… repaired your brain.”
“What? What do you mean? I don’t understand.”
“When your skylon crashed you were pulled from the wreckage half-dead. You were in a coma for three weeks and your body took… months to men-”
“Months?” I interrupt.
“Yes, months to mend. Eventually you were back to being physically fit but one part of you was unfixable. Your brain had received massive scarring and your short-term memory was completely lost. The damaged tissue was too deep for any physician to operate on. So for a long time you’d wake roughly every five minutes, with your last thought being flying the plane. The car crash we both just experienced actually served to rupture the scar tissue in your brain, allowing areas of your brain that had been separated to start communicating with one another again.”
Michael’s explanation, images of my aged skin and the sound of my voice amalgamate into an unnerving understanding, “How long? How long did I live without a memory?”
“Saul… my name isn’t really Michael. I was chosen to be your chaperone because of my physical similarity to an old RAF colleague of yours. It was easier for you to be with someone you recognised when you ‘woke-up’ hundreds of times a day. And… I’m the seventh Michael Emery you’ve known. You’re ninety years old.”
The aching muscles, the leathery skin, the weak joints and warbling voice all make horrible sense.
“I’ve lost all my life? Only at its twilight do I start living… Was… Is… Is it worth it?”
Seeing the frailty in my eyes and feeling a deep sadness at a role he thought he’d never have to play Michael responds with frank, brutal, truth.
“We’re still at war. The city you bombed is now almost totally destroyed but it only served to isolate the United Republic. The security services tell me the car that crashed into us was hacked by an enemy nation. They were trying to kill you. They don’t want you to die naturally.”
“Die naturally? This is the future isn’t it? How long can people live?”
“From exposure to time-bombs you received a terminal illness. It’s my job to comfort you until the end.”
“And when is that supposed to be?”
Michael stands up and turns around, initially too scared to tell me the truth. He’s but a boy, only twenty-something himself. He’s totally unprepared for this situation. When he does eventually speak it makes the whole situation terribly worse. In two words he makes me realise how short lived my long life has been. He says,