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Eric Cline was a Writers of the Future finalist in 2012. Adept in both mysteries and science fiction,
he has sold to
Ellery Queen’s, Alfred Hichcock’s, Stupifying Stories, Cosmos Online,
and others printzines and e-zines.

 SNEAK ATTACK
by
Eric Cline

Hawaii was not a paradise if you had someone else’s blood on your shirt.

The sun was about to set. In the twilight, the stains on Radford Mueller’s shirt were barely visible. He ducked into a copse of coconut trees. Few people were about. This wasn’t a place for tourists; it was a seedy quarter of Honolulu, where enlisted men could swing the rent and the locals sold them vice.

Once he was hidden by the trees, he took a deep, sobbing breath. He had washed his hands thoroughly before he had fled the apartment; still, he wiped his palms vigorously on his dungarees.

Aside from his own deep breathing, the only sound was the slow grind of glass under his shoes. People had discarded beer bottles here.

The bloody scene played through his mind to the point of distraction.

I was just fighting back! He thought.

In the evening shade, a couple walked past on the foot path.

The woman looked back at him.

When they locked eyes, Radford Mueller tried not to look like a fleeing murderer.

She wore a short dress that was perfect for the Pacific island’s climate, but might have gotten her arrested anywhere in the forty-eight states. The man, his face turned away, had a short sailor’s haircut, so he was probably stationed here.

Not that most men didn’t have short hair in 1941.

“Wait here,” the woman said to her companion.

She stepped closer. She had a thin, Scandinavian face that matched her blonde hair.

She gave him a huge, friendly, fake-as-all-get-out smile.

Her teeth were perfect, which was a red flag that she, like Radford Mueller, was a—

“Time traveler, how ya doin’?” she said.

Radford Mueller tried to hide behind a tree trunk that was, at most, eleven inches in diameter.

*

Time travel: every government on Earth had banned the process as soon as it was discovered.

The underground lab Radford Mueller had used was literally underground.

He went through an abandoned building, into a basement, and there it was in all of its musty, creaking glory. Six tech people did the job. They were supported by four thugs who ensured that (1) he paid and (2) was given a good fright to keep his mouth shut.

(Pirate labs do not get new business from excellent customer service.)

A human refrigerator with a heavily-scarred face pointed an Uzi at him. “Call me Jordy,” he said. “We’ll get you what you paid for, but you talk to the cops, and my face is the last one you’ll ever fucking see.”

Radford Mueller’s life had always been bland and predictable. Now that he was getting the excitement he had craved, here was what he did: he managed to hold a tightened ring of muscle between his bowels and his underwear.

“I’m not saying a word!”

*

“Time traveler, how ya doin’?”

Radford Mueller was no roughneck, despite the fact that he had just killed a man with his bare hands. Nor was he a dishonest man. Lying did not come easily to him.

So when he squeaked out: “What are you, who are you—,” swallowed a gulp and finished with “—talking about?” it sounded about as smooth and authentic as a line delivered at a singles bar by an adolescent boy with a fake ID whose voice had not yet changed.

“I’m Pinky Estes,” she said, as though she was introducing herself at that same singles bar.

She pointed a manicured fingernail at him: “And you’re Radford Mueller. And you just murdered your grandfather!”

“Eeek!”

*

In the pirate lab, Radford Mueller had stripped naked, as ordered. The four tough guys surrounded him for a final round of insults and threats, even after he had paid. The technicians who were supposed to attach the leads to his body and lower him into the chronotank fluid, watched all of this with no emotion save boredom. Surely, they’d seen it a hundred times.

Jordy the Uzi Guy tried to take a picture of him, but couldn’t get an app on his phone to show up on the home screen. Radford Mueller gathered that the app was supposed to distribute his face all over the criminal underworld if he found himself in a squealing mood. But like so many software products, it promised greater convenience than it delivered.

Radford Mueller’s long-planned time jump halted at this one, unexpected juncture.

He sighed. He had eaten shit his entire life; it was the only meal he knew how to prepare.

“Please give it to me,” he said, and gently took the phone from Jordy’s non-Uzi-cradling hand.

“See, you just press down on the icon for a few seconds, and wiggle it, and then it shows up permanently on the home screen. You don’t have to navigate to find it anymore.”

Jordy the Uzi Guy grunted in appreciation.

“Hey, you’re all right,” Jordy the Uzi Guy said. “Y’know, uh. Uh. I know When you’re going to. And I heard a joke about it. It goes like this. There’s this guy who is half-Japanese–”

Thank God, the tech guys motioned him to come over so they could attach the leads.

*

Radford Mueller thought: I’ve run into the Time Police!

In truth, there was no known dedicated force which pursued chrono-lawbreakers through time. Just plain regular cops raided the underground labs. And they also went out and arrested the idiots who, no matter the consequences, just had to post their chrononautic experiences online.

But how else could this woman know about him?

Despite all public denials, Time Cops had to exist!

“I’m not a cop,” she said.

“Hmm?”

“No cop.” Her big smile got even bigger, if that was possible.

He was a foot taller than this woman and had just beaten a muscular young man—yes, his grandfather—to death. Still, he looked around frantically for someone to protect him from this petite lady. Her companion lurked, half-seen, with his back turned, on the walking path.

Radford Mueller did the only thing he could do.

He asked: “What are you, then?”

“Your insurance agent. If you would like!”

*

Mueller had wanted to apprise his grandfather, Frank Dominick, of the upcoming Pearl Harbor attack so he could become the hero of the hour. A civilian, Grampa Dominick had been assigned by his corporation to assist the Navy in its use of radar technology.

Frank Dominick had been an outsized figure in family lore. At age sixty-four, he’d married Radford’s grandmother when she was twenty-three; five months later, she had given birth to Radford’s mother. A precocious self-taught engineer, Frank Dominick had been in Hawaii, only in his early twenties, as a senior electronics man for a military contractor.

Everyone had talked about what a crazy character he was.

Too much of a character, as it turned out.

When he opened his door and saw Radford Mueller standing in the hallway, his first words were, “What do you want, coon?”

“Hey!” Mueller said. “I…” He had never in his life encountered prejudice because his father was African-American.

“I’m not expecting any deliveries,” Dominick said. He glared at his grandson. “What do you want, spook?”

Then, he slapped his grandson across the face.

*

“Insurance agent?” Radford Mueller repeated.

The woman nodded. “You just killed your grandfather. Now you’ve got to worry about paradoxes. He has no children yet, so how did you exist to come back in time and kill him? Will you cease to exist? Who knows? But will you carry the guilt of it for the rest of your life? Yes, certainly! You’re no killer are you, Mr. Mueller?”

“No,” he said plaintively. He hugged himself.

“You’re in luck!” she said. “I want you to talk to someone. But first, I’m going to set up a silence field so we won’t disturb anyone.”

She held up her left hand, palm downward, and a large ring on her index finger began to glow a warm pink.

“There,” she said. “Now, no one outside of our immediate radius can hear us talking.”

Radford Mueller would have been hard-pressed to say exactly what she had just done. His Era had no such thing as a “silence field.”

“Now, I can introduce you to someone,” she said. She tapped on a bracelet that was surely not a bracelet. It seemed to summon the man standing in the shadows beyond, her walking companion.

The man got up next to her and stared impassively at Radford Mueller.

It was Grandfather Dominick.

Radford Mueller shrieked so loudly that he should have woken King Kamehameha from his grave.

Pinky Estes frowned, but remained professionally patient.

“I guess we got a return on our investment in the silence field,” she said with brittle chipperness. “Now, before you start begging forgiveness—”

“Oh Grampa, I’m so sorry!” Radford Mueller blubbered. “But you attacked me! You acted crazy. And I hit you back—”

Grandfather Dominick stared at him with no apparent emotion, certainly not anger. His appearance was unruffled and unbloodied.

“—And you fell and when I tried to pick you up you swung at me again and—”

“—He’s just a robot,” Pinky Estes said firmly.

“A robe…robot.” Radford Mueller’s Era had humanoid ButlerBots, but nothing that looked as advanced and human as this.

“Mr. Mueller, Mutual Casualty and Causality will preserve causality—it says so right in our name! You will remember beating your grandfather to death. We can’t change that. What we can do is go back in time two hours, give your grandfather a harmless drug that will erase his memory, hide him while he sleeps it off, and have the robot greet you at the door half an hour ago. You’ll beat it to ‘death,’” (she made air quotes) “and your memory of what happened will be preserved. And so too will your grandfather, so he will father the child who will be your mother, and you will be born.”

If human jaws were capable of literally hitting the ground whenever they figuratively did, Radford Mueller’s chin would have been resting on dirty sand and broken beer bottles (and a used condom which, fortunately for his sensibilities, he had not noticed).

“How…that’s amazing. That would be wonderful. How did you find me?”

She gave him her best grin. Grampa robot remained uninvolved, its subroutines causing it to blink at random intervals.

“Paradoxes just call out!” she said. “Our company may have been willed into existence by the space-time continuum, unwilling to put up with any paradoxes.”

Radford Mueller doubted that origin story the same way he doubted that Keebler cookies were made by the little cartoon elves on their packages. He recognized corporate spin. Still, he was glad that this particular corporation was here, now.

“That would be amazing!” he said—and even though his words and tone were enthusiastic, it was a rather tepid way of saying he was glad to pay a contractor to get a murder off of his conscience. “So I really would have only killed it. Ah, no offense.”

The grampa robot spoke its first words: “No harm, no foul.”

“Ha!” Radford Mueller was gleeful. He leaned forward and shook hands with the simulacrum. The palm was warm, fleshy, and convincing.

Then Pinky Estes took Radford’s big hand between her two smaller ones and cupped it. They smiled warmly at each other. He gazed into the eyes of his petite savior.

“Now, this is a premium service,” she said.

Then she named the price.

“Whoa! Fuck you! Oh, fuck you in all three holes you little cunt!”

Her smile, if anything, gained strength.

“You’re actually getting a better deal than you think. Your payment takes the form of a trust account you set up in your own Era. Because our corporate entity is decades down the line, we take the accrued interest as part of our payment, which lowers your initial deposit requirement.”

“Oh, wow,” Radford Mueller said, in just the tone one would expect. Then he sighed. He knew he would pay it.

She had cloths in her purse to help him wipe off the blood. As she did so, she gave him instructions on how to set up the account when he got back to his Era.

“Now we have to be clear,” she said. “If you don’t establish the account, then we don’t see your information. And if we don’t see your information, then I don’t get sent back here to make the deal. The continuum seems to have many ways of closing a paradox loop, and some of them are far less pleasant than this, from your perspective. Understood?”

“Yes. Yes I do.”

“Excellent. Then we’ll be off.”

She fiddled with a bauble on her necklace, and she and the grampa robot vanished, silently, instantly; it looked like a very cheap special effect.

After they vanished, Radford Mueller realized what a high pressure sale it had been. He knew how the paradox had been established—he’d been dumb enough to come back here to talk to his grandfather. But why did the paradox belch up into that particular company’s inbox? If the space-time continuum did that, how come it didn’t notify the cops somehow?

Oh, the cops! How wonderful it would have been to be pulled over for speeding before he had arrived at the illegal chrono-lab. He knew he would have gotten scared, and would have taken his speeding ticket and driven straight home. Why couldn’t that have happened?

Since she’d helped clean off the blood, and he was now more relaxed, he was able to walk through the neighborhood to where he’d concealed the “bicycle.”

Her return ticket had been a false necklace; his was concealed in the left pedal, activated with a single rotation. He went forward on the bike—

—and he was in the chronotank, nude, struggling with the leads that covered him, while they told him not to struggle.

And they unhooked him and toweled him off and gave him his clothes back.

“Win World War II?” the head tech asked, not looking up from his monitor.

Jordy the Uzi Guy escorted him up through the abandoned building. Rats and mice scurried ahead of them.

They stood on the street in the nighttime, next to Radford Mueller’s car. Jordy’s Uzi was slung under his arm to be less noticeable, not that there was anyone around to notice. Radford Mueller raised his eyebrows when Jordy put a hand on his shoulder.

“This is the part where I’m supposed to threaten you one last time, and then let you go. But that shit with the button was great. Been trying to get that app to work for a long while.”

“Think nothing of it.”

“Did you kill your grandfather?”

“Ahhhh!”

“Shh, man. Just don’t pay no money. It’s a scam, dig?”

Radford Mueller, for the second time in subjectively an hour, found himself dumbstruck.

“My boss got a thing going with the Casualty and Causality group. They’re nothing but a bunch of grifters. They swoop in and hand you some crap that they’re from the far future.”

“But they knew I had killed my grandfather and agreed to take care of it!”

“Nah, boo. Nothing changes the future. Some mechanism we don’t know about, but no one’s ever done it. Ain’t you seen those interviews with the loons they caught at other labs? They always say they kept Abe Lincoln or Martin Luther King alive, or prevented 9/11, but it doesn’t take.

“I don’t know that it matters, anyway. All you people who come to us, you don’t wanna change history. You wanna change yourselves. We can’t do either of those for you, but we take your money.

“The Casualty and Causality people, their grift is more complicated. I’ve heard them brag about it. They tasered your old man and dumped him in an empty room somewhere. They made the switch—but before, not after, you told ‘em you’d pay ‘em. The reason was, they needed the robot to pick a fight with you.”

“Shit!” It suddenly seemed very plausible; his “grandfather” had gone from zero to one hundred on the Apeshit Scale in nothing flat—odd behavior for a respected engineer who could hold on to a plum job in the last days of the Great Depression.

“You know how you can check it out?”

“How?”

“That’s blood on your shirt, right?”

Pinky Estes had missed a spot.

“Yeah.”

“They build those robots to bleed easy. People don’t drop blood like that in fist fights, but middle class geeks like you that pay for the time travel, they don’t know that. You never been in a grown-up fight before, I bet. Why you think you won?” He grinned a mouth full of half-gold crowns and half-blackened ruins.

“And I’ll tell you something about that so-called blood—”

Radford Mueller interrupted, blurting: “But the robot was so much more realistic than the crude ones we’ve got now.”

“Just a ButlerBot on the inside. They put a lot of work into the rubber face. If you’d tried to have a long conversation with it, you’d see it was no smarter than them Butlers that clean tables at Wendy’s and Burger King.”

“But they had a silencing device. It kept anyone from hearing me scr— yell when they surprised me.”

The guy shrugged.

“Wasn’t it some shitty neighborhood? Don’t matter if it’s in Hawaii or not, shitty is shitty. No one cared about your yelling.”

Radford Mueller frowned. That seemed only too right. “What were you going to tell me about the blood?”

“Taste it, man.”

Slowly, but without hesitation, Radford Mueller swiped the stain with his fingertip and brought it up to his mouth. An unwelcome burst of sweetness blossomed on his tongue.

“They say the blood doesn’t look good unless they use the ole’ Hollywood special effects recipe. Corn syrup and food coloring.”

“Corn syrup,” Radford Mueller murmured. No wonder she had so solicitously cleaned him off.

“Yeah, brother. Sorry. Them people are from the same Era as us. My boss gets a kickback from them for telling them When you are. You can just forget about paying. Half the marks think better of it anyway, I hear, so no one will notice. Just don’t let anyone know I tipped you, okay?”

Jordy the Uzi guy turned away.

“Wait!” Radford Mueller yelled. “Why would they do this to me?”

Jordy stopped, turned back, gave him an annoyed look.

“Th’fuck? This is a criminal enterprise.”

Then turned back from whence he had come.

Then whirled back around.

“Oh! The joke! I was gonna tell you. It’s like this. There’s this guy who’s half Japanese and half Jewish. And every December 7, he launches a sneak attack on Pearl Schwartz!”

Jordy laughed with a full-throated, childlike innocence, then walked back into the building.

Radford Mueller stood very still on the street, and wondered—just in passing, mind you—if it would have really been so bad if he had actually killed his grandfather.

Copyright © 2016 Eric Cline

 

LIMITS
Larry Niven

An extraordinary mix of fantasy and science fiction from one of the masters of science fiction, Larry Niven.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

HOME

The Editor's Word

FICTION
Breaking News Involving
Space Pirates
by Brian Trent

Ten Things

by Ron Collins
Devil Went Down to Georgia
by Mercedes Lackey
Sneak Attack
by Eric Cline
Songs in the Key of Chamomile
by Rebecca Birch

Astralis

by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Upsold
by Jay O'Connell

Achilles Piquant and
the Elsinore Vacillation

by Laura Resnick

The Observer

by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Time and Not Space

by David A. Kilman
The Girls We Lost

by Leena Likitalo

INTERVIEW
Harry Turtledove

by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
The Long Tomorrow (Conc.))
by Leigh Brackett

COLUMNS
From the Heart's Basement
by Barry N. Malzberg
Science Column
by Gregory Benford

Recommended Books
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye

Loosely based on Larry Niven's 1973 novella "Flash Crowd," Red Tide continues to examine the social consequences of the impact of having instantaneous teleportation, where humans can instantly travel long distances in milliseconds.

This is a theme that has fascinated the author throughout his career and even appears in his seminal work Ringworld, where the central character celebrates his birthday by instantly teleporting himself to different time zones, extending his birthday. The author also discussed the impact of such instantaneous transportation in his essay, "Exercise in Speculation: The Theory and Practice of Teleportation."

Larry Niven is joined by two younger writers, Brad R. Torgersen and Matthew J. Harrington, as they take on this challenging idea and further develop the theories and concepts that Niven originally presented in "Flash Crowd."

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Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2016 All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.