prompt: target, title: (just like) starting over in (just like) starting over flash fiction

  • May 10, 2023, 5:58 p.m.
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There wasn’t much extraordinary about the person lying where the machine had once been, apart from the fact he’d appeared out of thin air as it exploded. That in-and-of itself was extraordinary, sure, but him, not so much. He was tall but gaunt, hair once hastily dyed red but showing brown roots. He wore a sturdy-looking backpack, unlabeled, a custom-job, the one interesting thing you could note about the unconscious shape at the center of still-fresh scorch marks. Quite incredibly unextraordinary, other than the aforementioned ‘from thin air’ and the fact the blast heralding his arrival left him completely unscathed. Unextraordinary, that is, until he finally opened his eyes.

The first thing they did after opening was to clamp shut again, as if concentrating would “do” something. What he was trying to accomplish was unclear, the on-site telepath was unable to discern thoughts, only surface emotions: confusion, desperation, grief. But as he focused, the corners of his eyes briefly flashed with nearly-ultraviolet flame before the twin fires abruptly fizzled out. Whatever he was trying to do, it wouldn’t work there.

He looked at the hastily-erected barriers around him, saw their two-way mirrors and realized he was under observation, which seemed to change the trajectory of his anxieties. He unzipped his backpack, rooting around for something, anything to extricate himself. His gangly arms raking deeper into the bag than physics should allow, to shoulder-depth.

First, he extricated an emerald ring, put it on and focused as before. It glowed green briefly then fizzled, same as his eyes. He grunted, threw it to the concrete floor, then rummaged some more. He held aloft a Norse war-hammer, again expecting a great effect, eliciting none. The gleaming broad-sword did nothing other than gleam. The electric screwdriver that only emitted a pleasant hum. A side-arm that looked like a pre-war Dustbuster that, to his surprise, merely shot out light. Nothing worked as required. He hurled the impotent handheld vacuum cleaner toward a mirror then, from both exhaustion and frustration, passed out again.

It wasn’t at all what the madmen behind the two-way glass believed the device would do. Project Turtledove was designed to target parallel universes with distress signals, hoping someone on an alternate Earth might have the means to send them help more robust than merely messages. As a last-ditch effort to save the Second American Revolution, before it collapsed entirely. It wasn’t a great idea, but when you’re running out of ideas, you’ll try them all. If anything, it worked better than everyone other than its creators could’ve ever imagined. It did something, at least. But there was no cavalry from a better world, just a desperate man with a pack full of things that would’ve worked marvels in places with different laws of energy conservation but there did doodley-squat.

“It did something!” Phil remarked, half-excitedly, half-defensively. “Sure,” Kurt took a drag off an iffy cigarette smuggled from what was left of North Carolina, “for a certain value of the word ‘something’, sure.”

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