A short story for Miranda Kate’s Midweek Flash Challenge, which comes in at 770 words rather than the prescribed max of 750. I’m a rebel writer on a highway to hell, me, stuff your rules. The story grew from a seed planted by lovely Helen White, who likes stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
“You have to stop yourself, Helen,” Keith said. “See what your weapon wrought. It’s all gone. Everything: animals, plants, people … civilisation. No more schools, shops, churches. No vicars, no football players, no scientists. No children.”
“I know what’s at stake,” Helen snapped. “Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Mine is no different. Thanks to you I can go back to the beginning of this one and stop myself from creating the weapon that destroys the world. I’ll make a happy ending instead of, well,” she gestured at the surrounding expanse of bone and ash, scoured by an ice wind. “This.”
“You never told me how you knew where the bunker was,” Keith said, adjusting the straps of Helen’s backpack. “Nor how it happened to contain exactly the equipment I needed to build my time machine.”
“I didn’t, did I?” Helen smiled, and stepped through the rectangular portal into the past. Keith wondered how long the change would take. Helen would have a two-step journey back to her younger self, thanks to the limitations of his time device. She’d have around ten minutes at the half-way point, waiting for the temporal calibrations to reset. Then she would be able to return to prevent her younger self starting the chain of events that had led to the destruction of the world. He shivered as the image of Helen disappeared from the portal as it began to reset.
“Gan canny, lass,” he sighed, and sat on the cold, hard ground. He hugged his knees, and waited for the hell around him to disappear, replaced by a better world.
Helen stepped out into the middle of the story. Behind her the time portal crackled as it began the reset process. She felt warmer. Above, the sky was blue, and the road beneath her feet no longer shattered and melted. She was also, to her surprise, not alone. Amazingly it took her a full half minute to recognise that the person sitting by the side of the road was an older version of herself. She crossed and sat by her doppelganger.
“Well, this is weird,” she said.
“Tell me about it,” the other said. “I’ve been waiting for you. “I’m from …”
“A different timeline?” Helen rummaged in her backpack.
“Yes,” the other said. “I’ve been through once already, on the same mission as you.” Helen took two cheese & banana sandwiches from her pack and passed one over. The other ate it eagerly, cramming it into her mouth as though she’d not eaten for weeks.
“You found our younger self?” The other nodded, her mouth full. Helen continued. “You directed her away from creating the weapon?”
“I didn’t have to. She was never going to make that discovery left to her own devices. Remember? The professor who gave us vital information?”
“You’re right! Horn-rimmed specs, grey hair in a bun? I’d forgotten about her.”
“Well, it turns out … but let’s keep this short since we only have ten minutes. I simply stopped the professor from passing on the vital information. Voila! World saved.”
“So why are you here?”
“Turns out saving the world wasn’t such a great idea. Mankind sucked it dry anyway, destroyed almost all plant and animal life. And,” she checked her watch, “with the exception of a very few elite rich, people were enslaved. The food ran out and, well, those in charge began using people for food. Murdered on their fortieth birthday, and processed into chicken-flavoured goo. There’s no cheese and banana there.”
She looked at Helen with a grim expression. “You have to allow the weapon to be made, rather than condemn the human race to that horrific existence. Eventually nature will overcome the devastation and life will begin anew. Green shoots from seeds buried deep.”
The portal fizzed and crackled. Was it possible? Could there exist a future that was worse than the destruction of the world? Helen thought for a moment, nodded, then stood and entered the portal …
… and emerged at the beginning. Her younger self – oh so young, with her beautiful red hair – was at the far side of the laboratory, working at a computer. Helen took a white coat from behind the door and put it on. From the pocket she took a pair of horn-rimmed specs. She tied her grey hair into a bun and stepped forward.
“Interesting theory! Now, I have an idea that might just make your experiment work. And then I’ll tell you about the bunker.”
Poor Keithy, hugging his knees in the ashes of the world, forever at the end of time.