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Authors: A.M. Dellamonica

The Color of Paradox

BOOK: The Color of Paradox
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The Color of Paradox

By

A.M. Dellamonica
illustration by jeffrey alan love

 “The Color of Paradox” copyright © 2014 by A.M. Dellamonica

Art copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey Alan Love

Publish Date: Fri Jun 6 2014 9:00am

A Tor Original

Introduction

 “The Color of Paradox,” by A.M. Dellamonica, is a science fiction story about one of a series of time travelers sent back to the past in order to buy more time for the human race, which in the future is on the verge of extinction.

Like some other stories published on Tor.com, “The Color of Paradox” contains scenes and situations some readers will find upsetting and/or repellent. [—The Editors]

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor
Ellen Datlow
.  

 The last thing they did, before sending me into the past, was shove me to the end of the world.

The Project Mayfly nurse waited as I raised myself onto a wicker table with a surface made of tightly-strung hide, a grid that put me in mind of a tennis racket. The squares of string pressed against the thin fabric of my hospital gown.

As I climbed on, I couldn’t help noticing the drain in the floor. It was a hand’s width away from the letters scratched into the concrete: “16—Hungry.”

There were marks on the wall, too, across from the metal staircase. A timeline, in yellow chalk, running from floor to ceiling, hashed at one-inch intervals. The year 1900 was scrawled at the bottom, the numbers mashed short by the floor. A foot and change upward from that, 1914 and 1916. The nines had a familiar, slightly twisted look to them. They were at once readable and yet not quite perfectly formed. So were the nines in the other chalk digits that followed: 1937 and the current year, 1946.

The nurse dodged the hand I’d put out, just for a last friendly pat, you know. She covered me, toes to chin, with a lead blanket.

“When do you tell me my mission?”

“Willie will send word when you’ve gotten there safe and sound.” The Major’s words came from a speaker in the ceiling. “Good luck, son.”

“Eyes wide, now.” The nurse slid a hand into the seven tons of steel bolted to the ceiling above me, drawing out a pair of rubber cups on a long, noodle-pallid cord. I complied, distorting my view of the chalk timeline on the wall across from me; she popped the cups on my eyes, like contact lenses except they were so thick they braced my eyelids open.

“Bit of discomfort coming,” she said, patting the lead blanket.

Blinded, I felt the vibration of the machine as it lowered from the ceiling, Dr. Frankenstein’s version of an optician’s examining rig. It settled on my body like an automobile laid atop the blanket. I heard clips. The flesh of my rump pressed the rawhide grid below.

“It’s wrong on my nose,” I protested: cold steel was pressing down on my face with bruising force.

“Try to breathe.”

“My nose,” I said again.

All their warnings ran through my mind: If you lied about ever being to Seattle you will die. If there is any metal in your body, you will die.

Who would lie about visiting Seattle?

This is a one-way mission.

Knowing I would survive the press was hardly a comfort.

Seven tons of steel were clamped around me and my nose was going to break, and after telling me to
breathe, just breathe,
that nurse—she smelled of rosewater, I’ll never forget it—was sliding some kind of leather bit into my mouth. It was enough to make me wish I was at the front, face-to-barrel with one of the new Russo-German repeating rifles.

I heard her retreat to the staircase, locking the lead door. I counted to thirty. What felt like a year passed.

Then I saw the death of the world.

It was hot, but there was no fire. My crushed nose picked up a smell straight out of Dante’s
Inferno
: charnel and brimstone. I rose above the great American city, above Lake Washington and Puget Sound. Higher, higher.

But something was wrong with the color of the future, seven weeks out. Seattle, below, the sky above, even the air around me . . . it was all splashed with color I’d never seen before. Everything was off the accepted painter’s wheel of red, blue, yellow.

The cries of thousands of living things, dying in agony, merged with my own.

My mind, confronted with the impossible, revolted. Pinned, gagged, and clamped in place, unable to look away, I screamed as the timepress thrust me against the end of everything, as I bounced off that imminent stained future and ricocheted into the past.

A sproing, a sense of strings beneath me popping. I dropped—but struck something soft before I realized I was falling.

It was dark, everything hurt, and I was still screaming.

I fought the howls, eventually compressing them to whimpers, then a voiceless suctioning of air. The cups over my eyes were gone, but I seriously doubted whether I would ever open my eyes again.

. . . color that color that sound that smell . . .

When I did, I saw a square of light above, the doorway at the top of the staircase.

Was I still in the project basement? All the equipment was gone. I lay on a mattress in the middle of the floor, placed where the gurney had been. A bare light bulb hung overhead; the staircase that led up and out was wood, rather than steel, and my chalk timeline, naturally, was gone.

Just within reach was a milk jug full of water. A bucket waited in the corner.

A woman—not the nurse from before—waited at the top of the staircase. She had a blanket in one hand and a pistol in the other.

“How do you feel?” She sounded wary.

I covered my groin with one hand and felt for the bit in my mouth. The handful of leather was almost too much to lift; I was that weak.

I prodded my nose: not quite broken.

She waited.

What I managed was a thready: “Skinned. I feel skinned.”

She nodded, pocketed the weapon, and brought the sheet, restoring my modesty with a brisk snap of linen. Everything it touched ached, as if bruised.

Vanishing upstairs, she returned with a pillow, a proper blanket, and a tray containing broth, aspirin, and a tiny soda biscuit.

“Keep your hands under the bedclothes,” she ordered, feeding me extremely small sips of the soup.

“Who are you?”

“Constance Wills. Willie.”

“You’re Agent Sixteen?”

“Thought I was a chap?” she said. “The Major loves his little joke.”

The Major had told me they’d pressed Willie in 1937, seven weeks before the first time the world ended. Somehow she’d made it back to 1916 and pushed the devastation off nine years. If not for her, I’d have died at age nine.

She was the first of us to survive the timepress.

“Do whatever Willie says,” they told me. “You’ll be fine.”

It was a bit of a dirty trick to be expecting some war-ragged captain and to find, instead, a girl with cornflower eyes, hair the color of a strawberry roan, and delicate, freckled hands. Her face was stronger than I liked, her gaze more direct. No lipstick, either. Pity. I like a girl who tries.

“I’m—” I began, and she dumped lukewarm soup in my mouth.

“I don’t want to know your name unless you make it.”

With the spoon caught between my teeth, I could hardly tell her how I knew I would survive.

 

It was days before my body agreed, and conceded to feeling as though I might not, as Willie expected, simply die.

I took what she gave me—pills, pale suggestions of food—and shivered on the mattress. The thing I’d seen raked at my dreams, even though I couldn’t properly recall that awful color, or the exact timbre of that chorus of screams.

I dreamed incomprehensible, awful things: men suckling the intestines of disembowelled soldiers, window glass turning to liquid and forcing itself into the ear canals of soft, white-fleeced sheep, a robed worker running a girl’s body through an industrial steam press.

The dark and quiet of the basement were soothing. The walls were close and plain, offering tight, restful concrete horizons. The crawl to the bucket in the corner was as much as I could manage physically, and as far as I wanted to go.

Willie nursed but otherwise ignored me until I finally got bored enough to ask for a newspaper. She brought me the
Post-Intelligencer
and there was almost more information in it than I could bear: I threw it aside after two pages of Volstead Act enforcement and reminisces of a snowstorm the previous year.

The next day she brought the paper again and the world was easier to face. That afternoon, I was allowed a little more solid food: two bites of chicken and a mash of turnips.

“The paper,” I said. “It’s current?”

She nodded.

“I’ve just had my appendix out—at home, I mean.”

“They press us down into the precise moment when our younger selves are under anesthetic. Doctor Stefoff’s theory is it’s easier to make the transition that way.”

I ran a finger over a week’s worth of beard. “I’d like to shave.”

“You’re not ready.”

“I wish to be presentable.”

“Nobody cares what you look like.”

I tried to summon a shred of charm. “You should be nicer to me, Willie. I’m here to save the world, remember?”

“You can have a mirror and a razor when you come up to your room.” With that, she vanished upstairs.

That gave me pause. The prospect of climbing that staircase filled me with dread, like a child mandated to visit to a malevolent old relative. Some dying grandfather, furious as his body failed, refusing to know his time was coming. Clawlike hands and the smell of dying . . .

Up in the house was sunshine and fresh air and the inevitability of the end.

It took me another day to muster the nerve. I was rubber-legged and sweating before I was halfway up the staircase.

“See here, old man. This isn’t physical.” To prove it to myself, I marched down to the bottom again, one two, one two, setting a slow but steady pace and swearing I wouldn’t break it. When my feet hit the concrete floor I turned on my heel—about face, good soldier!—and maintained my march to the top.

I was trembling with nausea when I reached the door, but I nevertheless forced myself through.

The door led into a closet, filled with men’s clothes. Beyond it was a plain, old-fashioned and distinctly masculine bedroom, with blue bed covers and uninspired wooden furniture. Even that, for a moment, was almost too much color.

A shaving kit taunted me. The water was fresh, steaming; Willie must have heard me dithering on the stair.

“You can do this,” I told myself.

The face in the mirror was thinner, and the bruising on the bridge of my nose was smeared, on one side, into a black eye. I’ve always been on the pale side; now I looked positively bloodless. My hair had turned a brittle white-blond, except at the roots.

I had been convinced I’d see
it
—the end, that horrible color—brimming from the sockets of my eyes.

I shaved, slowly, taking care not to cut myself. The sight of blood would have sent me quailing back to my sickbed. Putting on a suit from the closet that just about fit, I listened at the door.

Women’s voices and a mutter of teacups: Willie had company. No matter. She couldn’t keep me from my mission forever.

I found her in the kitchen with an older woman and a sickly looking Negro man, the three of them sharing a breakfast of eggs and bacon. The smell was so rich my stomach turned.

The older woman looked at me, eyebrows raised. “Who’s this fellow?”

“My brother.” Willie swallowed a slimy, soft-boiled egg. “Jules Wills the Third.”

The woman turned out to be a housekeeper and cook. Her name was Mrs. Farmer and she seemed a gem: motherly, warm, efficient, everything a matron should be. The old man, Rufus, was nominally a servant. This polite bit of fiction allowed him to live, despite his race, with three other gents Willie was keeping upstairs. I was given to understand she ran a boarding house for convalescent bachelors.

I endured an interminable stretch of pointless chitchat about the stock market and a recent State of the Union address and whether the carrots at market had been overpriced that day. Finally Rufus caned his way out into the hall and Mrs. Farmer took away the dishes, with their intermingling, overstrong smells.

BOOK: The Color of Paradox
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