Art: Jason Arias

Slippage and the Flag

The nations of the future sent for help—by opening up massive time travel-enabling sinkholes in the middle of world capitals. So who's left to care about the present?

Apr 28 2016, 2:00pm

Art: Jason Arias

Today's future dispatch is loaded with time travel, apocalypse, and the quest for Scottish independence. Yet it hinges on a single, compelling question: If there were one thing we all could do that was guaranteed to help save the entire world—why would we bother doing anything else? -The Ed

In twos and threes the sinkhole regurgitates volunteers, orange jumpsuits covered in soot and dirt, flicking them into the air like grubby pennies. At the peak of their trajectory they pull the cord on their small backpacks. Parachutes deploy.

You scan the falling volunteers as they drift slow to earth, like giant flakes of ash, hoping to see Drew among them. Panic opens up inside you. He's not there.

Holding yourself for warmth, you circle George Square. Once, this sluggish heart of Glasgow enjoyed a brief defibrillation during the drive for Scottish independence. You remember Drew lifting you to sit on his shoulders and waving a massive Saltire flag above the hopeful crowds, faces painted blue and white.

Now the civic space is a bottomless pit, one of hundreds worldwide, part of the global Kismet relief effort. You pace outside the fenced-off landing zone, watching volunteers reunite with loved ones. Some cry with joy at coming home, some sob for what they've left behind. Fingers are held to mouths in supplication to silence. Loose lips, and all that.

You spot one of Drew's colleagues at the registry stall, Tammy Something-or-other. Shaven head, piercings all over. The sort of girl who used to show up to anti-fascism rallies, back when isms besides fatalism still stood a fighting chance.

"What happened?" you ask. "Where's Drew?"

"You know the rules," chides Tammy. She hands her parachute to a man wearing an orange Kismet jumpsuit. You notice she's alone. Nobody met her at touchdown. Does she not trust herself to stay tight-lipped? You press for an answer. "He was right behind me."

"Ah-ah." The Kismet representative holds up a wagging finger. Tammy withers him with a look.

"Was this Drew's last trip?" she asks.

You nod. She shakes her head.

"Fucking typical. Me too. I jumped with him, on Sinkhole Day."

Sinkhole Day. What a mess. Planet-wide, the ground opened up like a bad dream. Those future folk sure knew how to make an entrance. London lost half of Parliament. New Delhi saw the entire India Gate subside. Washington's titular monument tipped into oblivion. Capital city after capital city. Oh, and Glasgow too. Cultural capital of Scotland, sure, but not official. Over There, does Edinburgh still exist? Best not to ask, really.

Then came the transmission, cutting across all frequencies and signals. The world's sharpest minds sliced at it with predictions of vowel shifts, slang formalisation, rebracketing, calquing. Not that anyone needed a postgraduate degree in linguistics to understand the basic gist. In a dozen pidgin voices, the future asked just one thing:

Send help.

"Not gonna lie," says Tammy, on this side of time. "Jumping home, things didn't look good."

"Against the rules!" the Kismet rep whines. "Remember: any individual can make history!"

Tammy looks ready to spit at the man's recitation of the Kismet slogan. "I've not telt her anything!"

"You might've!"

"Oh, fuck off, like what? Winning lottery numbers? Grow up. Come on," says Tammy, linking her arm through yours. "Either Drew comes back or he doesn't. Meantime, let's drink."

Don't get too drunk, you tell yourself. You've got secrets to keep, too.

Tammy steers you to the Merchant City, sits you down in a gay bar. Letting her buy cocktails might give her false hope, but you don't care.It's a distraction. From Drew's absence. From the abyss. From your guilt at having never once jumped into it.

A global humanitarian crisis across the ages, as unprecedented as it was strange, Kismet's drive for volunteers was met with mass enthusiasm.

Africa reacted first. Drew hates it when you shrink a whole continent full of nations down to one word. "Which country in Africa?" he sneers. Before Kismet could set up an official volunteer register, whole regions—in Nigeria, Kenya, the DRC, Ethiopia—emptied as people jumped down the holes. Two thirds didn't come back.

There were exceptions. Russia? Not so quick off the mark. Hardly a surprise.

As for the rest of the world, things came together easy. Or rather, easier than any previous humanitarian effort in world history. No need for visas, border control, any of that red tape stuff. Even bog-standard jingoism wasn't an issue. No matter where you came from, down the timeline your glorious nation was as deep in the shitter as anywhere else. Volunteering became a civic duty on par with taxes, and everyone had their reasons. Altruism. A penchant for risk taking. The human urge to rubberneck at other people's misery.

All you had to do was pass Kismet's personality test designed to filter out blabbermouths, then jump down the hole and await instruction. Simple.

For most.

"One point!" Tammy laughs and slaps the shiny chrome bar hard enough to make your cocktail glasses jump. "You failed by one point?"

"I know!" you say. "I was raging. Tore up the rejection letter."

Actually, during Drew's first jump, you retrieved his acceptance letter from the recycling bin and tore that up. The night he returned, you left the scrap with the Kismet logo floating face-up in the toilet. Very convincing. You had to pretend to be sad you couldn't join him on his second jump, but that wasn't difficult.

You try not to think about that other letter you found in the recycling.

Each sinkhole trip lasts a week, at least six months apart, all within a three-year period. Then, no more. Longer stays, or more frequent, and volunteers might learn something dangerous.

Kismet are serious about this restriction. There's even a ban on sitting government officials making the jump. All of them. Fuck knows what the POTUS would do with leaked season finales of The Entire World.

Because here's the catch: future governments refuse to detail the horrors they've seen. Not even Italy, that soft underbelly of Europe, has been persuaded to spill. Nobody at either end of the timeline knows if this wrinkle in physics has created a bootstrap paradox or an alternative timeline, and nobody's been keen to put it to the test. To toggle globalism into global destruction. Who wants to be that guy?

Tammy sips her Manhattan. "Could've signed with one of the holiday agencies."

"Those disaster capitalists? No thanks. It's not extreme sports." You down your amaretto sour. "Another?"

"Get me drunk as you like, I'm not telling."

"Come on, Drew's five decades away!"

"So's Leonardo da Vinci. Any individual-"

"Yeah, yeah. Save it."

She's right, though. Even your dumb, generous, idealistic boyfriend could make history. And oh the history he wants to make! In his quest for Scottish secession, there's no end to the hands he'd shake on the campaign trail, the babies he'd kiss. Babies whose great-grandkids will one day feel the earth buckle, or watch the sky fall, or smell salt on the air as the oceans boil.

So much potential between here and there, wasted, you think.

"I don't know what he sees in me," you blurt. You push your drink away, then pull it back.

"Oh, whisht! One point is nothing," Tammy says. "Wait and see. He's coming back."

There's no doubt about that. Since Sinkhole Day, inconsequential items from between now and then have been slipping back into the present. Small things. Scraps of clothing, artworks as yet unexplained. Nothing major.

Except for that other letter for Drew you found. Dated ten years from now, it addressed him as 'First Minister of an Independent Scotland.' Classified information of the highest order. What would Kismet do to you, to Drew, if they found out? Does it even matter? The idea of his future hollows you out. The hope you both share, cheapened by the cold hand of destiny, steering him to greatness.

Follow that thought and things get grim. Real grim. All the good you've seen in your lifetime—nonbinary and trans recognition in the States, the liberation of North Korea, fuck, even that five-star Bieber/Babymetal duet album—none of it'll last more than a couple hundred years, tops.

You signal the bartender. You could drink the whole bar dry. Drunk Tammy gossips like a pro, her sixth Manhattan raised in a toast to a distant city doomed to rubble and wolves.

"It's so depressing. You've no idea. The state of those camps. That's no spoilers! Any war, there's refugees. Not that there's war! Maybe there is. Who knows?"

In the corner of the bar, a drag king takes to a neon-lit stage and starts an outdated routine about the vaping ban. You watch him and remember a YouTube video of the clown parades they used to have in the Calais refugee camp, baggy-trousered theatre students slapsticking in the French mud for an audience of laughing Syrian kids and their sad-eyed parents.

That was years ago, though. When was the last time anyone volunteered for anything other than the Kismet effort?

"There's rumors," says Tammy. "We're not even meant to talk to the poor shits we're trying to help—but everyone's finger-pointing. Russia, getting greedy as usual. Japan, some massive web shut-down. Shit, even us. All those nukes in Faslane. Anyone could've done it."

"Back up," you say. "Five hundred years of progress and we get the blame?"

Tammy hides her mouth behind her hands—then whispers through her fingers.

"We might be late to the party, us volunteers. They've been rebuilding for maybe two, three hundred years, but it's taking too long. It's not enough."

"You're lying," you say.

Tammy cocks an eyebrow. "You an expert, then, aye? Go jump. You'll see."

You begin to protest—of course you've been Over There, who hasn't?—but she cuts you off.

"Spare me. Can spot your Wee Scotland mentality a mile off. Can't see beyond yourself. Whole world could blow up tomorrow and you'd still be crying over a flag."

Your ears burn. One person can make history. It used to sound hopeful. Not any more. You imagine Drew standing in a bunker, watching a digital map of the world light up, one hand on a key, the other on a red button.

Tammy pulls you in close. "Never mind. Come home with me," she says. "I don't want to be alone tonight."

Can't blame her for trying. If you'd spent a week nursing a doomed world back from the brink of death, you'd want to fuck till you couldn't remember the sickness, too. Instead you bundle her into a taxi, send it growling into the night. You don't need any more regrets.

Passing the sinkhole on the way home, a group of tourists approach. Korean? Japanese? You can't tell. They thrust a tiny camera at you and shout Please! Please! One of those round-the-world trips visiting every subsidence. Seen through the viewfinder, they wave stiff Saltire flags on plastic sticks. You take the picture. You feel sick.

Like a big, black eye, the sinkhole stares at you—then winks with light.

Something small and grey shoots out of the earth. A fluttering noise disturbs the still air as the object falls, unfurling like a white flag of surrender, to snag on a lamppost.

Drew's parachute.

In a flash you know: he's not coming back. Not tonight. Not ever.

You like to think he's found a community more worth his dedication. A life better than what's left for him Over Here. A future better than you. Well, you think, good for him. And you allow yourself to hope again.