No Secrets Left, story by Tori Chambers at Spillwords.com

No Secrets Left

No Secrets Left

written by: Tori Chambers

 

The ship was sinking, but that wasn’t the worst thing. The worst thing happened the night before. I sat on the main deck, leaning against the mast, and watched the full moon set through fevered eyes. I realized, not for the first time, that I was going to die, but even that wasn’t the worst of it. No, the worst thing happened when I bundled myself in a vomit-soaked blanket against the sharp, North-Atlantic chill and realized that I would die alone.

I blame my own curiosity. Even as a young girl, I had a burning desire to know secrets. That’s why I joined the Chronos Project. I wanted to be a chononaut and learn the mysteries of the past: Who built the pyramids? What happened to Amelia Earhart? Was Jesus of Nazareth a real person? So many mysteries and a short lifetime to learn them.

Let me tell you what I learned.

The Santa Agatha, 1827. We arrived in a chronal pod, three days ago, wearing nineteenth-century sailor’s garb. Gregg remained silent as Jack and I bickered, but then Gregg had always been a quiet one. He wasn’t part of the equation.

Jack was my ex, as in ex-lover, ex-housemate, and ex-fiancé. The only reason he wasn’t my ex-coworker was because there were only the three of us left. Everyone else had been reassigned or laid off. The government was dismantling the Chronos Project, and no one was sure why.

“Budget cuts,” said some. “No secrets left,” said others. I subscribed to the first of those theories — there was an endless supply of mysteries to solve — but even the government’s deep pockets had a limit. There was a third theory, whispered among the project managers and department heads: The Great Paradox was a fallacy.

Time travel was permitted based on the theory that you cannot change history. I’m not a physicist or a chronal engineer, but there were equations to support that theory, backed by the Grandfather Paradox.

Suppose that you can travel in time and go back to shoot your grandfather when he was a child, killing him. He never grows up to sire your father, so you’re never born, so you can’t go back in time to kill your grandfather. Therefore, your grandfather lives so that you are born and go back to kill your grandfather as a child.

This circular logic was a source of debate among physicists until, or so the rumor goes, one of them proved mathematically that changing the past, while hard, was not impossible. So the government was shutting down the project.

Where that led was to Gregg, Jack, and myself aboard a tall-mast vessel in 1827, trying to solve a final mystery.

The wreckage of the Santa Agatha was found in 2135, and its discovery sparked a debate. The crew had abandoned the ship and it sank two hundred miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. Examination revealed that the ship was sunk by three, perfectly-round holes in the starboard hull, as if punched by a laser drill, so we three were sent to investigate.

The moment we stepped out of the chronal pod, it vanished. That was by design. No one in 1827 should see 22nd-century tech, although that made things dicey for us. Getting a spacial lock on a ship at sea, three hundred years in the past, was tricky and it might take a few tries to do it, again. Kind of like finding a needle in a temporal haystack. If they managed it on the first try, we’d be home quick, but since they can only try it once in a twenty-four-hour period, we could conceivably spend days waiting for a ride back.

We searched the ship twice, but found no sign of the crew. As mission commander, it was my job to assign one of my subordinates to check the cargo hold, so we drew straws to prevent Jack from accusing me of playing favorites. Gregg lost, and I sent him down while I went to the bridge to check the captain’s log.

The last entry was dated two weeks earlier; just a terse note saying that the captain had ordered the men to abandon ship. I guess the skipper left in a hurry, too. No explanation.

When Gregg returned, he was sick, as we expected. The Santa Agatha was a slaver, headed to Virginia and the cargo bays were full. Two weeks without a crew to attend them, shackled in the hold, the slaves had died of thirst and starvation. The stench, Gregg informed us, was as sickening as the sight and the whole, disgusting enterprise for which those poor devils had died.

Next, we examined the ship to determine what caused the crew to abandon her. No sign of fire, hull damage, or a sea battle. No crew bodies or evidence of a slave uprising. So what scared them off?

Jack and I argued the whole time. He disagreed with every decision I made, every order I gave, and every single comment that passed my lips. He was intentionally insubordinate. I finally told him to shut up or I’d lock him in the ship’s brig. He knew I wasn’t joking.

At the appointed time, we heard the telltale hum of the chronal pod and watched as it began to appear, sunk halfway into the deck, bobbing up and down, then quickly vanished. The seas were too rough. The safety protocols wouldn’t allow it to materialize inside a solid object; there would be an explosion. We’d have to wait another day.

I slept in the captain’s bunk. A part of me wanted Jack to join me, and I might have asked him, but the wounds were still raw. I wondered if they would ever heal, and I cursed him. Why did he have to do what he did, then lie to cover it up? Why did I still care? Jack and Gregg shared the first mate’s quarters and I slept alone above the bodies of over two hundred men whose only sin was being born a different color.

The next morning, I was covered in bug bites; Jack and Gregg also. No surprise for a ship at sea in the nineteenth century, but we still itched. As mission medic, Jack decided to open the first aid kit and pass around a soothing salve. It helped. Once we finished, we went to the galley in search of breakfast.

The Santa Agatha’s stores were in poor shape. The potable water had a pungent aroma and the flour was infested with weevils; something that might not deter a hungry nineteenth-century sailor, but we were a different story. I authorized the use of emergency rations.

That afternoon, Gregg reported seeing a rat in the galley. He said it danced across the deck, turning in circles before it scurried into a crack and disappeared. I giggled at the image, but Jack turned ghostly pale. He told us that rats do that when they’re infected. When I asked him what would have infected the rat, he said, “Plague.”

Bubonic plague isn’t spread by rats, it’s spread by fleas on the rats’ bodies. If a rat dances, it has the plague. When it dies, the fleas will leave, searching for a new host. We all looked in horror at the insect bites on our bodies.

Toward noon, Gregg began to cough. By evening, he had a high fever. He vomited and his skin broke out in pustules. Jack and I tended him as best we could, but our pack was limited to first aid and an emergency laser scalpel; a precaution against chronal contamination. No meds to combat the plague.

As the next time window approached, we ate in silence, our thoughts our own, then washed down the rations with the last of our clean water. Jack and I insisted Gregg drink the final, eight ounces. He was so thirsty, he didn’t argue.

When the time came and went without the chronal pod, we began to panic. Jack warned us in that condescending tone of his that unless we got Gregg to a hospital quickly, he wouldn’t see the dawn.

We sat on the mess floor, illuminated by the flashlight, and waited. As the night dragged on, we watched Gregg grow progressively weaker. I wanted Jack to hold me, but it was wiser that we not touch.

When I awoke at four AM, I found that Gregg had died in the night. Carefully, we lifted him by the blanket he laid on and heaved him over the port side.

Jack was next. After dawn, he began to cough and shiver. His joints ached and he burned with fever. He begged for water we didn’t have, so I gave him the putrid liquid from the ship’s water supply to slake his thirst. He was already dying; it didn’t matter.

I couldn’t bear to see him like this, but I continued to care for him. I held him and wiped his face with the contaminated water. At this point, I didn’t care if I touched him. I couldn’t let him suffer so, and I would never get him over the side, alone.
He laid in delirium and when the sun set, I crawled beside him and draped his arm over my waist. He didn’t even notice.

In a few hours, I awoke to the electric hum of a chronal pod. It was early. I stumbled to my feet and pointed the flashlight beam at the materialization point.

I felt like shit, my joints aching, my throat raw. I fell to my knees and threw up as the pod appeared flat on the deck, a successful landing. I rose to reach for the craft and hope died in my chest.

Ghostly images of Jack, Gregg, and myself stepped out of the pod, on the way to their doom. A time echo — that happens, on occasion — an after-image of a chronal pod arrival. I couldn’t stop them as they walked through me, unaware of my presence, as if I were the phantom, not they.

I stared at the healthy image of Jack, regretting the past. Maybe if I’d been more forgiving. Maybe if I’d turned a blind eye. The sad truth was that I still wanted him. I never stopped wanting him, even when we fought. Even when I walked out. Even as I laid down on the hard deck again to scratch my itchy skin and dream my fever-driven nightmares. I wanted Jack to hold me and lie to me, one last time. “It’s going to be all right, Cass. You’re going to survive.”

I laid still for a while, listening to Jack’s coughs and ragged breaths until I could stand it no longer. I rose wobbly to my feet and pulled the laser scalpel from the medi-pack. I had work to do while I still had the strength.

First, I said goodbye to my lover. I gave him a tender kiss, then placed the scalpel to the side of his head and activated it. Set to full power, it vaporized the top half of his head. He died instantly and without pain.

Next, I walked through the cargo hold, forcing myself to ignore the stench. Rats ran among the dead slaves, scurrying from their feast. The men sat in clumps on the deck, staring fish-eyed at me, like winos on a doorstep, watching a woman walk by. Using the laser scalpel, I punched three, perfect holes in the timber of the Santa Agatha’s hull before the scalpel burned out. It wasn’t very powerful, and the holes weren’t large, but the vessel will eventually slip beneath the waves, where it will remain undiscovered for centuries. History taught me that much.

The rats will drown and the virus will die, trapped in pockets of air. Sea life is immune and my microscopic killer cannot survive without a host. My flesh will be consumed by fish; life feeding on death, as it always does.

Maybe you can change the past and maybe you can’t, but you can change the future, so when the chronal pod arrived at last, I wrote “Plague Ship” and “Rats” across the pod’s transparent shell in ointment from the medi-pack, then sent it back without me. There will be no more pods and they can’t send a warning back to tell us when we first arrived; not without trapping us in a paradox.

I wanted to know everything, and now I shall die because I didn’t know enough. There are no more secrets I want to know.

I’m sitting on the main deck of the Santa Agatha as it sinks, watching the sunrise and thinking of the slaves. And Jack, of course. Always of Jack.

 

The End

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