Try Again Next Time

A house sits in the midst of a drenched suburbia, assaulted by hard rain, windows rattled by thunder. Inside, an elderly man comforts his frightened dog and speaks softly to his houseplants. Overhead, the clouds intensify, gathering a darkness immediately above. Then a flash, lightning stabs downwards and wraps around the television aerial.

Nobody who belonged to that world would have been able to see two figures step out from the jagged edge that the lightning bolt has sliced through the sky, the arc frozen in time and the rain hanging still in the air. The world is completely still for these interlopers, one single moment stretched out at their mercy.

They climb carefully over the small brick chimney and keep a hold on it until their feet land are wedged securely among the slanted roof tiles. To their ears, the world has an eery silence, and their voices echo as if in a large empty hall.

“When are we?” says the junior. Her name is Klaudia, and her wonder at the frozen spectacle around affirms her first trip into the past.

“It’s 1985,” says the other woman. A name badge on her uniform identifies her as ‘Asta’. She looks up at the blinding spark that reaches down from the heavens, shielding her eyes from its frozen glare, then taps the screen of a device wrapped around her waist. “And this is the correct house.”

From a pouch on her trouser leg, Asta takes a black plastic square, the size of her hand span, with a circular hole in the middle. “Do you know what this is?” she asks Klaudia, who shakes her head. “This is a floppy disk. This is an example of what you are looking for. One is hidden in the house below. When you find it, place it in this protective bag.” Asta hands Klaudia a plastic pouch.

“What information is stored on the disk?” asks Klaudia.

“During the second world war, a German scientist invented time travel and caused havoc, trying to assassinate Allied leaders. Many Time Police agents died to stop this. We never figured out how he did it. He escaped, disappeared. But now he lives here under a false identity. On the disk is everything we need to know to stop him back then. Now,” she holds out her hand, “take off your time belt and give it to me.”

Klaudia frowns. “Why?”

“The disk is magnetic. Your time belt will damage it if you get it too close. That’s why you need to put the disk in the protective bag before you come back up here.”

“What if something goes wrong and I get stuck here?” protests Klaudia.

“Just stay away from electricity,” says Asta. “It will jump you out of frozen time. Now go fetch. You have all the time you need.”

Klaudia becomes aware of the silence that stretches out across the roof tops, and the water hanging still all around. Indeed, she reflects, for one moment, this busy world feels quite lonely. She removes her belt, hands it to Asta, then clambers carefully over the guttering and down a drainpipe. As she moves, water collects on her suit, and she is quite wet as she reaches the ground. It does not drip from her clothes, so she leans down, gathers some suit material in her hand, and squeezes. The water emerges from her fist, but does not drop to the ground, instead floating in the air next to her legs.

“I did not think it would work like that,” she mutters to herself.

“What?” comes a voice from the roof.

“Nothing!” she yells upwards. “Just the novelty.”

“If you want to go sight-seeing, we can jump to the Cretaceous period,” yells back Asta. “Focus on your mission.”

Klaudia smiles, then lowers her head and jumps suddenly, heart beating fast. Through a window of the house, its elderly occupant is staring right at her.

She meets his gaze, mouth open in horror, then she begins to relax. He is as frozen as the rain. Klaudia moves slightly from side to side, his focus does not follow her. She waves her hand, but he does not react. She breathes out, gathers her wits, then walks around the house.

Around the side, a window is open. She reaches through the gap, unclasps the latch, opens the window wide and climbs through. The room is dusty and the air is dry. She takes a few minutes to shake the water from her shoes and clothes through the window, leaving droplets hanging in the air outside.

Her search begins, but she walks right past a boxy beige computer that sits on a desk in an upstairs study. Her own plans come first. Instead she rifles through drawers, rummages in the back of cupboards and lowers her ear to the floor to peek underneath furniture. After scouring three rooms upstairs, her gaze is drawn to a hatch in the hall ceiling.

An attic – that’s where it would be. But quiet now, quiet – sounds will travel up to Asta on the roof. Don’t want any awkward questions.

Using a hooked pole found in a nearby cupboard, Asta opens the hatch pulls down a ladder until it touches the carpet. She climbs up.

It is dark, but her hands find a switch and flick on the light. She briefly muses how that works when the rain doesn’t fall… Then, crawling around on hands and knees, behind an old television, piles of children’s books and dusty bedding, Klaudia finds a small green box with rusty corners.

Inside, there are old black and white photographs. A group of men in uniform. Medals with German phrases etched around the edge. Official documents written with a typewriter, fake passports with different names but the same photograph – the old man downstairs, but with thick hair and angry, vibrant eyes.

Beneath it all, a slip of paper. It is brown with age. On the paper is drawn a faint but detailed map. It points to a building in a street in northern Austria. Wrapped inside the map is a key.

Klaudia puts the map and key into the protective bag, then the bag into a pocket. She crawls backwards out of the attic and down.

As her hands touch the ladder, all the muscles in her body rip into each other. She cries out in pain, and falls to the floor. As unconsciousness descends over her, Klaudia realises that the light switch must have electrified the ladder, and the light came on because someone with knowledge of time travel set a trap…

She awakens a few moments later, to the sound of rain drumming all over the roof, and bouncing off the windows. She sits up, head spinning, and sees the old man standing a few feet away. In his hand, an old German pistol is pointing directly at her chest.

“I was expecting one of you to show up,” he said. “After my secrets! But unfortunately for you, it was a ruse. Just cleverly planted spies acting under my orders. I never invented a time machine in 1941! I am simply going to steal it, now, from you! Hand it over!”

Klaudia puts her hand to her hurting head. “Enough of the theatrics, Grandad.”

The old man stares at her, then his hand drops to his side as recognition spreads across his face. “Petra? Is that you?”

“I do look like mother,” concedes Klaudia. “But I’m not born yet.” She stands up, adjusts her suit, then shouts furiously at her grandfather.

“Why did you electrify the ladder? I have been pushed out of frozen time. My companion is gone and she took my time belt with her! I was going to use it, take it back to you in that basement in Austria to learn how it works. We would have had the world at our feet! Now the opportunity is lost, because of you!”

The old man’s face is ashen. “I did nothing to the ladder! But… what is your name?” he croaks.

“Klaudia.”

His hand draws an envelope from his cardigan pocket, and, shaking, he holds it out to her.

“A letter arrived this morning,” he says. “It’s addressed to you.”

She snatches it from his hand, sees her name on the front, rips it open and reads the neat handwriting on the paper inside. She looks back at her grandfather, fury curling across her brow.

“It says: ‘Maybe you should try again in 60 years.’ It’s signed: ‘Captain Asta, Time Police.’”

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