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The first Zeitnaut appeared on the northern White House lawn in the cold sunny morning, landing just fifty yards from the main entrance. Two startled guards pulled their .38 revolvers, the older of the two shouting, “Halt right there.” The astonished rookie fired point blank into the man’s body. The intruder gasped and fell to the ground, then disappeared just as miraculously as he had come.
The two guards were the only ones to have seen the apparition. Questioned separately, they corroborated each other’s stories, that a white male, dressed in bizarre blue bodysuit, with some kind of tight-fitting helmet, had suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the midst of strange, distorted lighting, and had just as quickly dissolved into nothingness after being shot. No bullet slugs were recovered from the scene. In the absence of any photos or physical evidence, the internal investigation concluded that the two guards had somehow been delusional. True, the rookie’s gun had been recently fired, but there was no way to pinpoint exactly when.
At approximately the same time one decade later, on a crisp sunny day with snow on the ground, the second Zeitnaut touched down on the steps of the Supreme Court building across the street from the Capitol. The visitor, a dark woman dressed in a blue nautical suit, with a futuristic helmet containing numerous lenses and gadgets, demanded of the guard at the door that she be allowed entry. It seemed she thought she was at the White House. The guard and several bystanders all testified that she spoke in heavily-accented English, declaring loudly, “I must see the President of the United States, it’s a matter of great urgency!” She was holding a small rectangular device in her right hand.
The guard, alarmed at the stranger’s demeanor and aggressive manner, pulled his gun, and when he thought the highly agitated woman was deploying a weapon he fired first, the safety of the Supreme Court judges foremost in his mind.
Barely had the woman’s body hit the ground when it seemed to dissolve as if she had been thrown into a particle accelerator. This time a nearby photographer managed to grab an unsteady shot. Numerous eyewitnesses confirmed the apparition’s appearance, agreeing there had been some kind of disturbance of light such as a magnetic force field.
The subsequent investigation remained inconclusive, for who could explain such a phenomenon, especially without the evidence of the alleged intruder’s body? Given the photo and the various witness statements, the episode was eventually classified as an oddity like a UFO and shelved for future investigation.
At approximately the same time and day, one decade later, the third Zeitnaut materialized in the middle of the street on the south side of the White House, on Constitution Avenue, where he was promptly struck and killed by a panel truck. The driver, unable to brake in time, claimed to have seen a Caucasian male dressed in a blue workout suit with an odd helmet, who seemingly dissolved on impact. The truck’s bumper was bent, the only physical manifestation of the visitor’s untimely demise.
The fourth Zeitnaut never arrived at destination and tragically could not be recalled.
The fifth Zeitnaut landed in the Potomac River one mile from the White House and was swept away by the freezing current.
The sixth Zeitnaut finally hit the mark, landing in the White House briefing room just a few moments before the press was to be admitted for the First Lady’s televised announcement of her annual fashion lineup. An intern was astounded to see the wooden podium seem to distort and wave like curtains, before an Asian female in stylish body suit materialized in front of her. The intern alerted White House guards, and the traveler was ushered away to a waiting Secret Service van, which departed the White House grounds.
“Where are you taking me?”
“We’ll be asking the questions, lady. And what kind of accent is that, Chinese?”
“Are you kidding? Bronx.”
“Yeah, sure, I’m from Brooklyn, and you ain’t from the Bronx.”
“Language evolves over two hundred years. Listen, I’m here to see the President, so if you could just turn this vehicle around and take me to him now, I have an urgent message to convey.”
“The only conveying you’ll be doing is at Secret Service headquarters, where you’ll have plenty of time to tell us all you want.”
“I’m sorry, this is classified. I’ve been sent from the future with a dire warning.”
“Okay, we’ve got a few minutes before we arrive, and I’ve got a Secret clearance. I”ll take the bait, what kind of warning?”
“The world is facing a devastating plague, and if measures aren’t taken now to combat it the future of the human race is at stake.”
“And you know this because…you’re from the future, right?”
The agent chuckles. “Okay, so if you’re from the future, let’s see… who won the World Series in, say, what would it be two hundred years from now, 2218, is that right?”
“No more World Series. It’s called the Solar Series now, but it’s all done virtually, with holographic players, between the Earth and Mars teams. Earth won.”
Big laugh. “That’s a good one. Hey, you’re pretty quick. Okay, why is this plague you’re talking about so serious this time around, we’ve always had flu season and swine flu and that kind of thing.”
She recites rapidly and succinctly as if aware this might be her only chance to get her message out. “This is the big one that you’ve always known was coming, super contagious, with a high mortality rate and greater population density. It is an inherent shortcoming of capitalism to only focus on short-term profits, whereas this challenge requires long-term planning and commitment of resources without any foreseeable profit, other than the saving of human lives….”
“Now it comes out…so you are a Commie plant, just as I thought.”
“… and most importantly, the world has a complacent, oblivious political leadership that can only think in terms of victory against their opponents rather than the greater good of mankind.”
“So were you sent by the North Koreans or Chinese, or who?”
“American Hemispheric Republic. We’ve finally conquered time travel, but we can only go backwards in time, and we get one shot, that’s it!”
He laughs. “Then why did you come in January when the President is down in Florida playing golf at Asimov Futureworld resort?”
“We have to launch when the earth is in closest proximity to the sun. We discovered that a stronger solar wind facilitates our decorporalization for tele-temportation. TTT. Isn’t the President making a televised speech today?”
“That’s the First Lady. You should have beamed to Florida.”
“Unless I can speak with your leaders I’m wasting my time here.”
The Zeitnaut lunges for the door handle. Even though her wrists are zip-tied together, she manages to push the door open.
“Hey, grab her!”
Before anyone can react she flings herself out the door, slamming onto the pavement at 30 miles an hour, to be run over by several cars. When the guards run to recover her body under the last stalled vehicle, all that remains is the lingering appearance of quickly evaporating star dust.
The Zeitnaut executive team gathers for a desperate strategy session in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse in the Mission District of San Francisco. The sign on the interior door leading to their gleaming laboratory reads, in English, Russian and Chinese: Cassandra Project. The small mess hall area where they meet sits outside the transpod lab where a chrome-plated spherical launch capsule is being prepped by technicians.
An air of exhaustion pervades the five members of the team. Through the diamond-glass window they can see the next Zeitnaut, a big-boned blond woman, being suited up and checked by technicians next door.
The mission’s African American director, Monk Coltrane: “It looks like we may have overestimated the human race’s instinct for survival.”
Suzie Q, the Chinese social anthropologist: “Or underestimated their capacity for self-delusion.”
Coltrane: “Big Mama’s not happy. Says she’s ready to pull the plug on us, let the species run its course if that’s what they insist. What options do we have left?”
Isabel Lobo, the Mexican technical advisor: “We’ve already sent dozens of Nauts to all the major powers. In each case our technicians have either miscalculated, resulting in fatal accidents…”
Alexander Eisenstein, transpod engineer: “The technology is too new and clumsy – hard to pinpoint the exact landing site, coupled with uncertainty on the ground…we still can’t stream real time.”
Lobo: “…or just as bad, our people have been detained and executed in half a dozen cases.”
Coltrane: “Kill the messenger.”
J Lo Oh, team historian: “It’s hard working from such a fragmented record. When North Korea nuked Washington in 2025, the Dataclysm wiped all original maps, plans and models of the city. This was before Muskmaps had a chance to produce a holographic model. So we’re working from 2nd and 3rd generation data – still trying to access ancient Soviet archives.”
Eisenstein: “Coupled with the infancy of this technology, our launches are too much hit or miss.”
Coltrane: “It would be a shame if the first approved chronolo-disruption project in human history is also our last.”
Suzi Q: “Our Nauts have all volunteered for these suicide missions, knowing we’ll never be able to retrieve them, and we’ve failed them.”
Lobo: “We sent them all out last week to arrive at intervals of a decade apart around the globe, but results are depressingly uniform.”
Lobo: “I don’t blame Big Mama for wanting to shut us down. Maybe as a species we don’t deserve to survive.”
Coltrane: “Or maybe we should have tried something simpler, like assassinating Hitler.”
“Eisenstein: “We’re not confidant we can reach back past two hundred years yet.”
Coltrane: “So where do we stand now?”
J Lo Oh: “It’s late in the game. By winter 2019 the virus has already taken root in Central China. After sending a dozen Nauts to Wuhan and Beijing, zip results. And we just lost the Naut we sent to Washington to arrive in January.”
Suzie Q: “We can’t muster an international effort to contain it if no one is even aware of the danger.”
Lights flicker from the power surge launching the Zeitnaut next door.
Coltraine, nodding in the direction of the transpod: “There goes our last trained Naut beaming at this moment to the White House, arrival on July 4, 2019, in a final attempt at a breakthrough. We’ll know either way momentarily.”
Lobo: “But in July Earth is too far from the sun, our Naut may not be able to reconfigure!”
Coltrane: “We had to run the risk, when we’re sure the President will be there for the annual July 4th broadcast.”
J Lo Oh: “Our records indicate the July 4th event was a tradition up until 2025.”
Suzi Q: “If this doesn’t work, it’ll mean the total collapse of civilization as we know it, and we’ll all cease to exi….”
This story previously appeared in Cirque Journal Vol. 11/2.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Jonathan Worlde’s neo-noir mystery novel Latex Monkey with Banana was winner of the Hollywood Discovery Award (available on Amazon). Recent short fiction appears in Antietam Review, The Raven Review, the 2020 anthology Ghost Stories of Shepherdstown, in Cirque Journal, Ab Terra Voices, Everyday Fiction, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Sirens Call, and Stupefying Stories. Jonathan is also a traditional country blues performer under the stage name Paul the Resonator, whose CD is Soul of a Man.