“The Meaning That You Choose” by Bo Balder
On Miss Hee’s first day as a trainee TEPO, Time Escape Prevention Officer, her teacher was a man. That was aju scary in itself. He seemed old, although looking back on it he was probably only middle-aged.
He shooed her to a waiting set of chairs, in front of a scratched and dented old screen. “I don’t believe in explaining things beforehand. Just watch and tell me what you see.”
Miss Hee sat down in the chair, made from a plastic so ancient it had started to crumble. The hive elders hadn’t wanted her to enter Time Branch, because they were always underfunded and understaffed. But she just loved history. This seemed like a great opportunity to see it firsthand.
Mr. Mukerjee fiddled with a yellowed remote. Escape Prevention 101 Day 1, read the file he clicked on.
A summer’s day in the past, just after dawn, showing a hayfield in grey morning light. The camera zoomed in on one plant. The seed heads looked thick and pale. Late August?
Mr. Mukerjee lifted his eyebrows at Miss Hee.
“Ripe wheat,” she said meekly. “Anywhere between 8000 BC and 2200 Common Time.”
There was no way to be any more precise except if you were a botanist specializing in the evolution of wheat. She thought she was doing well.
Footsteps and voices sounded off-camera. The view didn’t change. Probably a fixed location feed.
People dressed in rough homespun came filing in, the women with kirtled up skirts and loose linen blouses, the men bare-chested. The men started swinging their tools, tall poles with a long curved blade at the bottom.
“Scything. The women follow the men and tie up the sheaves of wheat,” Miss Hee said. “Between 600 and 1800 AD, Europe.”
“Not wrong, but I want more.”
She leaned forward, as if that would help resolve the low quality of the feed. She tried to gauge skin tone, skull shape and hair and eye color. To her hive elders’ bafflement, she’d specialized in North-Western European history, focal point 800 AD. She could tell the difference between a Saxon and a Jute, a Frisian or a Tubantian, a Frank and a Merovingian. The clothes, the dyes, imports from the East, the rise of knitted items, all these things were supposed to help her distinguish between 700 AD and 800 AD, Denmark or Holland or Germany, not that those countries had existed in those days.
But reality is stubborn. These people could be Frisians or Jutes. The time span was a 1000 years, she just couldn’t narrow it down. Peasants were hard. They’d never had the money for the kind of items that would distinguish them, their hair looked dark because it was dirty, their faces were disfigured by disease and violence.
The scythes. Those were probably a clue. She just couldn’t remember if there had been a revolution in scything science in that era. The plow, year 500. Harvesting combines in the 20th century. But chincha, scythes?
“Scythe. Introduction into Europe in the 13th century or thereabouts.” Miss Hee was startled to hear herself speak. Sometimes she knew things she didn’t know she knew.
One of the women started humming a song. Most people joined in. It sounded a bit rough and discordant, the way people sing who have no access to professional music or recordings.
The song changed. Hey, that tune was actually cheerful. A tall women smiled and hummed along while she bound sheaves. Her head scarf had slipped down on her shoulders.
Mr. Mukerjee froze the frame.
“I don’t know,” she stammered. “Maybe the grips on the snaith indicate…”
“Not the scythe, Miss Hee, the music! Recognize the tune?”
He whistled it. Then, impatient at her utter lack of comprehension, he clicked over to a music app and voila, the identical song blasted forth in a clunky old fashioned arrangement.
“Yellow Submarine, by the Beatles,” she read out loud. “Oh! Oh! That’s a song that’s newer than that scene. So there’s a time traveler in there!”
Mr. Mukerjee sighed. “Exactly. An agent followed the suspect into the field, whistled the song and waited for the suspect to join in unthinkingly.”
“Tricky!” she said. Cheating, she thought.
“People can’t help themselves, it’s been proven over and over. Music gets in under their guard, they start smiling or tapping their feet or whistling along, and their rational brain just cannot stop them doing that. So even if they’ve ditched all their implants, are wearing the right clothes and blending in with all their might, we catch them anyways.”
He clicked the feed back into motion. The woman who’d started the song fished a Traveler link from her pocket, hooked arms with the unsuspecting time escapee and they were gone before either the hayers or Miss Hee could blink.
“I think of it as Gluttony,” Mr. Mukerjee said. “Using up resources that aren’t theirs. The inability to stop consuming.”
Miss Hee swallowed and pulled her veil tighter over her face. Why, oh why had she chosen West-Europe to specialize in? She must have been mad. No one with her face could walk around in the millennia of its history without elaborate precautions and disguises.
This was an annoying period where veils weren’t acceptable and Asian faces not yet common. And London circa 1910 also happened to be one of the most popular time travel locations in the history of Escapees. Miss Hee couldn’t understand it. Who’d want to go live where the color of your skin made you an outsider? On the verge of a terrible war?
She opened the huge doors a crack and slid inside. The greenish gloom of gaslight cast flickering shadows over the tiled walls. The classroom full of children scheduled for TB tests was already waiting, impatient or resigned parents checking their thick mechanical timepieces.
It was the hobble skirts. She always underestimated the time it took her to walk from the Underground station to the school.
She sat down, opened her list and called out the first name. The little boy was pushed forward by his parents, but then she had to wait while his forearm was bared. Jacket, wrist buttons, little shirtsleeves that needed rolling up, woolen underlayers to be peeled off.
Miss Hee stood and asked parents to prepare their children to speed up the procedure. Her voice always made her self-conscious. The light was too bright for her veil to hide her much. Oh, how she hated walking around in whiteface.
As she scratched the little boy’s elbow crease, she unobtrusively checked the mother’s face. No make-up. Still, there was something about the woman.
“Return Wednesday or Thursday evening. I will have to check the results.”
“Can’t we just check ourselves, miss?” the mother asked. Her accent seemed authentic. “If there’s no reaction, he’s not been exposed, right?”
Did she know just a little too much about medicine for an ordinary mum? Also, if the boy had been inoculated in another time, he might show a false positive. The mother wouldn’t want to risk that. She was tall and lean, not in an impoverished way but in a sporty way. Check.
Miss Hee shook her head and slid the homing beacon into the little boy’s wool undershirt. “Regulations, madam. Otherwise I cannot declare him healthy.”
As the mother walked off, fussing with the little boy, Miss Hee reflected on the sin of Pride. Somewhere in this woman’s basement or attic they would find sports equipment. As Mr. Mukerjee had shown her, people just couldn’t stop themselves adhering to the standards of beauty of their home time. And the mother wasn’t afraid enough of TB, as if she deep down knew it could be treated by antibiotics. That put her as an early Escapee, because new resistant TB was something that Miss Hee knew very well how to fear.
The women walked. Even after two months, Miss Hee was still exhausted after each day of trailing behind the army proper, enveloped in their dust cloud, treading in the butter churn of manure and mud left behind by their horses. Would she ever get used to it? Not just to the walking, although her outwardly period-correct boots concealed the best in boot technology her age possessed, but to the way the women were treated.
They walked, they carried the tents and the possessions, and still they were supposed to cook dinner, be ready for their service as wives, look good, be cheerful and in their nonexistent spare moments bear and look after the children. All so the men could conquer Asia in peace, following Genghis Kahn westwards. Tüley, her mistress Tantsetseg’s husband, talked of nothing but horses and arrow practice. Tantsetseg herself lived in permanent deep cover in this time. Miss Hee didn’t even know her real name. How did she stand it?
TEPO’s good undercover practice kept them from discussing their situation directly, of course, but Tantsetseg refused to acknowledge even the subtlest hint. Her conversation ranged from soup to men to babies to the war, even while the hot lava of emotions seething underneath scorched Miss Hee. Miss Hee felt very lonely while she churned milk (no butter ever resulted from it), brewed tea (undrinkable) and inexpertly felted Tüley’s boot inlays. She suspected Tantsetseg stayed up late to fix her mistakes. Tüley’s coming in and slurping his soup became the highlight of her day
Genghis Khan’s army was supposed to be a hotspot for Escapees. But she hadn’t studied West-European history for nothing. Why put her here, in a situation where she wouldn’t spot an Escapee unless he whipped out a Vone and started texting? Maybe the powers that be were punishing her for choosing another culture to study instead of her own. What would Mr. Mukerjee have done in this situation? She kept her head down and did what she was told. TEPO always had good reason for their actions.
It was very easy to be here, in other ways. She looked enough like a Mongol woman that no one looked at her twice. The press of people around her all day, albeit tall and robust ones, resembled the business of her home hive enough that it comforted her – as long as she didn’t look up into the blue, empty sky above. She got over the fear of not wearing a face mask, although not over the smell. Her nose kept warning her about dome spills and toxic chemicals, even if her brain knew it was just steppe dust and warrior pee.
One searing summer day the men came in late, limping but triumphant. Tüley brought Miss Hee a sackful of clinking metal dishes, shining a dull yellow. Gold? She’d only ever seen fakes, but the real thing looked no different. She accepted it demurely, as a Chinese slave ought to. From the corners of her eyes, she saw the edge of Tantsetseg’s embroidered sleeve twitch. She’d done something wrong.
Tüley stood and fiddled with his hands a bit. Miss Hee knew better now than to meet his eye or do anything than hold her utter stillness. Eventually he left.
“What?” Miss Hee whispered.
“You accepted his gift. He’s now courting you,” Tantsetseg muttered while slamming down clots of cream to be dried. The cream didn’t deserve to be handled so roughly.
“I thought I was a slave. How can he court me?” Miss Hee asked, dutifully pushing her felting wool around, knowing it would never properly felt.
“He shouldn’t. He should just buy you, or even just use you since you’re my property.”
“You’re causing a stir. Just what we don’t need.”
“Are you under suspicion?”
“No!” Tantsetseg stood and pushed the bucket of to be creamed milk away so hard some of it sloshed on the carpet. “You finish the cream. I need to check the goats.”
Did this mean Tüley was the Escapee and her mistress was in trouble for not having noticed? That was just too confusing.
Miss Hee ate all the dollops of cream she scooped out of the milk. It was delicious, full, rich, tasting of the wildflowers the goats ate. She just wanted to indulge herself for once. Just this once.
After fifteen scoops she went outside to be sick. The human stomach was no longer suited to a protein and fat content that high.
The next morning she was transferred back to headquarters without the slightest warning. She stood, reeling, blinking, still in her Mongol outfit, and received orders for 19th century Florence.
She’d never know what churned inside Tantsetseg, never know the touch of her lips. Never even know why she was sent out there in the first place. That was the job.
Months later, Miss Hee heard that both Tüley and Tantsetseg had been arrested. One for escaping, the other for aiding and abetting the misuse of resources in and out of time. No thanks to her, though. So few males were born … She never would have thought to look for a male Escapee.
Miss Hee couldn’t believe it. It was unmistakably Mr. Mukerjee sitting there in the dusty courtyard, scantily dressed in some kind of loin cloth. First, it hard to believe that he of all people had deserted, had Escaped. Or well, tried to. And the second hardest thing to believe, was that he of all people had gone to this pivotal time period. Sitting under a tree with the Buddha, for God’s sake. As if he wouldn’t be found there.
She paused the image and rubbed her nose. He must have known he would be found fast. So he’d calculated that in. Didn’t care.
Why? She sagged back in the uncomfortable chair. And wasn’t thinking about why exactly what she’d always counseled her own students not to do? She’d learnt that from Mr. Mukerjee.
But she had to know.
She stood up. She’d go herself instead of sending one of the first-years. It would be fun to go out into the field again. Something in her gut twinged. No, higher up. Her heart knew that she ought to follow her own maxims if she didn’t want to get hurt. Stay aloof from people in the past, stay aloof from the Escapees. They’ll pull you in, subvert you, make you feel sorry for them. Pretend they’re not real. You’re real, and the people in your own timeline. The rest are just actors, or might well be. Concentrate on punishing the sinners.
As she walked through the office on her way to Wardrobe and Make-up, she admitted it to herself. That advice had never worked and it never would. People, in whatever timeline, were real. They breathed, they sweated, they had feelings. As did the Escapee Prevention officers.
Her skin was darkened to average Indian Continent levels 500 BC, her wig coiled and her clothes wrapped. Mr. Mukerjee’d been like an auntie to her in the beginning, when she’d felt so lonely without her hive-mates. And now she had to bring him in for punishment.
That wasn’t her department, but it wasn’t as if she didn’t know what would happen to him. Food theft cost you a hand, illegal pregnancy and Escaping your head. It was only fair to punish those who used up more than their share of resources. Only fair.
Still, when it was someone you knew, it was harder. Keeping her professional detachment used up energy Miss Hee didn’t have to spare. She rubbed her stomach. Rations had been cut again, even at her level, and she was hungry. It always took a while before you got used to it again.
Clothed, coiffed, adorned and scented appropriately, Miss Hee stepped into the past.
It was hot there, pleasantly so. The European reaches where Miss Hee had long worked, and still occasionally went into the field, had been fairly chilly before global warming. She always got stiff shoulders and tension headaches from the cold.
She pulled a slip of her garment over her head, as she saw other women do, and knelt down in the shade of a banyan tree, a dozen yards or so where Mr. Mukerjee sat in a pose she vowed to look up as soon as she got back. Cross-legged, one hand open in his lap, the other touching the ground.
Miss Hee’d found herself delaying the arrest. She’d wanted him to have a few moments of inner peace, or whatever it was he’d been searching for.
After half an hour or so, her loins aching from the unfamiliar position, she stood up and crouched down next to and a little bit behind Mr. Mukerjee.
“Sa Bum Nim,” she said softly. “It is time for you to leave.”
Mr. Mukerjee’s left hand twitched. “Already?”
“I can no longer postpone it. I’m sorry.”
She inclined her head. He wouldn’t be able to see it, but that didn’t matter. The bow was for herself. He’d taught her everything she knew.
She hadn’t planned on it, but she spoke. “What teaching would you like for me to take away from this situation?”
“You know I always make you answer that question yourself,” he said. She was almost sure she heard a smile in his voice.
Miss Hee shifted to a more comfortable position. “What made my venerated teacher become a criminal? What sin?”
She pretended to look him over. “Not Gluttony. Not Pride.” He was neither fat nor overly groomed, nor had he taken books or music to enjoy. Mentally she ticked off the other sins. Envy. Pride. Sloth. Wrath.
She swallowed. “Despair. You saw that whatever we did, no matter how many criminals we punished, the world did not become a better place. So you gave in to despair and Escaped. How did your act make the world better?”
“Oh, my child, you see too well. A person who despairs only seeks to please himself, to alleviate his own pain. Of that I am doubtless guilty. Take me home.”
Miss Hee’s eyes swam. She couldn’t see which button she should press, but it didn’t matter. It was big as well as red.
Miss Hee kept her head down and walked through the TEPO corridors to TT unit 17. Sneaking through the building at night wasn’t good for her inner peace.
But inner peace, however nice, wasn’t her goal. Mr. Mukerjee had showed her that road led nowhere. She’d allowed his teaching to mislead her. She should have paid attention to his subtext, not his words. Her job was to ask the questions he had warned her away from. Why did people Escape? What could be their goal if not to satisfy their own personality defects? Why go to the past when the past often wasn’t that great? Apart from all the wannabe saviors, usually men, who tried assassinating Genghis Kahn, Napoleon, Hitler, Yun Fat, and other assorted tyrants, why go to war zones, why starve yourself playing a peasant?
As she set the timer settings by hand, from calculations she’d made secretly at home, noted down on her own skin, she remembered finding the bones of an Escapee into prehistory. She must have died within hours of her arrival, her clothes hadn’t even smudged. Life had always been dangerous. The past was not paradise, as the romantics would have it. Nothing romantic about starvation, violence, suppression of women, and early death by horrible disease or childbirth.
Life’s task, for every human being, was to give meaning to the present. Her present. Visiting the past had helped her to find that meaning. Growing up in a hive had sharpened her vision. Less than one percent of her whole hive generation had been permitted to give birth. One niece for hundred-and-twenty aunties. Raised on strict rationing, they were all tiny and scrawny. Only one in a hundred nieces of that generation in all the hives would be selected for procreation. Would that be enough to shrink down humanity to a manageable size? And would it be in time? No one knew.
She had finally realized what the Escapees were doing. Why they often didn’t seem to mind, didn’t seem surprised to be caught. They weren’t escaping for themselves. They were doing their bit for their present, the future of mankind. Acting for the world. Trying, one person at the time, one recycling act at a time, to prevent the future from happening. One more tree planted in a forest. One less snack consumed. Choosing to see the future as a function of the present.
She stepped into the booth, remote in hand, and pressed the button for Champs Elysées, Paris, 2016.
She scuttled through the street, cleaving close to the buildings. Bicycles raced by her, people carrying sticks of bread. Many people, but still not enough to be like home. The exhaust and industrial scents comforted her a little, but the un-domed skies had never lost their frightening aspect. Although she met many small Asian women, guilt and fear urged her inner crocodile to cower and start and never feel any peace, not even in conformity, the greatest solace of her childhood.
There it was, the Anti-Global Warning demonstration. The big square in front of the Parliament building was hemmed in by rows of heavily armed police. Anticipating violence. But the people streaming in from all sides weren’t here to do violence. They were here to remind the world leaders at the Climate Conference of their responsibilities.
She was only one of many tiny Asian females. She smiled at all of them, just in case one, or all of them, were also from the future. And then she smiled at everyone who wasn’t Asian or female. At humanity.
At everyone who was doing their bit. Dropping their penny in the sea, just in case it might help. Just like the future had happened one felled tree at a time, one baby at a time. The woods can spare one more tree. One more child won’t make a difference. That’s what people in the past had thought. And they had been wrong.
Miss Hee lifted her banner and made her own meaning, knowing she would be apprehended and not caring. She’d made her choice.
About the Author
Bo Balder is the first Dutch author ever to have published a story in the US Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine. Her other short fiction has appeared in print and emagazine format. For a full bibliography, see her website (www.boukjebalder.nl/wordpress).
Before becoming a writer, she practiced a series of preparatory professions like dishwasher, rowing coach, model, computer programmer, and management consultant.
Bo lives and works in Utrecht, close to Amsterdam.