The odd truth of working as a Temporal Interventionist is that some there and thens are better than others. History books make the past sound like one thrilling event after another. But for every Shoot Out at the OK Corral moment of excitement, there’s days, weeks, months and years of people just doing the things that people have to do. Things important enough to keep them alive and their society functioning. Plenty of the all-too-usual human drama, but not the stuff of great historical drama. Most people don’t believe that when I tell them, though.

I leaned against the window frame, squinting against a dry, hot wind blowing across the Kansas prairie and into my face, bringing the gritty taste of fine dust into my mouth whenever I licked my lips. Sometimes I think about the fact that the dust might literally have once been part of someone I knew in another long ago there and then. Usually, I try not to think about that, but something about the apparently endless prairie and the seemingly endless wind brought it to mind now, along with memories of the Earps and their brief moment in another western town where the wind had always seemed to be blowing hard.

The thin curtain drawn back from the hotel window fluttered in that wind. From my second story room, I could see down the main drag of Junction City, Kansas circa July, 1918 A.D. Such as it was. Lots of wood structures, some brick and some sandstone block construction, primitive internal combustion-driven automobiles contending for space on the road with horse-drawn wagons, and a few clouds in a faded blue sky as yet contaminated mainly only by that damned dust.

A cluster of men wearing drab military uniforms came around a corner, offering a small reminder of the hosts currently grinding each other into the bloody mud of Europe, just as they’d been doing for the last four years here and now. I knew that particular war was finally drawing to a close. If I wanted to, I could find out the names of the soldiers I saw and learn which of them would die before the end of the war. I didn’t want to.

Instead, I gathered up the coat local fashion demanded I wear despite the weather, wished I could do without the neck-tie local fashion likewise demanded, took a drink of the lukewarm water remaining in the pitcher the room boasted instead of a sink, and headed for one of the local grain suppliers.

I had to walk into the sun to get there, but local fashion at least had the wisdom to also demand hats with brims, so I was protected from the worst of the glare. “Jeannie. Confirm my directions to this place.”

“One more block down, then two blocks south. Just before the railroad track.”

“Thanks.” Jeannie, my implanted personal assistant, had a wonderful navigational package. A female friend of mine had once remarked that my having Jeannie inside me was perfect for a man, since it meant I could ask for directions without anyone knowing I’d done so.

The grain supply office was filled with the musty smell of a different kind of dust, this from the endless bushels of wheat which passed through the office or the nearby grain elevators. I could see the grain dust as well, clouds of it floating gently in the air currents, as I walked down the line of sample bags, looking for specific seeds for wheat variants which had gone extinct between now and the future I came from. A lot of people needed those extinct plant seeds, and needed them enough to be willing to pay the large sum needed to bring me to Kansas in the early years of the twentieth century.

I found a couple of wheat varieties listed among the requirements Jeannie kept track of for me, as well as a bonus rye variant, and purchased sample bags with some of the better-than-real counterfeit local currency I’d outfitted myself with. Such are the exciting adventures of a Temporal Interventionist.

I stopped by the town’s other major grain supplier and found a few more samples I needed, then walked back to the hotel to drop off my purchases and have lunch there. Lunch turned out to be fried chicken. Again. But at least it wasn’t chicken and dumplings. Again. The iced tea made up for it, though. Downtime farmers know how to make iced tea like nobody else.

Conversation among the other hotel guests was mostly about The War, of course. One of the couples were put out because they couldn’t see their son, who was at the big Army base nearby. I shrugged it off as the usual sort of wartime security, until they said the word ‘quarantine.’

Downtime diseases make any Temporal Interventionist nervous. You can’t develop an immunity or sometimes even get a vaccination for some bug which died out centuries before you were born. Even if decent medical records existed for the period, those records were only as good as the medical theory and technology of the time. And primitive armies were notorious for attracting epidemics. The little nano-bugs which helped out my immune system could deal with a lot of things, but you never knew just how virulent something unknown might turn out to be. I hurriedly finished my lunch and headed for my next objective in town, determined to get my work done and then out of here and now as fast as possible.

“Jeannie, did any serious disease outbreaks take place in or near Junction City, Kansas in 1918 A.D.?”

“Only the Spanish Influenza.”

Anyone watching would’ve seen me jerk with momentary shock. “Is that all?” It’d been a long time since the Spanish Influenza when I’d first learned about it, but it still held the dubious record of being the deadliest epidemic in history, which was why I immediately recognized the term. “Here?”

“It apparently originated in Camp Funston.”

“I thought the big Army installation here was named Fort Riley.”

“That’s correct.”

I felt briefly reassured, then remembered why ‘artificial intelligence’ is still a disparaging term. “Is Camp Funston related in any way to Fort Riley?”

“Camp Funston is located on Fort Riley.”

“Thanks for elaborating. How serious is the threat at this time and place?”

Jeannie, as always, sounded authoritative and calm. “Very limited, which is why there is no disease warning flagged on this here and now. The early phases of the Spanish Influenza were widespread in some areas but had low mortality rates consistent with usual influenza outbreaks.”

That was reassuring. “When did the later phases begin?”

“August, 1918.”

Plenty of time to work with. Still . . . “Here?”

“No. Simultaneous or near-simultaneous outbreaks of a much more deadly variant of Spanish Influenza will erupt in Freetown in Sierra Leone, Brest in France, and Boston in the United States.”

That was even more reassuring, but also odd. “Simultaneous or near-simultaneous outbreaks, in three different widely-dispersed areas, of the same deadly variant?”

“Yes.”

“How could . . . how did that happen?”

“Insufficient data.”

“Just in your database, or insufficient data, period?”

“My database contains all information available in our time of origin.”

Very odd. But I’d just have to live with that oddity. I wasn’t surprised no one had yet made jumps into downtime to investigate whatever had brought about the Spanish Influenza’s multiple simultaneous deadly assaults. Jumping into plague zones isn’t the smartest thing to do. In the case of the Spanish Influenza, for which I confirmed with Jeannie a specific vaccine had never been developed, it could be suicidal. And I was only here and now to collect extinct seeds, not to try to stick my nose into dangerous and unresolved medical mysteries.

But I’d only made half a block toward my next destination when I got diverted anyway.

“I’m detecting a nearby temporal field,” Jeannie advised.

Another jumper here and now? There’s not that much demand for extinct seeds. “Coming or going?”

“From the temporal jump field echo it’s an arrival.”

I looked around, trying to remember what the street had looked like moments before and whether there was an extra person suddenly out there now. Instead, I saw a rapidly forming crowd peering down at someone or something on the ground across the street from me. I weighed the term ‘Spanish Influenza’ and the risks of mixing with people against the chance that the crowd might be forming around a fellow Temporal Interventionist, perhaps one who’d been injured.

By the time I got there, though, the crowd was breaking up. A pale, skinny man was being helped to his feet by a stout character. Jeannie did a quick visual diagnosis. “Seizure disorder.”

“The pale guy just had a seizure?”

“Correct.”

“I guess that rules him out as the person who jumped in.” I meant the comment to be sardonic, but Jeannie surprised me.

“He is carrying a jump mechanism. The fading field signature indicates it is a primitive design.”

I took another look. The man was indeed skinny, with the look of someone who’d never gotten enough to eat. He was tall, though, like someone who ought to be very big and healthy if he wasn’t starving. The skin seemed paler than a seizure could account for, and I wondered if he was anemic as well. His eyes blinked, watering heavily, and the man sneezed violently several times before he fished a handkerchief out of one pocket and held it over his mouth and nose.

“His clothes appear to be original to here and now,” Jeannie added. “Their fabric has indications it has aged substantially since its manufacture.”

The sick man in the old clothes smiled weakly at his helper, waving off further offers of assistance, and stumbled away, one hand carrying some sort of valise. If the jump mechanism was as primitive as Jeannie thought, it might in there instead of being an implant. I saw the jumper pause after several steps and look around in the fashion of someone who was unfamiliar with their surroundings. But as soon as his eyes fell on the same hotel where I was staying he headed that way as if he knew the place on sight. More strangeness. “Any idea when he’s from, Jeannie?”

“I cannot correlate the apparent age of the garments and his apparent ethnic mix with any specific uptime period which would account for his physical condition.”

“Maybe he’s from inside a closed loop.” Somewhen created by an attempted temporal intervention, and then choked off by a countervailing intervention, so it’d been but never been.

“A loop born of a late Twentieth Century full-scale nuclear war might correlate to his appearance and the apparent age of his garments.”

An ugly possibility, but that could certainly explain the man’s physical ailments. “Why would someone from that kind of loop come here?”

“Insufficient data.”

A refugee fleeing a horrible future and seeking what he thought was an idyllic rural past? That wasn’t impossible, but if so I needed to see what he was up to. An amateur messing around in my history might create any number of inadvertent interventions with big consequences down the road. If he did intend some deliberate intervention, now was an important period, but he’d picked an odd here to do it. All the Temporal Interventionists I knew of in 1918 A.D. were working in Europe or in national capitals. I’d picked 1918 myself only because the year was so well mapped for temporal jumps. Like me, though, this guy had jumped into a here where nothing of great importance had ever happened.

Except the start of the Spanish Influenza. But that’d apparently already been underway for a while. “When were the first reports of the Spanish Influenza?”

“March, 1918 A.D.”

“And he just got here. So he couldn’t have brought that germ with him and introduced it by accident.”

“Not unless he had an earlier or subsequent jump to the earlier date,” Jeannie reminded me.

Oh, yeah. But that made very little sense. Why jump back a few months, or forward a few months, in a small Kansas town in 1918? Even if jumps weren’t extremely expensive, they also involve physical stress, and my unknown traveler obviously wasn’t up to the stress of pleasure trips. Nor did wherever and whenever he came from seem wealthy enough to pony up money for jumps that frequent.

I sat down on a handy bench and thought about it, my eyes on the door to the hotel. I was still thinking when the jumper came out again, his handkerchief once again over his nose and mouth, and walked unsteadily down the street. The other hand still held the valise. I waited until he’d gone a good distance past me and then followed, ambling along as if I were talking a pleasure walk in the Kansas heat and wind and dust.

“He appears to be headed toward Fort Riley,” Jeannie advised.

“Why is an obviously physically frail man heading for the place where a lot of sick people are located?”

“Insufficient data.”

“Somehow I knew you’d say that.”

The swelling of Fort Riley’s population due to the demands of the so-called Great War had resulted in a fairly steady stream of transit between Junction City and the not-too-distant main entrance to the Fort, which far from being a stereotypical wooden stockade turned out to actually be a pretty large expanse of northeast Kansas dotted with military facilities and housing.

The jumper didn’t try to enter, instead mingling with those outside the gate. I wandered close enough to hear him asking about the epidemic. How many were sick? Had many died? Were people worried? Understandable questions, which attracted no special interest from the locals. Their replies were fairly reassuring, speaking of not as many sick as before, not too many dead, and a general feeling that the epidemic was winding down. After asking those same questions of numerous people, including soldiers heading on and off the Fort, and getting roughly the same answers from all of them, the jumper went back toward town. The whole process should’ve reassured me, except for the unmistakable depression the jumper radiated on the way back to Junction City. He didn’t seem to regard the information he’d acquired as good news.

The trip had clearly worn out the jumper, who stumbled back to the hotel. I waited for a few minutes after he’d entered, then went in myself and cornered the desk clerk. “Did a tall, skinny, pale-looking fellow just come in?”

The clerk nodded. “You just missed him. Goin’ to his room, I expect. Sickly fellow. I’d have thought he’d be better by now.”

“You’ve seen him before?”

“Yes, sir. He stayed here a few months back.”

“A few months?” I felt a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature.

“That’s right. Um, lessee, that’d have been . . . ” The clerk frowned, checked his ledger, then nodded. “February. Yes, sir. Checked in February the 26th and checked out March 5th.”

And the Spanish Influenza had first been noted around here in March. I faked a smile I didn’t feel. “That’s my friend, all right. What room did you say he was staying in?”

“I didn’t.” The clerk grinned at his own joke. “3B, sir.”

“Thank you.” Had the man jumped ahead a few months to avoid the disease he might’ve carried here? But if so, why had he seemed so morose after finding out at the Fort that the epidemic seemed to be under control? Depression over knowing he could’ve caused the deaths which had occurred already? I had too many questions to which Jeannie would only answer ‘insufficient data.’

I knocked firmly on the door to room 3B, waited a long minute, then knocked again in a way that conveyed I’d keep knocking all day if I had to do so. I heard sounds on the other side of the door, then it opened and the jumper looked cautiously out at me. “Yes?”

“Hi.” I shoved my way into the room, using some subtle unarmed fighting techniques that pushed my opponent off balance until I was inside. I shut the door and held it closed. “We need to talk.”

The jumper staggered back and held up his hands as if to ward me off. Seeing the extremities for the first time close-up, I could easily spot the swollen joints and twisted digits that marked severe arthritis. Was there anything this guy didn’t suffer from?

I stood still, spreading my own hands out at waist level, palms out. “I’m not here to hurt you.”

“Then why are you here?” His voice was raspy and weak. He seemed to be having trouble breathing. Asthma, too?

“I’m collecting seeds,” I informed him.

“What?”

“Really. But I’m not from here. Just like I know you’re not. And I’m not from now. Just like I know you’re not.”

It took a few moments for my statements to sink in. The man’s eyes grew bigger, then started watering heavily. He sneezed, staring at me. “You’ve been to the grain elevator?”

“Seed suppliers.”

“Uhhhh.” He staggered back again like I’d threatened him. “Wheat dust.”

Of course. “You’re allergic to wheat.” That could explain the malnutrition and anemia. The jumper stopped backing up when he reached the window, where the ever-present breeze blowing in would keep any grain dust I’d picked up from reaching him. “Do you mind telling me your name?”

“Call me John Smith.”
“Very funny.”

“That’s the only name you’re going to get.”

“Fine. Mr. Smith, I don’t know exactly when you’re from, but I have reason to believe you’ve brought a disease back to here and now.” Smith’s expression had closed down, revealing nothing. “On the Fort, Mr. Smith. I know you’re aware of it.” Smith nodded. “Why’d you make a jump from March to July? Did you think the epidemic would be over by then?” Smith didn’t answer, didn’t move. “Do they remember germ theory when you’re from?”

His face finally shifted expression, twisting into some sort of disbelief at my question. “We’re not primitive.”

“You’ve obviously suffered some . . . uh . . . problems.”

Smith grinned widely, as if I’d said something funny. “You’ve noticed that?” he rasped in that feeble voice.

“You need to go away. If you’re the vector causing this epidemic you need to isolate yourself. That’s not that hard around here. Stay there, until you’re sure you’re not a carrier.”

He nodded again. “Certainly.”

Liar. I didn’t need Jeannie’s analysis of his breathing and other external signs to know that. The answer, the agreement, had come too easily. “Why are you here? I want the truth.”

“I’m . . . seeking refuge.”

Another lie, I was certain. “A man allergic to wheat seeking refuge in twentieth century Kansas? A man with a lot of medical problems seeking refuge in a time when medicine was still very primitive?”

“I have my reasons.”

“Share them with me. Please. Or else.” I’d long ago learned that keeping threats vague allowed the recipients to imagine the worse thing they could envisage, which could easily be worse than anything I’d really do. But, if this deceitful idiot really was spreading what would become known as the Spanish Influenza, I had to bring him to his senses.

Smith took a step to one side, reaching out to grasp the handle of his valise. “Sorry,” he whispered, just about the time I remembered that the valise probably contained his jump mechanism. I hadn’t taken half a step toward him before Smith popped out of existence.

“He has jumped out of the temporal period,” Jeannie announced.

“Really?” I tamped down my irritation. “Which way did he go?”

“Uptime.”

“Can you estimate the length of the jump?”

“My calculations are very tentative, but based on the strength of the temporal pulse I would estimate the jump involved a chronological period of less than one month.”

One month. This was July. Next month was August. When three different locations would simultaneously or nearly-simultaneously experience outbreaks of a much more virulent strain of the Spanish Influenza. I remembered Smith’s unhappy reaction after he’d heard the epidemic appeared to be subsiding here and now. Maybe he hadn’t been depressed for the reasons I thought he had been. “He’s doing it on purpose. Whatever he introduced here in March isn’t doing the trick, so he’s going to set loose something a lot worse.”

Jeannie managed to follow my logic trail without having it spelled out for her. “There is a significant probability that you are correct.”

“Why would anyone do something like that?”

“Insufficient -.”

“Yeah. I know.” Smith didn’t look like a mass murderer, but I’d personally seen people as diverse as Caligula, Genghis Khan, and Adolph Hitler. None of them had ‘looked’ like mass murderers, either. I still don’t know what a mass-murderer looks like, and I’ve seen some of the worst. “Where were those three locations again? The one’s where the much more virulent strains of Spanish Influenza will pop up in August?” Jeannie recited them and I thought over my options. Boston was (for this now) a big city, filled with humans who had the same general ethnic appearance as Smith. My chances of finding Smith there were damned close to zero. Same for the city of Brest, in France.

But Freetown was another story. A much smaller town, and Smith would be a Caucasian in an African country. A Caucasian who’d be particularly easy to track down given his appearance and ailments. All I could do was hope Freetown was his first planned stop. “Jeannie, is my bank balance good enough to afford a jump to Freetown?”

“No.”

“Is my credit good enough -.”

“No.”

“Can I mortgage -.”

“No.”

“Are there -.”

“No.”

Jeannie didn’t have to read my mind. We’d had this sort of conversation before, on other jumps, and her learning subroutines were well up to the task of figuring out this was another case of my wishing for more than I could afford. I sighed and pulled out the small device that would manufacture as much local currency as I needed. Too bad the now I came from could detect the counterfeit stuff in a heartbeat. “Can here and now transportation get me to Freetown, Sierra Leone within three weeks?”

“Possibly.”

“Let’s get going.”

I bid adieu to the Kansas prairie, using plentiful amounts of local currency to bribe my way onto the next train east despite wartime travel restrictions. American east coast ports were full of ships, and a lot of those ships would be stopping at Sierra Leone. I’d wondered why it might be a good place to feed an epidemic, if that’s what Smith was doing, but it was in fact a very good place, indeed. Or a very bad place from a different perspective. Freetown was, now, the primary re-coaling site for ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean as well as those enroute other parts of the world. Just about every ship stopped there. If Smith intended having those ships take on a nasty new variant of the Spanish Influenza, it’d spread worldwide as fast as now transportation could possibly manage it.

Not that those coal-fired ships were as swift as I would’ve liked. Even while thanking providence that I didn’t have to worry about a wind-dependent sailing ship for this crossing of the Atlantic, I still had entirely too much time to think on my trip to Freetown. “Jeannie, how many people died in the Spanish Influenza epidemic?”

“Exact figures are not known.”

“What’s the estimate?”

“Twenty million dead is the low end. The high end is generally set at around forty million dead.”

Twenty million. At least. “What’s the now world population?”

“Of humans?”

“Yes.” What else? Artificial intelligence, again.

“Approximately 1.8 billion.”

I did some math in my head. One or two percent of the world’s population dead in the course of less than a year. Amazing, in a very bad way. “You told me we don’t have a vaccine for it. Why not?”

“The Spanish Influenza vanished after the epidemic. Attempts to analyze the disease from fragmentary samples in partially preserved victims were undertaken in the early twenty-first century, but were inconclusive.”

“Jeannie, diseases don’t just vanish. They may be driven to extinction by proper medical actions, like small-pox was, or go underground for a while like bubonic plague before they pop up again, but even I know diseases don’t simply vanish without a trace and never resurface.”

“The Spanish Influenza has never resurfaced.”

Every new thing I learned about the disease made it a greater anomaly. “Is there anything else unusual about it?”

“Clarify?”

“Anything else that made the Spanish Influenza different from other outbreaks of influenza?”

“Yes. Influenza viruses normally posed the greatest mortality risk to humans who were very young or very old.”

“The weakest, in other words.”

“Correct. However, the vast majority of those killed by the Spanish Influenza were in the age range of fifteen to forty chronological years.”

“Adults? Were they predisposed somehow?”

“Insufficient data. The only conclusions medical researchers have been able to affirm are that those who should’ve had the strongest immune systems were those who were most likely to be killed by the illness.”

I leaned on the rail of the ship, looking out across bright blue waves capped by spurts of white foam. Clouds of sooty ash from the ship’s smokestacks drifted slowly down into the water astern of us, disappearing without apparent trace. Little wonder now-humanity still believed the ocean was a limitless sink for pollution. “I guess in this case strong immune systems were a bad thi -.”

Jeannie waited a moment. “Clarify?”

“Jeannie. Auto-immune diseases. Like that Smith guy has. Those were caused by immune systems attacking their own bodies, right?”

“That is essentially correct.”

“So, asthma and arthritis and wheat allergies, they’re all signs of an, uh . . . ”

“Overactive immune system.”

“But the Spanish Influenza wasn’t an auto-immune disease?”

“The Spanish Influenza was very definitely a type of influenza.”

A type of influenza that seemed to have uncharacteristically targeted the strongest human immune systems. I had a lot of pieces, but none of them fit into a reasonable picture. I needed Smith. And the next time I had him cornered I’d wrap my hands around his scrawny neck to keep him from jumping away from me again.

I prowled Freetown for a good week after arriving, spreading around more bribes and descriptions of ‘John Smith,’ with promises of bigger pay-offs for anyone who found him for me. Eventually, somebody did.

I waited until I knew he was in the room he’d taken at a transients’ boarding house, then broke the door open and had one hand on his neck before he could move. “Hi. We have a conversation we need to finish.”

Smith stole a glance toward the valise he had no chance of reaching, then glared at me, his eyes very wide in that very pale face. “You have no idea what’s at stake.”

“So tell me.”

“What if I don’t?”

“Maybe I’ll break your neck, then take that bag of yours and drop it into the hottest boiler I can find so that anything inside it is totally incinerated.” Smith’s eyes widened even more and he trembled. Then his eyes swung all the way to one side and stuck there, while his body went limp except for his hands, which twitched over and over again.

“He is suffering a seizure,” Jeannie advised me.

“I figured that out.” I kept my hand on his neck. “Could he be faking?”

“It cannot be ruled out, but a seizure disorder such as he apparently suffers from can result in seizures being triggered by stress.”

Stress like someone breaking into his room and threatening to break his neck. I sighed, made sure Smith’s seizure didn’t seem life threatening, transferred my grip to his wrist, and waited.

Three minutes later Smith’s eyes regained their focus. He stared at me for a long moment before recognition entered them. “Happy?” he whispered.

“Knock it off. I have no sympathy for you.”

“Really?” He held up his free hand, the arthritic joints almost painful to even look at. “Do you see this? I can barely grasp my bag with it. Even then it hurts. It always hurts. Do you know what’s it like to always hurt?” Smith’s weak voice broke on the last word, as if he’d run out of air.

I kept my eyes away from the twisted ruin of Smith’s hand. “No. How does that justify what I think you’re doing?”

“You don’t understand.”

“Right. I don’t. So why don’t you and I take a paired-jump to my uptime where some people in authority can listen to you explain it all in detail?”

His eyes showed fear. “You can’t.”

“Yes, I can. And I’m about to.”

“No!” Smith tried to twist out of my grip, then started gasping for breath.

“Asthma attack,” Jeannie informed me. Smith’s free hand fumbled desperately in one pocket. I watched, trying to remain dispassionate, as he tried to bring out a small device and dropped it on the bed. “Aerosol medication delivery device,” Jeannie added.

I picked up the thing and offered it to Smith. He grasped it as carefully as his warped hand and labored breathing allowed, then sprayed something from it into his mouth. A few minutes after this labor his breathing was back to normal. For him. He stared at me, then nodded his chin to indicate the device. “Thank you.”

“I assume I may’ve just saved your life.”

“Yes. You may have.”

“Why did I do that?” I asked even though I knew the answer; because I still wasn’t certain of Smith’s guilt, and even if I were I didn’t have it in me to watch someone die if I could prevent it.

But Smith looked away as if embarrassed. “That’s a reasonable question, isn’t it? You’ve guessed what I’m doing.”

“Am I right?”

I couldn’t look directly into his eyes, but Smith’s face twisted with some emotion I couldn’t read. “Yes.”

“You’re deliberately spreading what will be known as the Spanish Influenza. You dropped off the first batch in Kansas in March, then checked on its progress in June and figured out it wasn’t lethal enough. So you’re here and now to spread a much more lethal variant.”

“That’s right.”

“I assume you’re doing this for a reason.”

He kept his face averted from me. “I need to change the future.”

I couldn’t help sighing. “A temporal intervention. That’s what the Spanish Influenza is/was?”

“Of course.” His raspy voice had sunk to a whisper, but I could still hear it clearly enough. “What else?”

“I’d wondered what natural disease would appear in three places at the same time, and then disappear without a trace.”

“Yes. It’ll disappear. We designed it that way. A genetically-engineered suicide instruction. What you call the Spanish Influenza virus will die out after one year.”

“Gee, that’s really humanitarian of you.”

My sarcasm got a reaction. Smith swung his head back and glared at me. “What the hell do you know about it? Humanitarian? You smug bastard! Have you ever heard of the auto-immune plagues?” I shook my head slowly and Smith trembled. “It works. You’re from . . . when?”

“None of your business.”

“After the twentieth century? After the twenty-first?”

I decided to tell him that much. “Yes.”

“God help me.” Smith let his gaze wander, staring straight up as if he could see through the roof. “We stopped it.”

“Stopped what ?”

“The auto-immune plagues.” Smith held up his hand again, his eyes still staring up toward the heavens he couldn’t see. “We didn’t know what was happening. Sudden surges in the incidence of diseases and ailments. One hundred, two hundred, three hundred percent increases annually. Asthma. Hypothyroidism. Hyperthyroidism. Arthritis. Many other things. We didn’t understand, for the longest time. Too long. Finally, we knew. Evolution and science had failed us. Given us better and better immune systems as we survived the assaults of everything Earth could throw at us, while we developed vaccines to keep many natural ailments away from our ever-stronger, ever more vigilant immune systems.” He fell silent, breathing heavily.

“And?” I prompted.

“And? You fool. Don’t you see? Our immune systems were so strong, so vigilant. They didn’t have enough to do. They attacked us . More and more. Our digestive systems, our nervous systems, our joints, our cardiovascular systems. Everything. And we didn’t realize what was happening until literally millions were afflicted and more coming down by the day.”

“Millions?” I prompted.

“At first. By now it’s billions. Crippled and dying by the very immune systems which are supposed to protect them.” He looked back at me at last, his eyes wild. “Billions. Society is collapsing. Worldwide. Too many people sick in the most fundamental ways with no means of correcting their conditions. They just linger on, dying very slowly, needing more and more medical care. The only ‘cure’ we have is to suppress the immune system with some crude methods available to us. Do you know what happens when you do that? The auto-immune diseases go into remission but then you die from any number of ‘normal’ illnesses. We can’t win.” He gestured down his own body. “The medications I have to take to keep my immune system from causing me further agony themselves make me prone to seizures. How’s that for a bargain with the devil?”

I tried to read truth or falsehood in his eyes and couldn’t manage either. I asked Jeannie, instead, then relayed her information. “That sort of thing started to happen. In the very-late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. We developed treatments.”

“We didn’t! Don’t you understand? We bought you time .”

“Bought us . . . ?” The things I knew suddenly clicked into place. An influenza which killed those with the strongest immune systems. Killed them by the tens of millions. Leaving those with weaker immune systems still alive to pass that on to future generations. “Eugenics.”

“No! This isn’t about making humanity ‘better,’ whatever the hell that means. It’s about culling enough of the strongest immune systems from the human gene pool now in order to put off the onset of the auto-immune plagues for another one or two generations. Long enough for medical science to develop the means to diagnose and treat the disorders before they overwhelm the human race.”

I turned inward to Jeannie again. “Is what he’s saying plausible?”

“The scenario outlined does not fall outside the realm of possible historical outcomes.”

“Is it likely?”

“Insufficient data.”

Smith shuddered, and I looked down to see my hand gripping his arm so tightly that even on his thin frame the flesh was coming up in ridges between my fingers. “You want to be free to kill tens of millions of people.”

His gaze was defiant, now. “Yes. For the sake of billions of people in the future.”

“I’ve heard that argument before.”

“I’m sure you have.”

“Do you think this’ll save you? Produce an alternate version of you who’s healthy?”

“I don’t know. I don’t care. Not about me.” His eyes flicked away from mine, but I saw tears welling there. “The kids.” He was whispering again. “Dear God. The kids. They don’t even know. Don’t understand what’s twisting and crippling and killing them. They live and die in pain and we can’t even explain to them what’s happening. We can’t help them.”

It’s not supposed to be like this. When you meet someone bent on mass-murder they’re supposed to foam at the mouth and talk like a fanatic and their eyes are supposed to be filled with righteous certainty. And I was supposed to be absolutely certain that stopping those deaths was the right thing to do. Instead, I felt a sick uncertainty inside, and translated it into anger. “You’re just killing a few tens of millions of people for the kids, huh? You don’t plan on being better off yourself? Do you realize the odds that introducing this plague here and now could just cancel you out? Eliminate your ancestors so you never exist outside of the closed loop you’ve created? You’d never see that great new world you say you want to make.”

Smith’s mouth worked for a moment before he could answer, but I saw a strange glint of what I thought must be eagerness in his eyes. “This is more important than me.”

I closed my eyes to shut out the sight of his. There was only one thing I could be certain of. In my history, Smith’s mission had unquestionably succeeded in its immediate goal. The Spanish Influenza had killed its millions upon millions. If I stopped him, I’d be making a major temporal intervention with results I couldn’t predict on the future from that point forward. Would it be the hell Smith was describing? Or better? Or worse? There simply wasn’t any way for me to know. “How can I let you go out of here and kill tens of millions of people?” I finally said softly.

Smith kept his eyes fixed on mine. “For the sake of billions yet to come.”

“That kind of math is an abomination.”

“It’s also true. Dammit, do you think we wanted to do this?”

And somehow I knew then that Smith wasn’t lying. He might be delusional or crazy, but he believed what he was saying. Which left it up to me. Change my future, or let Smith kill on a scale unmatched in human history. Save tens of millions, maybe, and if Smith was to be believed condemn billions to awful fates. Take a chance that whatever my own intervention caused here would produce a future no worse than the one I knew of from this point forward. But that was impossible to know. Even aside from the group impact of so many humans living who’d died in my history, any one of those individual Spanish Influenza victims could’ve been another Hitler or another Einstein or another Martin Luther or another Julius Caesar. I looked at Smith again, letting my eyes stray down his ruined body. What kind of society would send somebody in his physical condition on a mission it regarded as so important? Only a society at the end of its rope.

I didn’t trust myself to speak. I just let my grip on Smith go and stepped back. Then I turned around and walked out. He might’ve called something after me. I couldn’t be sure and didn’t want to know.

Dawn found me staring across the anchorage of Freeport, thinking about the extra, unknown cargo those ships would be carrying soon. I looked down at my hands, didn’t see any blood there, and wondered why. Twenty million. At least. For the future good of the human race. For the future I knew, for better or worse, though it easily could’ve turned out a lot worse. I knew that, and when push came to shove I couldn’t risk a worse outcome in the future. Even though that future now felt forever tainted. Playing god isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “Jeannie -.”

“Yes?”

“It’s nothing. I just finally figured something out.” That flash of eagerness in Smith’s eyes. He wasn’t afraid of being cancelled out of the future he was creating. No, he wanted to be cancelled out of that future. Wanted to cease to exist, so that even an alternate version of him who had no idea what ‘he’d’ done would suffer the ultimate penalty. I understood now. Because, unlike Smith, I’d have to live with the knowledge of what I’d done, or more correctly what I hadn’t done, for the rest of my life. “Work up a jump home, Jeannie. Let’s get out of here.” Before Smith’s influenza started its deadly march across the planet.

I hope the kids who would’ve been Smith’s came out okay.