Welcome to the end of time. It's a perfect day.
Nobody remembers how the Causality War started. Really, there's no-one to remember, and nothing for them to remember if there were; that's sort of the point. We were time warriors, and we broke time.
I was the one who ended it. Ended the fighting, tidied up the damage as much as I could.
Then I came here, to the end of it all, and gave myself a mission: to never let it happen again.
Adrian doesn't need any introduction, having risen to be one of the best-selling SF writers of the decade, whose talent is as large as his beard! Here he offers time travel, the post-apocalypse, and all good things in between. – Lavie Tidhar
"This time-looped dramedy is as funny as it is thought-provoking."– Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A richly original and humorous must-read for genre newbies and die-hard sci-fi fans alike."– Starburst
"One Day This Will All Be Yours is the kind of story that hooks you, begging you to read one more chapter before bed, before work or in any spare moment you can find."– Aurealis
"Tchaikovsky delivers a comical and riotous account of what fun can be had when you're a sociopathic lone survivor with a time machine."– SciFiNow
Another perfect day at the end of the world.
I'm up with the sun, as usual. Not a cloud in the sky. And if there was, it'd still be a perfect day because, when you're a farmer-type like I am, then rain's good too, in its proper place and time. And I cheat, of course; I have some top-grade weather satellites invisibly overhead, governed by a computer system that's smart enough to bluff me at poker, let alone beat me at chess. Rain when I need it, sun when I don't. Snow when I decide it's midwinter. How I love the rugged outdoors life! Living out here with nothing but the fields and the animals and literally the best technological support that anyone ever invented.
I wasn't always a farmer. I've had to learn the hard way, mostly by struggling through impenetrable user manuals—Welcome new owner of the Kinhardy-Wollop Robotic Threshalot Model 94! Even with all the time in the world at my disposal I wasn't sure I'd get it all going at first. But it turns out that if you yank on your own bootstraps enough there's no limit to how much of a good thing you can get going. The place basically runs itself. The place literally does run itself.
Two decades, it took me, tugging on those bootstraps. Worth every moment. And every moment I spent on it, even when I was sleeping under the stars and going back in time to raid food banks for dinner, I was telling myself how much better off I was than during the fighting. I'm not doing that again. This soldier boy's retired to the country.
I mean, let's face it. Nobody's doing that again. World peace, man. Forever and forever.
I spend half the morning with the tractor. It's a new model I picked up a month ago, rusting in a Soviet barn back in nineteen sixty-two. I'm not lauding this as the pinnacle of agricultural technology, never to be surpassed. But restoring the old girl has kept me busy for a few weeks, and it's good to have a hobby. And I've had to make some changes to its energy pathways because I don't want to have to go raid the fossil fuels of the past every three days, nor set up my own refining industry here. So, magic tractor, basically.
Like I say, I do cheat. Cheating makes life easier and I'm all about that easy life.
You've heard about the magic tractor, right? Went round the corner and turned into a field. And when I get the intractable machine working and potter off to where the rice paddies are I tell myself that good old joke again and my voice rings out across the rolling fields and as far as the horizon without ever having to encounter another human being.
They're harvesting the wheat and the corn as I drive past in my Soviet Speedster with its spanking new coat of red paint. No heads bob up to see what I'm laughing about; there are no heads to bob. There have been maybe three moments in history when agricultural automation reached absolutely perfect efficiency. I have pillaged those moments, brought the goodies back here and spent many happy days trying to get their incompatible systems to talk to one another. Like clockwork, now. Planting, tending, harvesting, storing, all accomplished by a fleet of machines from the size of a house to the size of a gnat. Meaning I get to renovate antiquated agricultural vehicles from the twentieth century and drive about with a straw hat on and a wisp of grass in the corner of my mouth like a proper yokel.
Out where the flocks are, for an audience of precisely one robot sheepdog, I practice the banjo. I am still, I am delighted to find, terrible at it. It's no fun to pick up skills too fast, not when you're a man of leisure with all the time in the world.
Literally all the time. My time; my world.
Feeding time for Miffly next. I love to watch her bound out from where she's been hiding, already salivating à la Pavlov at the sound of the bell I've struck. As she slobbers over her repast, I chow down on a ham and pickle sandwich which tastes all the better knowing it's my ham and my pickles. I could get by with a much smaller operation if I'd just be happy eating the same thing over and over,
but you go enough years on ration kits and you relish a little variety in your diet. This year I'm going to put in a salmon run, I decide, really push the boat out, which will mean getting a boat. I'll have to go back to some point when there were still salmon, and read up on what you even do with one. I have a feeling they're one of those species with a ludicrously inconvenient life cycle, up into far highland lakes and then all the way to the sea, that kind of pointless nonsense. Which suggests I'm setting myself up for a major project that'll keep me happily busy for years.
With evening drawing on I potter back to the house in the Speedster. She's still not running entirely satisfactorily—engine sounding a bit grumbly—and that, too, is good. Means I get to open the hood and tinker again. Because one of the best things you can do, if you've actually achieved perfection, is introduce the imperfect, just to keep things interesting.
Miffly wants to come with me, of course. She discovers sudden bursts of affection after being fed. She trails the tractor all the way to the house with a hopeful look on her face and then wants to come inside like she used to when she was little. I can't really have her scratching the chair legs any more, though, so I politely but firmly close the door on her whining and turn in with the sense of a day well spent.
The next morning, the alarms go off.
It's been a while since they did. You always think each time is going to be the last. I check the satellite map and see something's turned up in the middle of the barley. Radiation and heavy metal counts suggest that crop is going to end up shot into the sun to stop a lot of nastiness getting into the food chain (which is to say, me). But this is part of the price of perfection, and I don't complain too much to myself. No time for the nice fry-up I was hoping for, though, so I neck a cup of strong coffee and then hop on the Speedster, crunching the buttered heel of yesterday's loaf. While the robots harvest the grain and churn the butter, I bake the bread myself. I do good bread, if I say so myself.
Out in the barley, I spot the something soon enough. Hard to miss a cratered circle of dead plant life a hundred metres across. The actual intrusion's relatively small. Just a capsule half again the size of a man, so that I wonder if it's nothing but electronics inside. It looks rough, to be honest. My tractor is decidedly more aesthetically pleasing, for all that I'm looking at the pinnacle of a technology centuries in advance of the flower of Communism.
Even as I'm driving over, thinking about soil decontamination measures and just how much I'm going to have to replace, a hatch springs open and a man falls out. He ends up on hands and knees, smoking slightly, wearing a suit of plastic and foil that's still cabled and ducted into the capsule he came from. He's coughing. Actually he's vomiting. Rough trip, I decide charitably, although he looks as though endemic health problems are also a factor. His face is as hollow as a famine victim's, unshaven, skin rugged with spots and surgery scars and a couple of melanomas.
I jump down off the Speedster and run over the dying barley to him. "Hello!" in English, Mandarin, Russian (newly fluent after the work on the tractor), Spanish and Croatian.
I stop three metres away. We stare at each other. After a moment he starts crying. Between sobs he chokes out a question, and on the third repetition my translation software pegs it as a blend of Arabic and a cocktail of romance languages and I can make myself understood.
"That's right," I tell his tears. "You made it. Welcome to the end times."
His name is Rigo. He can't really say much at first; too overwhelmed. I just sit with him as he fumbles in his clumsy gloves with all the homemade-looking equipment on his capsule. It's such a botch-job in there I can't even see what he's trying to do, except it isn't doing what he wants. At last he sits down again, still crying. "It's broken," he tells me.
"Rad counter. Not getting a reading."
I laugh. Rigo's blank stare suggests he's not used to people laughing, possibly at all.
"The only radiation here's background, friend." In fact the main source of radiation is him, but no sense bringing him down. I introduce myself instead, offer to shake his hand except he doesn't know that custom. Poor guy looks shell-shocked.
"Deep breaths," I counsel. He's reacting to everything: the sky, the fields, the horizon. I'm guessing where he comes from the Great Outdoors ain't so great anymore.
I coax him onto the Speedster and take him back to the house. By the time we arrive I've worked out robots don't freak him out, but animals do, from the sheep to the smallest insects. Miffly doesn't put in an appearance and that's likely just as well for Rigo's mental health. Best to break things to people gently.
I make a bit of a spread, at the house. Rigo sits at the rough wooden table, still in his suit with its scatter of disconnected hoses. Unshaven, pockmarked, twitchy. And yet it's starting to get through to the poor guy that he's actually done it. He probably thought he'd just die, when they sent him off in that tiny capsule: he's one of the desperate ones. The moment it dawns on them that, yes, this is the promised land, the idyllic future where the world is healed and everything's good—I still love it. Seeing that lifelong tension slowly inch out of his limbs. Handing him a plate with a cold leg of chicken and some crisp tomatoes, hard-boiled egg and some of that pear chutney I made last year that turned out extra-well. Food is one of those things in life that really repays putting an effort in.
The house is based on a nineteenth-century French farmhouse I saw once and rather liked. Didn't have the chance to really enjoy it at the time, what with the war on and the Causality Bombs and all—had to get out of the whole region double time—but I remembered. And, afterwards, I went back and found it, and had a replica built here, updated for all mod cons in such a way that none of it shows. Rustic simplicity backed by the absolute best in smart home systems.
"Tell me what it's like, where you come from," I prompt Rigo. He's been alternating between eating and staring out of the window and crying some more. Overwhelmed; a little conversation about his home will ground him.
And it's a grim story. He lives underground with a few thousand other survivors in the throes of a nuclear winter. He's third generation, and it's getting worse for him and his. The bunker leadership are doing their level best to control everyone's thoughts and kid them that it's all going swell, but by the time Rigo reaches majority, even that's fallen over and they know they're all screwed. And maybe if they'd just settled down to smell the irradiated roses, concentrate on the near-end of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, then they'd be a little more stable. All their effort has been going into their science team, though. Their leaders are a technical elite who believe they can rewind the apocalypse, or at least open a door they can all escape through.
The floodgates are open, now; Rigo just can't stop talking, like he's never been able to express any of this before because he's lived cheek by jowl with people for whom it was all old news. I'm the only appreciative audience he's ever had.
Rigo's life has been rubbish, frankly. I nod and sip my coffee sympathetically. I remember what it was like, at the height of the war, and I reckon Rigo's whole life has been like that. A litany of failing systems, sickness, hunger, brutality and oppression. He volunteered as an experimental subject because it would get his family more food. He expected a death sentence. He doesn't even know if the experiment was supposed to bring him here. He doesn't even know where here is.
"The end times," I explain gently. "The postepochalypse."
Blank looks from Rigo.
By now I know fairly precisely when he's from. Rigo's a survivor of the war before the last one. I don't want to tell him that, no matter how crap his life is, back home, people are going to work themselves back into a position for one more great war before things settle down to the life I'm enjoying. One more War To End All Wars, only this time it really will. That's my war, of course. Rigo was born around a century before it broke out. That's how long it took people to put the world back together enough for it to be worth breaking into pieces again.
I get the wine out, later. I do have some vineyards of my own but, of all my agricultural experiments, that one has not yet produced anything I'd be happy sharing. Instead I tend to go on sporadic shopping expeditions to particularly good years in France and Australia and California, and then leave the bottles to mature in some secluded corner of history before retrieving them for the cellar.
"Your very good health," I toast Rigo, although that ship has fairly obviously sailed.
As he drinks, and cries some more at just how beautiful it all is, how not-underground and not-radioactive, I load the plates into the dishwasher and ring the bell.
After he's drained his wine, Rigo stands decisively.
"I have to get back," he tells me. "They need to know." He blinks back more tears. "This place… we're saved. We're actually saved." He's lived his whole life in the certain knowledge that he's going to die young, and that the next generation will die younger, and probably there won't be a generation after that at all. And now he's spent a day at the farm and knows things will get better.
When we go outside, I introduce him to Miffly.
I don't think he has the necessary frame of reference to recognise her. I don't think palaeontology is a big part of the curriculum in his time. All he sees is big and teeth and ravaging. And fluff, of course, because like most therapod dinosaurs Miffly is just a great fuzzball of feathers. I know I'm biased but, she is ridiculously adorable when she's not actually eating people.
Rigo doesn't get much more crying time in, because I haven't fed Miffly since yesterday and because she knows full well what that bell means.
While she's picking the tinfoil out of her teeth I go to the big barn, because now I've got work to do. It's the price of perfection, really; sometimes you've got to get your hands dirty. I go past the Soviet Speedster and the gyrocopter and the hovertank, all my little hobby projects, until I get to the armillary sphere that is my time machine. Army surplus, of course, but then I'm all the army there is left and everything is surplus.
Between our little chat and my instruments' examination of his capsule, I have a fairly exact idea of Rigo's point of departure, so it's easy enough to set the machine to head back there. Rigo's capsule, by the way, wouldn't have made the return trip, or that was my system's assessment. A miracle he managed the one way, to be honest. Most likely the labs that sent him would never strike lucky again, but I can't really take the chance.
I go back to that cramped, irradiated, skyless place, thronging with filthy, hungry, desperate people. Reeking of sickness. Eating itself. I have lived like that. It's not as though I'm not sympathetic. But no. No exceptions. Or where would it end?
I go back further, twenty years or so. That's the trick, really. No point killing the dictator when the zeitgeist that produced him would just throw up another. Go back and kill the zeitgeist, and the dictators will look after themselves. I make sure a select handful of scientific minds are never born. I sabotage a few systems. To be honest I wonder if I shouldn't just wipe out the whole bunker a generation early; honestly, it might be kinder that way. It's not necessary, though. I prefer the light touch. And when I'm done, I have utterly destroyed that culture's capacity for travelling in time. They will live and they will die and they will never leave the period they were luckless enough to be born into. And they will never trouble the glorious solitude of my farm.
After that it's home and bed, that quintessential farmer's feeling of being tired after a day well spent in toil. One more perfect day at the end of the world.