Third Timeline Lucky
By J.H. McKay

F company had been dug in for hours just below the edge of a low ridge overlooking the shallow valley. The valley had probably been a meadow or pasture before the war had come, but all vegetation had long since been blasted away, and all that remained was churned rock and soil mixed with dismembered and burned body parts.

The intense radioactivity that now surrounded the battlefield along with the thick blue-grey banks of deadly poisonous gases that continually rolled over the shattered landscape made it unlikely anything would grow here again for a long time, but the decomposing body parts at least allowed the bitter foes to find a common purpose as potential fertilizer for a planet neither was native to.

For Private 2nd. class Thomas Bartlett of the Confederation of Human Allied Planets the hours he had been dug in with F company had seemed more like days. The knot in the pit of his gut had become the centre of his existence; it had become so large and hard as to make it impossible for him to get any of his rations down, or even to sip water, without gaging.

The bombardment had been unrelenting ever since they had moved in: plasma bombs and micro-nukes continually pounded the Human Alliance positions, the impacts shaking the ground and causing dirt to fall from the sides of the foxhole in which he lay onto Bartlett's huddled form. The deafening noise of the barrages made him wince with each thunderous explosion.

Bartlett knew that if there was a direct hit on his foxhole that he wouldn't survive it. The all encasing combat suit that he wore could protect him from radiation and plasma burns as well as minor shrapnel, but not a direct hit by the kinds of weapons that now assaulted their position.

The thought of this had terrified him into immobility. He feared death now more than ever before, and all he could think of was the very real possibility of his dying. Never had life been more precious to him, yet at times he almost wished he would get a direct hit; at least then the awful tension and anxiety would cease. As long as it was quick, he thought, better that he didn't even know what hit him. A partial hit that left him a mangled cripple would be worst of all; even as a child he had always had a deep fear of losing a limb, much less losing more than one or all of them.

In the more desperate moments he even thought of doing harm to himself; anything to get away from the unbearable and seemingly never ending fear that gripped him. But the shame of what others would think of him if they ever found out didn't allow him to pursue this line of thought for long.

The bombardment seemed to go on without end, but at last, mercifully and miraculously, the relentless pounding gradually diminished and slackened to about half the intensity of what it had been. Hope began to come back to Bartlett lying curled up at the bottom of his foxhole. Please God, he prayed, just let me get out of this alive and I'll get out of this goddamned army. I know now the army isn't for me, I know that now. Please God, just let me live.

Over the company comm link came the calm and composed voice of Lieutenant Bracknell, "O.K. people, they've been softened up enough; time to get at'em and finish them off."

The attack, Bartlett thought in a renewed despair, they were still going through with it! Of course they were, he cursed, the crazy bastards. The attack was the reason why they were here after all; why the company had stealthily moved up to the low ridge overlooking the valley and dug in under cover of night and their own artillery and air bombardments, then endured the constant retaliatory strikes. So that when the Alliance bombardments of the opposing Skree positions were judged to have significantly weakened their forces and resolve the surviving members of the advancing human forces could sweep across the valley to take whatever was left of the Skree positions on the other side.

That was the plan, Bartlett knew, and it terrified him. It would be roughly five kilometres they would have to cross: skimming low over the shattered terrain on anti-grav packs and thrusters, frantically bobbing and weaving, finding what cover they could behind low flying attack tanks and in the cratered land, desperately trying to avoid what would probably be intense laser cannon fire and dense clouds of radar guided shrapnel, as well as God knew what else; the Skree were always coming up with new and nasty surprises for their human enemies. Even a slight hit that managed to rent an armoured suit and exposed the occupant to the highly radioactive and noxious environment of this planetary region could prove painfully fatal if medical help didn't arrive almost immediately.

Realistically; Bartlett knew F company would be lucky if half of them made it the five kilometres to whatever awaited them on the other side of the valley. Even fewer would survive if the attack failed and they had to retreat under withering enemy fire.

Bartlett felt completely inadequate to the task. It's not fair, he thought numbly, most of the others are much stronger and faster than I am, there's no way I'll make it. To the bottom of his soul Bartlett was sure he would die if he went on the attack.

"All right, you lazy bastards," it was the rough voice of platoon Sergeant Hendricks. "You've been lying around doing nothing all night. Time to start earning your pay."

In his foxhole Bartlett huddled even tighter into his fetal position, but otherwise didn't move.

A few minutes passed and Bartlett began irrationally to hope they would somehow overlook or forget about him and go on without him. Then he heard Hendricks mustering role call for the platoon: "Alcompo!" Hendricks bawled.

"Here Sarge!"

"Austin!" No answer. "Austin!" Even louder than before, still no reply.

"I think Austin got it, Sarge. There's just kind of a crater where his foxhole was."

Silence for a moment, then the sound of Hendricks muttering over the open comm link. "Oh yeah, I'm not reading any vital signs on him. Too bad, good man Austin." There was another slight pause.

"Bartlett!...Where's Bartlett!" Hendricks shouted. "I can read vitals on him. His ticker's going so fast it's practically off the scale."

Bartlett curled as tightly into a ball as his suit would allow and futilely tried to still his racing heart. "Where's Bartlett's foxhole?" Hendricks barked. "Who knows? At least one of you should know."

"It's right over there, Sarge. I saw him digging it myself." It was the voice of Corporal Hillman.

Damn Hillman, Bartlett thought despairingly, Hillman's a gung ho bootlicker if ever there was one! Corporal Hillman was just the type of soldier Bartlett had come to detest most. Fearless and committed, with ice water in his veins, Hillman was in some ways the kind of soldier Bartlett had imagined himself to be when he first entered the army. How ridiculous that seemed now, and it made Bartlett hate Hillman all the more. He was convinced Hillman despised him for his weakness, and hated Bartlett just as much as Bartlett hated him.

"Right. Good job Hillman." Sergeant Hendricks said approvingly. "You and Alcompo go and get him and bring him to me.

"Black!" Hendricks roared, going on with the roll call.

"Hey Sarge."

"Cavaliere! Darnley!"



Bastards, all of them!, Bartlett thought fiercely to himself. That wasn't how he usually felt about most of them. A lot of them were almost as scared as he was, he was sure of that, but right now he felt as though they were all against him. None of them would stand up for him here, he knew that much. And the worst of it, he realized with deep depression, was why should they? He wouldn't in their place; he was the one being the coward.

"Eriksen! Gluchowsky! Lewis!"

"That's me."


"Uh, I think Lew got it, Sarge."

Bartlett heard the rattling of chunks of dirt and small rocks falling on the hard outer shell of his suit and knew Hillman and Alcompo were standing over him on the edge of the foxhole. "All right, Bartlett, you pitiful excuse for a human being," Hillman drawled disgustedly. "Get your sorry ass out of there."

"Robinson! Savard!"



Hillman had left his comm link to the whole platoon open so they had all heard what he had said to Bartlett, but the roll call went on without missing a beat.

Bartlett closed his eyes tighter and remained motionless. He wanted desperately to be just left alone. Maybe if he just stayed like this he thought, frantically grasping at straws, they would think he was unconscious, hit on the head somehow in the barrage and knocked out.

Bartlett heard a crunch: the sound of soil and rock being compacted under heavy boots as Hillman jumped down into the foxhole with him. Hillman leaned down and put his helmet against Bartlett's. The conversation would be more private now, just the two of them would hear. "Bartlett," Hillman snarled, "You lily-livered son of a bitch. I know you're not hurt. The Sarge's got your vitals monitored remember? Your pathetic little ticker's turning over faster than a Rigelian whore on New Years Eve." When Bartlett remained unresponsive, Hillman seized him by the shoulders and bodily heaved him upright.

Bartlett gave a little moan, but barely unwound his body, going into a semi-crouching position with his laser rifle held rigidly vertical in front of him in his tightly clenched fists. Hillman eyed the rifle, but thought better of trying to take it from him. "C'mon Alcompo," he grunted, "help me up with him here."

Alcompo jumped down into the crowded foxhole and with each of them taking a shoulder they managed to lift Bartlett out of the foxhole using the thrusters in their boots. They then hopped him over to where Sergeant Hendricks stood.

Hendricks had completed the roll call. It hadn't gone too badly from a numerical standpoint, he reflected, only four out of twenty missing and presumed dead; their suits no longer transmitting their vitals. You didn't get too many wounded with non-functional combat suits surviving for long in this type of combat environment, he thought grimly, not with the deadly gases and radioactivity let loose by the opposing sides.

Sixteen out of twenty might not be bad on the surface, but it was obvious to Hendricks that Bartlett was going to be useless, maybe worse than useless, and many of the others were on the edge of being not much better. Hendricks was determined not to let the paralysing fear that gripped Bartlett spread to the rest of the platoon.

Alcompo and Hillman bounded up to Hendricks with Bartlett held between them. Bartlett was still in his semi-crouched position with his rifle held upright before him, looking like some sort of weird statue.

"Bartlett!" Hendricks barked. "Snap out of it. Come to attention now!" Bartlett blinked and made a small groaning noise. "Stand up man. For your own sakes. The whole platoon is watching you." Bartlett unbent somewhat and his feet touched the ground as Hillman and Alcompo lowered him.

"Darnley!" Hendricks shouted. "Get over here." Darnley started, then scrambled over to Hendricks. "Darnley, take Bartletts weapon from him. Hillman, Alcompo, you hold on to him while he does it. Bartlett, let Darnley have your weapon. That's an order, Bartlett!"

Darnley grabbed the barrel and stock of the rifle with both hands and pulled. At first Bartlett wouldn't let go. "Bartlett!" Hendricks roared, "Relinquish your weapon to Private Darnley immediately!" Darnley yanked again at the weapon and this time it came away in his hands.

Lieutenant Bracknell came bounding over on thrusters and anti-grav pack from the far end of the company line where he had been with F company's other platoon. "What's all the commotion about Sergeant?" he inquired, "what's going on here?"

"It's this man, Sir," Hendricks replied, indicating Bartlett. "He refused to answer and come out of his foxhole at role call, and I just had difficulty in getting him to relinquish his weapon."

Bracknell turned to regard Bartlett still standing in a semi-crouched position between Hillman and Alcompo, his gauntleted hands still held out in front of him even though they no longer held the rifle. Bracknell noted the semi-rigid posture and the sheet white face beaded with sweat, along with the unblinking staring eyes. Lieutenant Bracknell had seen cases like this before and inwardly dreaded what was likely about to happen.

Bracknell motioned Hendricks off to the side where they put their helmets together and conversed in private for a few minutes. Bracknell then turned and walked up to the stricken Bartlett. Putting his helmet against Bartlett's he stared directly into Bartlett's eyes through the two opposing face plates and in a quick but urgent voice said, "This is your last chance to save yourself, soldier. For God's sakes, pull yourself together. What have you got to lose?"

Bartlett's staring eyes focussed and cleared a bit and he shook his head slightly. Bracknell continued in the same urgent undertone, "Now I'm going to have to order you to lead the attack, just to show the others there's nothing to be gained by shirking. Do you think you can do that?"

Bartlett squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head convulsively, his body started to tremble all over inside his suit. " sir, I-I c..c..can't.." he finally got out in a hoarse whisper. "Pl..please don't ask me to."

"You have to! It's your only chance. Do you understand me?"

"I..I..I can't."

"Very well then," Bracknell said, suddenly curt. "You've had your chance. I can't help you any more." Best to get this over with quickly, he thought grimly to himself, minimize the effect this was going to have on the others.

Bracknell stepped back and in a commanding voice over the platoon comm link blared out, "Private Bartlett! I order you to take your weapon and lead your platoon in the advance on the enemy position."

Bartlett started to visibly shake between Hillman and Alcompo.

"Private Bartlett! Are you refusing to obey a direct order from your commanding officer?"

Bartlett made an audible gulping sound, did it again, and then over the comm link came the hoarse whisper. "I..I'm sorry. I..I j..just can't."

"Very well then," Bracknell carried on stridently. "You are aware I presume that failure to carry out the orders of a superior officer in a combat zone is punishable by death."

Bartlett's eyes bulged and his knees gave way as he started to collapse. Hillman and Alcompo grabbed him under the shoulders and held him upright.

"Therefore," Bracknell intoned as he advanced on Bartlett's limp form, pulling out his phase pistol as he did so, "by the authority vested in me by the Confederation of Human Allied Planets as an officer of the Confederations armed forces, I hereby sentence you to death and immediate execution as your superior Commanding Officer for failure to obey my orders; cowardice; and dereliction of duty."

Bracknell marched up to within a metre of Bartlett and directly pointed the pistol at his brow through the faceplate. Bartlett's eyes rolled up into his head as he fainted dead away. Probably for the best, Bracknell thought, as he began to squeeze the trigger. It was the last thought he ever had.

As Lieutenant Bracknell stood fully erect in front of Bartlett the upper third of his torso holding the pistol pointed was fully visible over the top of the ridge to an attacking Skree force. The Skree had crept up under the bombardment during the night, scuttling from hole to hole on their six limbs and burying themselves in the mud for cover. Just as dawn was about to break the Skree had moved up as close as they dared to the human positions and then launched a full scale attack in numbers and strength far exceeding anything Human Allied intelligence had anticipated.

They came streaking out of the billowing fogs of bluish-grey gas that shrouded the no mans land between the two sides. In the weird half-light of early dawn on this blighted planet, the low sky hanging grey and dirty with radioactive dust that obscured the rays of the red sun, the humans were barely aware of what was happening before the Skree were upon them.

The first thing the advance elements of the Skree force attacking F company's position saw was Lieutenant Bracknell about to fire his pistol. The laser cannon on the leading Skree tank promptly fired a blinding stream of super charged photons just over the top of the ridge that neatly sliced Bracknell's upper torso in half.

F company, particularly Sergeant Hendricks preoccupied platoon, had little time to react. Stunned by the sudden loss of their CO, the soldiers of F company nevertheless put up a brave fight.

Alcompo and Hillman dropped the limp Bartlett and tried to engage the overrunning Skree in hand to hand combat, but Alcompo was almost immediately cut down by a laser burst that severed his head and shoulders from the rest of him. Hillman managed to actually engage a charging Skree warrior that seemed eager to fight an unarmed human, but the Skree, enormously strong reptilian creatures averaging well over six feet in height when standing on their hind limbs, were formidable opponents for even the best trained human fighters, and Hillman soon found himself lying prone on the rocky ground at the mercy of his adversary.

Private Darnley, finding Bartlett's fully charged laser rifle ready in his hands, was able to give one of the best accounts; picking off several Skree warriors as they came flying over the top of the ridge, sending green Skree blood and guts spraying as the deadly beam severed torsos and limbs; before being himself perforated by a shrapnel grenade, his own red human innards spraying out from multiple exit wounds.

The brief battle was bloody and savage; as it came to it's merciless end the copious amounts of bright red human blood splashed over the landscape and misting in the air, interspersed with the occasional puddle of Skree green, made a startling contrast with the otherwise drab colours of the surroundings. The soldiers of F company, along with those of other units caught in the surprise attack, fought for as long and as hard as they could, their shouts and screams as they died echoing along the open comm links; but the ultimate outcome of their battle against a far more numerous and capable an enemy was never in doubt.

* * *

Slowly Bartlett came rising out of the deep dark pit he had fallen into. The last thing he remembered was the barrel of the phase pistol aimed directly between his eyes and Lieutenant Bracknell's strident voice of doom filling his ears. Then nothing. The next thing he was aware of was being surrounded by pitch black in complete silence. He was a tiny mote drifting in a vast black ocean. How long he had been here he did not know. Time had no meaning here.

Gradually the mote became aware enough to wonder: is this death? It didn't really matter if it was. There was no fear or shame here, and that was what mattered. His relief at the absence of these two terrible torments was so great that Bartlett was quite willing to go on like this for eternity; drifting through the great anaesthetizing buffer of an all encompassing nothingness.

The slow rising out of this comfortable womb of nothingness was almost imperceptible at first, but then it gradually began to accelerate. The pitch tar blackness began to lighten. It turned to a dark brown, then lightened by degrees to a dull grey. As he felt himself being pulled out of this comfortable safe place, Bartlett began to panic and struggle against the inexorable force lifting him up. Terrible things had happened to him outside this world of nothingness, and he didn't want to leave it. Despite his increasingly frantic resistence, he continued to rise at an ever faster rate till he was surrounded by a white light so intense that it hurt. Bartlett found his voice and screamed, "No!" just as he awoke to find himself lying in a brightly lit hospital ward. The first thing he saw was the concerned face of an orderly peering down at him.

The orderly was soon replaced by an attentive swarm of doctors, while a Colonel hovered in the background. Once the doctors were through the Colonel, an elderly looking man with greying hair and heavy bushy eyebrows, came up to Bartlett's bedside and patted him companionably on the shoulder. "I'm glad to see you're going to make it, son," he said with an air of fatherly concern. "It's good that there will be at least one surviving member of F company who can be a living representative for all the others and the brave and heroic struggle they put up against overwhelming odds."

When Bartlett continued to stare at him blankly the Colonel gripped his shoulder like they were old comrades. "Don't try to talk about it now. It must have been quite an ordeal, seeing the whole company being overrun by those monsters. Just remember we're here for you now, the whole army is behind you. You and all your poor, brave dead comrades have earned a place in our hearts. That's why I'm here, why the army has had me waiting at your bedside, so you could know that as soon as you regained consciousness."

As the Colonel took his leave Bartlett stared after him in baffled wonderment. He couldn't quite understand it all yet, but one thing he knew: the great heavy knot in the pit of his gut that had been devouring him from within ever since F company had dug into it's positions under the Skree bombardment was gone. Somehow, everything was going to be all right. Bartlett turned over on his side with a slight smile on his lips as he went back to a secure sleep.

The story was soon spread rapidly and widely; of how the vastly outnumbered Human Alliance forces caught in the surprise Skree counter-offensive, chief among them the heroic F company, had valiantly fought to the end; how after the marauding Skree had been pushed back across to their side of the front by hastily brought up reinforcements and the breach in the line sealed, the search for survivors had begun. That search had turned up only the supine and somewhat battered, but still intact and breathing form of Private 2nd. class Thomas Bartlett, his fully discharged rifle lying not far from where he had fallen. The army, for it's part, given that the debacle was the result of it's own intelligence and planning failures, played up the heroism and bravery of the fallen soldiers and Private Bartlett as much as it could; the better to direct attention away from it's own shortcomings in the affair. This did not escape more astute observers, but as it was wartime few wished to make the point too strongly for fear of appearing divisive or overly critical of the armed forces.

Private Bartlett, soon to be made an honorary Lieutenant Commander, himself professed to remember little of his ordeal. Being knocked unconscious could have caused that, though his attending physicians could find no sign of his having suffered a direct blow to the head. A few of them even had their own different opinions as to what might have caused Private Bartlett's unconscious state when found, but thought the wiser of voicing them aloud. The army psychiatrist who examined him found him to be somewhat distant and remote in manner, not unusual in patients who had suffered a severe trauma, and recommended that he not be returned to active duty.

After being publically awarded his medals and decorations, Lieutenant Commander Bartlett (honorary) spent the rest of his term of military service attending various public functions as a living embodiment of all that was deemed good and noble about service in the armed forces of the Human Alliance, and by extension, the sometimes less than popular war it was waging against the Skree.

Those who had known Bartlett from before the war initially found him to be a changed man. Always sensitive in nature, but friendly and engaging, they at first found him to be much more detached and aloof than previously, though by no means anti-social. He was simply quieter than before, and more inclined to long walks and periods in contemplation by himself, as though dealing with some problem or puzzle that could only be solved alone. It was perfectly understandable said most, given what he had been through, and to some it even gave him a not unattractive air of mystery. As time went by these new tendencies grew less marked as he gradually readjusted to civilian life, till at last they had virtually disappeared.

* * *

It was one of those glorious summer mornings such as were only possible on Earth. A bright blue sky provided the setting for a warm gentle sun that was bestowing it's benevolent rays upon the grateful denizens of Bartlett's backyard. Butterflies were dancing in the soft morning light and birds sang and twittered while small chipmunks ran about on their business through the trees and underbrush. The leaves and grass were a lush green and bees were busy buzzing around and pollinating flowers that spread their petals out eagerly to the radiant sun.

It was enough to make any human being glad to be alive, and Bartlett should reasonably have been expected to be so as he gazed out at the scene from the kitchen breakfast nook where he was seated with his wife. They sat across from each other as the sunlight flooded in over them through the large bay window; he looking out the window lost in thought, she reading the morning paper. They were waiting for the maid to bring them their breakfast.

They were a handsome looking couple; they even looked somewhat alike, sharing the same serious dark eyes and hair. She was petite and pretty while he was of medium build and boyishly handsome. Melissa thought of themselves as soul mates and believed they understood each other as well as any two people could. This was even though she knew there was a part of him he had not yet completely shared with her; that it was difficult for him to bare this part of himself to her because it had to do with the terrible experience he had had in the war. But she was confident that even here, eventually he would confide in her and together they would help him come to terms with the terrible trauma he had suffered.

The emotional rapport she felt she had with Bartlett was one of the reasons she had married him; the other main one was her father. It was through her father, a domineering ex-army Colonel now in the government intelligence establishment, that she had first met Bartlett at one of the many public occasions given in his honour. Despite their being almost immediately drawn to each other, the Colonel hadn't approved of the relationship. In his view Bartlett was beneath his daughter; he saw him as an essentially unremarkable common soldier who had simply been lucky. This paternal disapproval had merely heightened Bartlett's appeal to Melissa, who had had a need to demonstrate her independence from an overbearing parent.

That parent had come in handy however in getting Bartlett a leg up in obtaining a position in the department, Bartlett's former military service had made him an easy sell, once it became apparent nothing was going to stop the Colonel's headstrong offspring from what the Colonel considered to be an ill-advised match. But after four years on the job Bartlett had proven himself to be sufficiently adept to now be considered an up-and-comer within the Human Alliance's security and intelligence agency.

Melissa was absorbed in her reading; barely shifting the paper's position when the maid, a small furry brown creature about half the size of a human from one of the dirt poor planets in the 61 Cygni system, who resembled nothing so much as an overgrown teddy bear, put breakfast down before her.

When the maid had finished unobtrusively serving them and shuffled off to the kitchen, Melissa put down the paper and looked searchingly at her husband, who was apparently still absorbed in contemplating the scene outside. Melissa was both excited and, for some strange reason she couldn't quite pin down, a little fearful; but she tried to keep her voice calm. "Tom, dear," she said, "have you seen this morning's paper? There is this article on the front page about the Skree returning POW's in a prisoner exchange, and one of them is a Corporal Ronald Hillman who-"

"Yes dear, I know," Bartlett interrupted in a level voice. "We've known about it at the office for quite a while now. Ever since the Skree released the list of their prisoners, about a week ago I think. I hear his debriefing is going rather well."

"But..but," the excitement was rising in her voice, "it says he was in your unit, your company, company F. Is that right? Did you know him? Were you friends?"

"Yes, I believe we were acquainted."

Puzzled by his restrained manner, Melissa tried to search his eyes, to read what he was feeling. But he continued to obstinately stare out at the idyllic morning scene. She shook her head. In everything else she felt he was like an open book to her, but in anything to do with what had happened to him in the war, she shook her head again, it was as if he were someone else.

Finally he turned to her and took her hand in both of his, still not looking at her. "I'm sorry," he said.

"Sorry? For what?" she said, bewildered.

"For being selfish," he said, at last looking up at her. "For being so selfish as to allow myself to love you, when I had no right to."

"No-no right to? But-"

"Please," he said, looking at her earnestly, his face unnaturally pale, "just know that I'm sorry for any hurt I may cause you; and that it's my fault and that I just couldn't help loving you." With that he disengaged himself from her and got up to go.

"I..I don't understand," she said, starting to really be uneasy now. "What has this Corporal Hillman's being released have to do with us?"

"Corporal Hillman is being transported back to Earth for final debriefing as we speak. I'm going to meet with him this afternoon." He abruptly turned and left, leaving her to stare at his untouched breakfast.

* * *

Corporal Ronald Hillman stood stiff and gaunt in his neatly pressed dress uniform as he stared out at the broad panoramic view of the lake from the window of his top floor hotel room. The day had turned overcast and rain now looked like a sure bet; he could see the storm clouds scudding in off the lake towards him.

Hillman had just finished another debriefing session a half hour ago and it was now mid afternoon. He had the rest of the day to himself, but so far he had chosen to simply stand and look out at the brewing storm. His sharply chiselled face was unreadable, his thoughts a cipher.

Behind Hillman's spare erect form there began a slight wavering in the air like the heat shimmering above black pavement on a hot sunny day. The shimmering grew in intensity until it was no longer possible to see through it, the individual lines of wavering air multiplying and growing together until they were a solid whole that rapidly gained texture and shape. The shape eventually resolved itself into the form of an adult human, the finished texture showed the human to be Thomas Bartlett of the Human Alliance security and intelligence services. The whole process had taken just under two minutes; Hillman had all the while continued to stare out at the turbulent sky and water, seemingly unaware of Bartlett's materialization behind him.

Bartlett stood motionless behind Hillman as he tried to regain his bearings, his eyes slowly focussing on Hillman's turned back. His well tailored dark suit and still youthful appearance made him look like some junior bank executive. His unlined face was drawn and pale as he made a small sound shifting his feet in the plush carpet.

Hillman's face by contrast, as he turned at the sound to gaze at Bartlett without apparent surprise, looked old well beyond his years. Though the skin was tight against the skull it was deeply lined, with seemingly not a molecule of flesh between it and the bone beneath. The haunted eyes looked out from deep sockets with dark shadows set underneath, as though he had difficulty sleeping at night. Grey touched the temples of his regulation crewcut. "So," Hillman said, still showing no surprise, "I see the rumours are true."

"If you're referring to how I got here," Bartlett said grimly, "yes, teleportation is now a working reality. Only works at short range so far, and still very experimental, not to mention secret." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I took a big risk both professionally and personally making unauthorized use of it to come here. Having your subatomic particles scanned and disassembled so they can be shot through inter-dimensional subspace and reassembled elsewhere out of thin air is still a very dicey business. The inter-dimensional subspace works as a portal to an infinite number of different possible timelines and the R&D people say there's the possibility someone could be shot through to a different timeline than the one they would otherwise normally progress through. But it was the only way to get to you without anybody else knowing."

* * First Timeline of Infinitely Many Possibilities**

Bartlett raised a hand to his breast as though to confirm he was really there. "So you see," he said, "I'm not even sure I'm really me anymore, not the right me for this timeline anyway. But then," he added with a wry grimace, "it often turns out we're not who we thought or wished we were in any case. I think we've both been through experiences that have changed us, as well as perhaps destroying certain illusions we may have had about ourselves." After a slight pause Bartlett eyed Hillman speculatively and said softly, "I take it you haven't completely informed your debriefers as to the circumstances surrounding one such experience we shared."

Hillman had crossed his arms in front of his chest while Bartlett was speaking and now gave a derisive snort. "Don't worry, Bartlett, I was expecting you sooner or later, but your little secret is safe with me. You didn't have to go to all the trouble of coming here like this.

"Not that I have any sympathy for lily-livered cowards like you. You should have been the first one to die back on Alkes IV. It turns my stomach just thinking about a yellow worm like you lapping it up here back on Earth while the real heros were men like Alcompo and Darnly who died fighting to the end against those Skree bastards." Hillman's voice was heavy with scorn.

"But you-"

"But I won't squeal your dirty, pathetic little secret. Believe me, I'd like nothing better than to see your sorry ass hauled before a firing squad," Hillman's scornful voice had risen in volume. "Unfortunately, for it to come out now that a decorated war hero was in fact a fraud would only serve to make people doubt the brave sacrifices and heroics of real heros, heros whose spittle would be too good for you to lick off their boots! And it would give aid to those subversives and appeasers who would like to discredit and undermine the morale of our fighting men and women in the war against these Skree fiends."

Bartlett stared at him open mouthed. Jesus, he thought, I should have known; he's even more of a gung ho fanatic than before; being a prisoner of the Skree must have driven him completely around the bend. Bartlett knew that the Skree had little understanding or empathy for humans and viewed those few POWs they bothered to take as inferior beings to be first interrogated for information by any means that proved effective, and then experimented on for research that was often weapons related. Nor was consideration given for any pain or discomfort suffered by their helpless captives. Hillman, he knew, had to have been both very lucky and very tough to have survived being their prisoner.

Hillman now had his fists clenched by his sides, his face contorted into a grimace of disgust and hatred, as though something was tearing him up inside. "God!" he grated, "when I think of what I went through- of all the disgusting, perverted alien things they did to me- of all the times I just wanted to die, but they wouldn't let me!" Hillman's whole frame shuddered at the memory. "And now, to come back and find you still alive, and not only that, but having stolen the glory and heroism that rightfully belongs to the others of the company who died for humanity.'s almost more than I can bear." He shuddered again.

"But what's really good," he went on in a tight voice, "is how you've managed to use your stolen fame and glory to worm your way between the legs of some high-ups daughter and get a cushy government job.

"I wonder," Hillman's voice dripped with sarcasm, "if she knows what a prize she has. If she realizes what crawls into bed with her every night. No," he drawled, "I'd guess she doesn't."

Bartlett's face had gone from pale to a bloodless white under Hillman's verbal lashing and his head twitched almost imperceptibly at this last jibe, but he otherwise remained motionless.

"But you don't need to worry, Bartlett." Hillman stared down at the floor as though trying to bore holes through it. "I know my duty. I know what I have to do for the good of the service and humanity. So you can go on living your comfortable respectable life and only you and I will know what a pathetic twisted fraud it really is.

"Now get out of here before I puke at the sight of you."

Bartlett just stood where he was for a moment staring at Hillman. There was a pounding in his ears and without realizing it his hands had clenched into fists. He realized now how obviously unstable Hillman was; that there was no way he could be relied upon to stay quiet, whatever his stated intentions might be. Bartlett came to a conclusion and now knew what he had to do.

It had started raining and large drops were pelting the big window Hillman had been looking out of, and there was the muffled rumble of thunder. Bartlett reached inside his jacket and pulled out a small hand weapon from its holster under his armpit. It was a simple molecular disrupter, easily obtainable and untraceable, but deadly at short range. Bartlett pointed it at Hillman, his hand only slightly shaking. He had never actually killed anyone before.

Hillman glanced up as though surprised to find Bartlett still there and started when he saw Bartlett pointing the weapon at him. "What the hell?" he snarled. "Now you think you're going to kill me? Why you little-"

Hillman started to go for Bartlett, but didn't get half a step before Bartlett fired point blank from five metres away, killing him almost instantly as a molecular pulse entered his chest cavity and pulverized everything inside. Hillman toppled like a felled tree, the look of snarling hatred still on his face.

Bartlett stared down at the motionless corpse lying face down in the hotel room carpet. I had to do it, he told himself, for Melissa's sake as much as my own, there is no way I could've trusted him to keep quiet.

Lightening flashed outside the big window to the accompaniment of deafeningly loud thunderclaps, throwing streaks of light onto the body lying in the dim light of the room. The noise made Bartlett jump nervously and he went over to look out at the storm. Through the rain streaming down the pane he could see dark storm tossed waves on the lake being whipped up by the wind.

A real storm was brewing out there, he observed, but it would blow over soon enough, he thought confidently to himself. He took a small console out of his jacket pocket and studied it. Now if he could just get out of here the same way he had come, everything would be fine.

** The Second Possible Timeline **

Bartlett raised a hand to his breast as though to confirm he was really there. "So you see," he said, "I'm not even sure I'm really me anymore, not the right me for this timeline anyway. But then," he added with a wry grimace, "it often turns out we're not who we thought or wished we were in any case. I think we've both been through experiences that have changed us, as well as perhaps destroying certain illusions we may have had about ourselves." After a slight pause Bartlett eyed Hillman speculatively and said softly, "I take it you haven't completely informed your debriefers as to the circumstances surrounding one such experience we shared."

Hillman, who had listened to Bartlett with a slightly crooked grin on his face, gave a low laugh. "Relax Bartlett," he said, "I'm not going to tell them about your little lapse in soldierly deportment. On the contrary, your subsequent elevation to hero status amuses me to no end."

Bartlett looked at him in astonishment. "But I don't under-"

Hillman brushed him off: "I surprise you, but as you said, experience can change a man." Hillman's tone turned bitter and in a halting voice he went on. "When I think of what I went through, of what those Skree bastards did to me...of how they picked and probed at me as though I were just a senseless piece of meat...but...but wouldn't let me die no matter how much I wanted to...when I think of it...I...I.." Hillman shuddered and seemed unable to go on for a moment, as though overcome by the memory, but then with a visible effort he gathered himself together and continued. "And what was it all for? What did I go through the worst hell anyone can imagine for? I'll tell you what it was for-some godforsaken sector of space nobody cares about and an opportunity for a few generals to make their careers and get into the history books-that's what it was for! That and the chance for corporations to make a killing off of military contracts.

"And what do I get out of it? A pat on the back, a few fucking medals I probably won't even be able to hock, and a pension I can barely live on." Hillman's voice was redolent with rancour and self-pity.

"You were right, Bartlett, refusing to fight for them back on that godforsaken planet. Me and all the rest of the company, we were the suckers; dying or going through worse than death for the benefit of the big boys. Well, you showed'em, Bartlett, I gotta give you that, you turned the tables on'em. You were the one guy smart enough to turn yellow and try to run, and you come out of it smelling of roses, the big hero." Hillman chuckled nastily, "If those SOB's only knew; that the guy they pinned all those medals on and made such a commotion about, built up into such a hero, was actually just about to be executed for being a coward!" Hillman's chuckle rose to a malicious laugh.

"Yes...I...suppose there is some humour in it," Bartlett said cautiously. Bartlett was still taken aback by Hillman's unexpected attitude but he knew that the Skree had a reputation for treating those few POW's they bothered to take with great cruelty. It now seemed obvious to him that Hillman was a broken man, but also a potentially dangerous one. Bartlett was beginning to have the first faint suspicions of possible blackmail behind Hillman's professed glee at his good fortune.

But there was more than that. Beneath the wariness and pity Bartlett felt toward Hillman there was also an underlying resentment at the man's cynical hypocrisy and his assumption that Bartlett shared in it. After all, Bartlett thought with resentment, it wasn't as though he had planned for things to turn out the way they had.

"But now that the war's moved on and the battle for Alkes IV old news, I can't get on the gravy train that you did," Hillman said in his by now monotonous tone of bitter self-pity. "Not that I probably could have anyways; I haven't got your pretty boy looks."

Bartlett narrowed his eyes and shifted his feet nervously in the plush carpet, but otherwise made no response.

"That was a brilliant move though, marrying that bitch I mean; the daughter of ex-army brass with connections. With all that crap going on about you're being a hero she must have fallen right into your arms; all hot and horny for the big war hero I bet; and you played it just right. Hah!" Hillman laughed with spiteful glee, his eyes shining, "why I bet when you're screwing her it's like you're screwing the whole damn lot of them: the generals, her father, the politicians, the corporations, the whole damn lousy system. God, that must feel good! I bet you must really get off on that!"

Bartlett began to tremble with anger as his initial trepidation and resentment turned into a growing rage. That bastard, he thought with self-righteous fury, what the hell does he know about anything; about how it was between me and Melissa or anything else! He's nothing but a hypocritical blackmailing son of a bitch! Bartlett could feel the lump of the molecular disrupter under his armpit, goading him on, and started to reach for it. He knew now what he had to do.

Hillman threw back his head and laughed again to the accompaniment of crackling thunder and zig-zagging flashes of lightening as the storm outside the window behind him reached a fever pitch. He seemed unaware of Bartlett's growing hostility towards him. "I see now how to play the game," he cackled. "It took me awhile, but I see it now. So you don't have to worry about me blowing the whistle on your hero scam. That's just the way to play it, to get those bastards back for using us. You and me, we're-"

That was as far as Hillman got; he halted in astonishment at the sight of Bartlett drawing out the small disrupter and pointing it at him. Bartlett's hand shook slightly with the force of the rage he felt coursing through him, but he never gave Hillman a chance to say another word. He fired a molecular pulse point blank into his chest that almost instantly pulverized his heart. Hillman died with the look of astonishment still on his face as he toppled face first into the carpeted floor.

Angry tears blurred Bartlett's eyes as he continued in a red fury to fire burst after burst into the prone form as it jerked and jumped under the shocks of the pulses, until nothing remained of the corpse except a bruised sack of skin filled with pulverized bones and organs. Finally Bartlett exhausted the weapon's charge and stood with weapon in hand, panting, suddenly spent from the force of the emotions that had swept through him.

Slowly Bartlett walked over to the window and looked out. The day had turned dark and the rain was coming down in sheets, pelting the glass. Bartlett had the sudden impulse to strip naked and go running through the drenching downpour, to try to wash off the sordidness he felt clinging to him like a second skin.

But the storm would soon blow over, he thought with bitter satisfaction, these thing always did.

He took a small console out of his jacket pocket and studied it. Now if he could just get of here the same way he had come, everything would be fine.

** The Third Possible Timeline**

Bartlett raised a hand to his breast as though to confirm he was really there. "So you see," he said, "I'm not even sure I'm really me anymore, not the right me for this timeline anyway. But then," he added with a wry grimace, "it often turns out we're not who we thought or wished we were in any case. I think we've both been through experiences that have changed us, as well as perhaps destroying certain illusions we may have had about ourselves." After a slight pause Bartlett eyed Hillman speculatively and said softly, "I take it you haven't completely informed your debriefers as to the circumstances surrounding one such experience we shared."

Hillman had listened sombrely to what Bartlett was saying and then quietly said, "No, you're right Bartlett, I haven't been completely forthcoming with them."

"And...and might I ask why?"

"Because I don't trust them. Make no mistake, Bartlett, the truth will come out. All of it. No matter how much they might try to suppress it. You may as well know now, since I suppose it affects you as much as anyone."

Hillman shook his head sadly, "You surprised me Bartlett; when I was released and found out what had happened to you and the rest of the company, I couldn't believe it at first. You of all people; now a reputed war hero working as a government spook, and married into an old line army family with generations of brass in it to top it off. You've become a part of the establishment; the whole inhuman war machine that, the last time I saw you, was just about to claim you as another one of it's victims."

Surprised and caught off guard by what Hillman had said, Bartlett's pale face turned white as a sheet. "I-I didn't plan it that way," he stammered. "It-it just sort of happened that way and I went along with it." He tried to look Hillman in the eye, and found he couldn't.

"Anyway, what choice did I have?" he flared. "What was I going to tell them? That I was a coward who refused to fight? That the last thing I remembered before I passed out was staring into the barrel of a gun as I was about to be executed, and that I still don't really know to this day how I survived? They'd probably have court-martialed me all over again." Bartlett's voice rang with bitter self-condemnation.

"You shouldn't be ashamed of what happened back on Alkes IV," Hillman said earnestly. "What you did was a perfectly natural reaction to the circumstances that you couldn't help. The fault lies with those who put you in that situation in the first place."

"I doubt many others will see it that way. I'm not sure if I do myself," Bartlett retorted.

"I know I don't really have the right to be disappointed in you," Hillman said with a sigh, "considering the kind of person I was before. God knows I was as bad as any of them, caught up in the whole mad rush of war. I know the power of it, the unthinking joy and satisfaction of finding a common enemy to hate, and of being swept up in a tide of sentiment that makes even it's most fervent advocates, maybe especially them, mere mindless cogs in a vast mechanism.

"But you did have a choice, Bartlett," Hillman's voice was quietly accusing. "You didn't have to go along with the war hero propaganda story, helping feed the very system that had almost destroyed you and helping it to destroy countless other lives as well. And you're still helping it, feeding off it and now a part of it."

Bartlett stared at him in renewed amazement. "Wh-what happened to you?" he managed to get out in a stammer. The Skree must have broken him, he thought feverishly, broken and turned him to their purposes for Hillman to be talking in this way; for him to be so radically different from the Corporal Hillman he had known before. Bartlett knew something of the cruel and inhuman interrogation techniques the Skree practised on the few POW's they bothered to take; most never survived the experience.

"What happened to me?" Hillman mused. "What happened is that I began to see things more clearly. After I was captured there were times that I prayed I would die. The Skree did things to me, made me feel and even think things, that no living creature should ever have to endure. And of course I hated them for it, and still hate them for it. But I also began to feel sorry for them; they were so unthinkingly cruel and vicious, so sure of being on the side of right and virtue while at the same time so ignorant of what human beings were really all about, and what's more, not caring to find out, that I pitied them for their blind ignorance and servitude. They were just cogs in the gears of their own vast engine of war, incapable of knowing or being anything else.

"But then to my shame I began to see in my own torturers aspects of myself. How I had been, like them, an unquestioning and eager drone in the service of blind patriotism. How I was a victim, not just of the Skree, but of my own delusions and of those who had fed them. I realized that all of my suffering and that of countless others, all the lives lost, had been pointless. That we weren't fighting to really defeat the Skree, or to change them, or to bring democracy and justice to others, but rather just to hold onto and expand our own little chunk of galactic empire.

"That's why the truth has got to come out; to get rid of all the glorification of war, of the phony propaganda and lies. If the Skree are to be worth fighting it can only be after looking at the clear unvarnished truth about the costs of war and what will be achieved by waging it. That's why I'll be meeting later this afternoon with those from the anti-war movement who agree with me, and then after that with representatives of the media. I intend to tell them that the circumstances surrounding the destruction of F company have been completely misrepresented: that it was in fact a tragic massacre and waste of lives caused by the blunders of our own military commanders and intelligence gathering operations; and how the celebrated hero of the 'Stand on Alkes IV' was actually just about to be shamefully and unjustly executed just as that massacre was about to take place."

Bartlett's head whirled in confusion; he didn't know what to make of what Hillman had said, wether there was anything to it or just the propaganda of a Skree agent; he just knew that if the truth of his own role in what had happened came out it would be the end of everything for him. His job, his marriage to Melissa, his whole life; it had all been built on something that he had to preserve at all costs; even if that something was a lie. He could feel the molecular disrupter under his armpit sticking into his side like a spur. He knew what he had to do.

There was a deafening crash of thunder so loud, followed by a blinding flash of lightening, that it seemed as if the very centre of the storm had moved to just outside the window before which Hillman stood. Bartlett blinked and staggered, as though by the very force of the sound, and then, followed by Hillman's curious gaze, he slowly turned and left the room.

* * *

He stood on the edge of the boardwalk, looking up into the sheeting downpour with unseeing, weeping eyes. He let the small teleporter console slip from limp fingers into the crashing waves at his feet; he wouldn't be needing it. For him, the storm was never going to end.

The End

© 2003 by J. H. McKay.  I'm forty-three and originally from Canada's east coast but no live in Toronto. I've always been fascinated by speculative fiction and over the years have made many fitful starts at writing my own stories. "Third Timeline Lucky" is my first published story.