Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Dan's Promo Page

The Ouroboros

by S. H. Hughes

22:30 / Jump-3 / July 1977 / Queens / New York City / Nirvana's Loft

It's never like they say it is in the lectures. We get a lot of lectures in the Ouroboros department. They say they prepare you for the jump. According to Professor Gates Matthews, the Super 70s are rampant with 'sweaty discotheques, sordid nightclubs, promiscuity and drugs'.

She's not far wrong. Our teachers might dress like stiffs but they know their history. Personally, there isn't enough coke in the world to convince me that the outfit I'm wearing is fashionable. I mean nylon fibre shirts? Still, fitting into 1977 is what matters. Here and now, nylon is chic, war is bad, Pet Rocks are out, Vader is cool and Nixon and Ford are history.

My boss Jazz wasn't certain I'd find the target here, but we have to try. Time is running out. I have to find Yip Cheng Wang before he disappears off the face of this earth forever.

He's already being marked as a 'dissolver'. People become dissolvers if their ancestors are wiped. The poor guy's days are numbered and he doesn't even know it. Time's a bitch when it comes to the clear up. Wang's clan are well and truly over and the erasing wave is surfing up through the centuries.

Dylan Tyler has caused this problem. He's not the first one off our team to go AWOL, but he's the first to do it because of his conscience. He decided to run amok in the past and save people. Save them! My guess is the techs will put him in a mind block. They'll erase every event and jump he's been privy too and then drop him back into a time zone. No memories. No identification. Tyler will become a no one.

Hopping about in history and saving souls is not a good idea. You might meddle with time's big events and things can get serious then. It's nothing to do with the 'Grandfather paradox'. I could easily go back and remove my old grey-haired ancestor before he gets his rocks off without a problem. I'm no longer in the circle of time, you see. I made that choice when I joined.

The consequences if I fail here, if I don't find Wang, are barely understandable to someone of your intelligence. I'm not being arrogant. Merely honest.

Take my introduction. My name is Hayden Cross. I was born in Boston in 3063, collapsed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, was given CPR in 1999 and spent six weeks recuperating in Vienna in 1938. I left a week before Hitler arrived and was recruited into the Ouroboros team.

Hang on, my jewellery wants attention, the ring is changing colour. That means it has noticed Wang's DNA. We never take trackers into the past without a disguise. The fads of history are helpful sometimes. Seventies folks love these Mood Rings whose central jewel changes colour with the wearer's mood. My ring is bright amber now, but not because I'm nervous or unsettled, because Yip Cheng Wang is in my vicinity.

There he is. My target. He has a Fawcett look-a-like on his arm. Wang's taller than I expected. Probably helped in height by the platform loafers. There he goes, as expected, heading to a quiet corner, away from the glare of the disco lighting. The history documenters said that Wang likes to take his dancing drugs in a secluded spot. He's a Studio 54 regular in this time. A small if shiny piece of chintz in the world of narcotics.

To save forty million people, all Tyler had to do was remove one man, Wang's ancestor Zhang Li. In terms of trouble, that has left the fan well and truly submerged in the brown stuff.

It's all about events, you see. In 2375, Professor Dyson T. Gott at MIT stated that, 'Time is a set of events which forever advance. These are underpinned by an unchangeable force. This force is what we call fate'. It's a nice sentiment, but it's utterly wrong.

It's not that Gott was an imbecile. It's not that his belief was incorrect. In his own space and understanding, time did exactly what he believed -- advanced. But there's no such thing as fate. Only that which we create for ourselves to explain the reason why things are the way they are.

Trust me I know.

Time is a set of events. These events did once advance. Eons ago, they hacked a pathway through reality and bedded down every nuance of psyche, every instinct of animal, every powerful scientific breakthrough and every divine moment of everything's existence.

That was a long time ago. Now, it's merely a rerun.

That's what the Ouroboros team does. We ensure that time's events replay. What goes on in between them, who lives and who dies because of them, is not the issue. When a person dies, their consciousness dies with them. Their universe ends. Believe in all that heaven crap if it gives you comfort but what I say is the truth.

I watched the earth die, you see. And I watched it being reborn again. Privileged isn't exactly the word I'd use but the view was a handsome one.

No, there's no heaven or hell, but there is life after death. Everybody lives again as long as we don't fail.

Heads up. Wang is on his way to the powder room. Damn, it's difficult to walk in these trousers! Flares are sails for the legs. The tight crotch I could do without too. At least Wang's dodgy afro is easy to follow. Its sparkling spray means I won't lose him in this crowd

Johnson is already waiting in the can, in case he struggles. My time watch says the countdown's nearly done. Sixty seconds is all we have. If we don't transport Wang by then, they'll be nothing too transport. He'll have dissolved from the timeline. He's shuffling up to the urinals. Johnson has taken the right flank. I'll head for the left one then. A quick glance at the watch... The time window's opening right about...

Now --

04:15 / Jump-4 / Stardate 19235079 / Stasis ship 13 / Time Dial Room

"Get your greasy mitts off me, man!"

He's a lively one, Wang. Wriggles like a snake on heat. I'll have to keep his attention somehow. It usually takes about thirty seconds for the air in the ship to take effect on those born before earth's climate spiralled into pollution.

"Hey, Yip, chill man." Good. Johnson has picked up my beat and let go of Wang's arm like me. Johnson has a grip on him. It's not that he's into pain or anything so abhorrent but androids have limited sympathy for their human neighbours.

"If you're fuzz, then I'm clean."

"We're not the cops, Yip. I just need you to hang awhile." Twenty-three seconds and he's unconscious anyway. "It's all kosher."

Now he's starting to look confused, squinting at me like I'm barely in focus. I'm probably not. The drugs he's nosedived are nothing next to the first time-jump. It makes the central nervous system wired and woozy.

"I'm out to lunch, man."

Knew he was confused.

"Is this your crib?"

"True enough."

He's nodding now. Not sure why. The time dial room isn't exactly a 'crib'. It's an entrance and an exit. A gate to the inevitable.

"Wait. I might be riding on blow, man, but I was in the john in... the... loft... wasn't I?"

Fifteen seconds and he's falling.

"Okay, Yip, let me give you the skinny on things. You're in the future, on a stasis ship. What it does is flow alongside time but not in it. If we hadn't snatched you out of that john, you'd have disappeared because your family line, ancestors, hell your very DNA has been removed from history. Can you dig what I'm saying, man?"


The intelligence of my species is wondrous. Eight seconds to go and he's out like a light. He'll dream for a while. Wang will figure out the deal eventually, make peace with it. They always do. We often steal from the future to fill holes in the past.

"What I'm saying is, I'm gonna send you back into history to resolve a problem for me. And all you have to do, Yip, is to get a little fever."

"Are we talking," he's smiling now, "Saturday Night Fever?"

Explanations this deep in the day are pointless. "Sex, drugs and rock and roll, Yip."

"Mint. Naughty. I like the sound."

Five seconds...

"Feeling lazy?"

"I can't breathe, man."

He's losing it, looks like he's about to puke. Three seconds... He's out. Man, he weighs something for a short guy. Johnson's read my mind, took him off my hands.

"Should I take him down to medical, sir?"

I have to bring in Tyler anyway. "Take him down, Johnson. We need to check him over, make sure he's not infected with any other diseases."

We need Wang's DNA because it has a certain flux in it. Best to make sure he's fit and well.

He has forty million people to kill.

01:43 / JUmp-5 / January 1944 / Poland / Birkenau / The Camp

You know the name, right?

Birkenau is where the Nazis built Auschwitz II.

The ash falls like grey locusts mingling with the bitter snow. I have to remind myself that I'm inside history here. It's hard to do sometimes.

Tyler is here. We tracked him to this time zone and the Ouroboros techs have pinpointed his actual location. Jumping through time plays havoc with your brain activity. It easy to spot when you know what you're looking for. I told them I'd jump here. That I'd find him. Cox suggested that I do it the easy way. Leave Tyler here to die.

I broke his nose. My hand still hurts.

I could leave Tyler here. It would not be detrimental to time or history. What's one more body when you've executed over a million. But I think this death camp stole enough souls to satiate even its gluttonous need from horror.

It's trying, but the snow's angelic cast can't disguise the shabby huts or brighten the sheer aura of murder that hangs here.

Tyler probably thought jumping into this time zone would give him a chance to prevent the Holocaust. If only it was that easy. Now his temporal activation beacon has powered down and he's stuck here. He'll pay for his interference but I won't allow this crematorium's fires to take him.

Here's the block. The door is flimsy. It opens easily. My God, the stench! Sweat and shit and sick... and death. That unmistakable scent saturates the air. I hate this. The terror in their eyes is all for me. I had to wear the SS uniform. Time travellers must fit in to complete their missions.

I hate this place.

I hate the Nazis for creating it, for their idiotic theories on the perfect race. I hate Hitler for being born. Believe me, if I could wipe that man from the face of this earth and saved people I would.

But I can't. I'm bound by my duty to time.

Time is a set of events. If an event disappears everything's over. It happened once. It was before my time in the team. Sixteen universes sideways from our own there's a patch of empty space now -- nothingness -- because the Ouroboros team slipped up and life in its every form ended.

Tyler has seen me. The techs have calculated that he's been here for a week. He looks pale, but he looks a damn sight better than anyone else here for obvious reasons.

"Cross, thank you! Thank you!"

Damn he's used my real name. He's not following the rules of temporal submergence. Now he's fallen on his knees at my feet! A real SS officer would shoot the prisoner in question for such an insult to his shoes.

"Stehen Sie auf."

He's getting up. Good, I was near the bullseye with the order then; German is not my forte. I'm not sure of the words that will tell him to move to the door. Best to just point in the right direction. He's onboard. Here we go.

Walking behind him it's easy to see the slashes in his shirt -- marks of a whip. He's suffered the beatings here that scholars wrote of but he will now avoid the bullets and the gas. Many will not.

I didn't realise Tyler had no shoes on. The snow must feel bitter against his swollen flesh. If only he'd gotten cold feet before he jumped back into 1333 to save those who cannot be saved, we could have remained friends.

I have to know how much damage he's sustained, physically and mentally. "You've been here a week?"

"Yes. They brought me on the train. I tried to get out of here -- I tried! Cross, I beg you, take me back with you." His hands are cold, bloodied and blistered too. "Please don't let them burn me here."

It's not a good bargaining point but... I have to get the information I need. "Where is Wang's village, Dylan?"

"You can't change that now."

Can't isn't a word the Ouroboros team use. "Where is Wang's village?" He's still debating whether to tell me. A man with a conscience is a hard man to bargain with. "Fine, then, you stay here."

"No! Cross, please!"

"Then tell me now, before time catches up with your alterations proper."

"It's in north-eastern China."

"We already know that."

"It's in a mountain village in the province of Hopeh. But, Cross, Wang's dead, I removed him."

"Not all of him. I got to one of his decedents before he was wiped."

"So I failed."

His teeth are starting to chatter. "You should be glad that you failed."

"They'll put me in mind block for this, won't they?"

Mind blocks are an untidy process. The dropouts rarely survive long. Check out the history books: Kestrel House in Islington, London, 1975; Petersfield, Hampshire, 1920; Kasper Hauser, Nuremberg, 1828. The list isn't a huge one. We don't have many defectors on our team.

Mind block drops are a simple reversal of the standard procedure for plucking someone out of time. That's how I got here. The Ouroboros team has recruited others the same way, Amelia Earhart, the pilots of the famous Flight 19 and the crew of the Mary Celeste to name a few.

What, you think that humans run this show? Think again.

My teachers might be aliens but they are the good guys. Believe me.

Man, he's the beast... the ovens and the chambers here prove that.

But this horror is an event. An event I cannot change.

I am bound by my duty to time.

06:08 / Jump-6 / August 1333 / Hopeh Province / Tai Sheng Village

Peace. What machines and modern technology has robed mankind of. Work is hard, war is still violent and illness is rife here, but there is a kind of spiritual calmness in these times that cannot be matched in any other.

The darkness is coming though. Its heart is black.

Its creator is lying at my feet.

Tyler has spilled his guts to avoid the mind block. First rule of human nature is self-preservation after all. He's off the team now, stranded in recruitment, but it's a better outcome than what they had planned for him. He told us that Yip's ancestor, Zhang Li Wang, was found by the river on the outskirts of Tai Sheng Village.

Zhang Li was a traveller, a peddler of goods between the mountain villages. No ties. No family. That's why we couldn't pin him down. It's only a mere change of name, Zhang Li to Yip Cheng. Nothing too worrying. The event is the issue not the minor changes that occur around it.

Yip has been injected with a syringe of common mountain fever, the same strain his ancestor contracted. By the time Zhang Li got to Tai Sheng Village, his fever had taken hold. Inside him, it mutated and those caring for him in the village were afflicted. It weakened their immune systems.

They're the key. Without those carriers, the mutated strain of mountain fever will not hitch a ride through Asia or Europe.

And in 1334 when the rats come to China with their jumpy passengers, stomachs lined with blood and death, the rodents will die and the people will remain.

The Black Death will not cut down the masses. Without Wang's DNA, without the mutated virus -- without its ability to weaken the immune system of every person it infects, the great mortality, the evil pestilence will wither and die.

The event will never happen. And time will swallow this universe whole, so that there is not even the memory of memory left behind.

How do I know this? You want to hear the head bender then?

Think of time as a screenplay. It has three basic elements: act one, act two and act three. Beginning. Middle. End. Good screenwriters will always tell you that you should 'know your ending'.

We all know how it began. Big bang, a few floating enzymes and hey presto, life as we know it. The middle is well documented. It's called history.

And then there's the end. I know my ending very well. I know everybody's ending.

I watched the earth die.

Our sun, the mother of our universe, went supernova. It was one hell of a light show. She left a gapping hole in the fabric of space and it sucked in everything that was left behind. Black holes are seen as the end of everything. The abyss which nothing escapes from. Actually, it's quite the opposite.

It's where everything begins.

There are no laws of physics, only the law of absolutes. Time is forever. It was around long before clockmakers measured it in minutes and hours and before sundials' shadows counted it. Time doesn't stop. It can't end. It's like a manic river, unstoppable, tearing down, dragging up and carrying away anything in its flow.

The Ouroboros team glide along in its slipstream. We have been allowed to join another level of consciousness. We watch as the earth dies. And in that same split second we watch as it is reborn again.

For you, our universe is billions of years old. For us it is a newborn. It is one of many placed into our care. Each universe contains a serious of events, events that time insists we replay.

If earth doesn't perish, if the sun does not go out, it cannot live again.

Everything is a paradox now.

Without the chicken there is no egg; without us there is neither.

We are the Ouroboros. We are the dragon that swallows its tail. We are the snake that eats itself. We are the never-ending circle that prevents time from pausing.

We sacrificed our lives and our futures to save the world. Our world. Your world. And we keep on saving it, again and again.

So live your life. Enjoy your life.

Remember there is no God, no devil, no beginning and no end.

There is only the snake that eats itself.

There is only the Ouroboros.


© 2007 S. H. Hughes

Bio: Sarah Hughes lives with her partner of over fifteen years and is frequently the peacemaker between her family members: a German Shepherd dog and two cats of dubious heritage. She recently passed her English exam at the age of 32 having had her first story "Teardrop" published in Best Magazine at age 29... the benefits of education have never been lost on her. She has written numerous short stories, two of which are due to be published in the coming months, and is currently completing a time travel novel entitled 'The Seal of the Immortals', for which she intends to seek representation in the coming year.

Sarah can be contacted via her website: shhughes.com.

E-mail: Sarah Hughes

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.