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Message in a Bottle · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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Warmer Than Snow
“By the time you hear this, I’m probably going to be dead,” I said bitterly in the phonograph, careful to keep the hand crank spinning.

“The Time-Space Bureau really screwed the fucking pooch on this one. Maybe they just didn’t feel like telling a lowly piece of shit contractor that the equipment he was using was faulty, or maybe they had so many budget cuts they thought that second hand machinery was just as good as new.”

I sighed.

“My tachyon field manipulator broke like my gravity breakers weren’t even there… or maybe they weren’t installed in the first place, who knows.”

An explosion ripped the quiet asunder. I startled, and came very close to breaking one of the fiddly pieces that made up the machine. Jesus, this one felt like it was just outside the wall.

“And to top it all off, I have to be thankful for where I ended up, too! Earth is mostly oceans, so a random coordinate in spacetime had better than even odds of drowning to death. But hey, I wound up in the Italian Alps in 1915, so what do you know! Guess I should count my lucky stars!”

I didn’t know why, but the thought made me giggle, then laugh, then guffaw, and by that point I stopped spinning the thing and cradled my face in my hands.

I couldn’t do this.

I was wearing a dead man’s clothes and face and I forced to bullshit my way through everything, because like they drilled into us from the moment we started studying to obtain our Temporal License, the integrity of the timestream was infinitely more important than our life. I might die at any moment and the kicker?

I was in a better position than all the men under me.

“Tenente!! L’appuntato Malavoglia, l’è ferito!!”

Case in point. My adjutant just told me that one of the men under my command was injured. Except that as we approached the trenches, I noted that he was stationed on the opposite side of where the sound from the mortar shell had come. And as I looked at his injury, my suspicion was confirmed.

A bullet wound to the foot, in a place no enemy sniper could get line of sight. Gunpowder on his shoe. The wound itself was enough to cripple, making it so he’d get sent back home with an honorable discharge, but still healthy enough to help his family in the fields.

I sighed, again. My gene mods protected me from the cold and the hunger that came from being stuck on a fucking mountain top at ten thousand feet, in the dead of winter, at minus forty degree. A temperature that both Celsius and Fahrenheit agree on.

A temperature that in my time can heal, with cryogenic sleep leaving desperate medical cases ready for the next scientific advancement.

But here and now? It just killed.

Our uniforms were grey-green, and stood out like a sore thumb against the snow. Our position was perilous, and heavy artillery bombarded us every day. Only half the troops had actual helmets.

And yet, the real killer is not the enemy, but everything else. The cold. The unsanitary conditions. The shitty equipment we were given.

Malavoglia probably figured he was going to lose the foot anyway from gangrene.

Because of course, the Italian military gave out boots with cardboard soles.

Fucking cardboard soles!

“—fucking cardboard soles!”

Helen’s heart felt like it was about to break.

She’d been assigned to review the recordings from an old, old time capsule because it had been flagged by an automated program, but this…

Jack’s plight was stirring every cord of sympathy in her heart, and she’d found herself listening for hours to the recordings he’d made, his deep and anguished voice gripping her tightly. He could imagine him helping his men through the cold, caring about them like they were his own family, attentive to their needs.

Except, of course, it wasn’t the easy.

Jack was actually from her future-he’d be born a couple of decades from when Helen was listening to him-and so the Time-Space Bureau was all too happy to procrastinate a rescue mission for when “the time will be right”.

Leaving an honest hardworking man, someone whose friends and acquaintances swore was a gentle and kind soul, stranded with no hope of returning home. She’d seen pictures of him from his social media profiles before he’d been stranded, and she could just imagine his handsome brow furrowed in the disappointment of a society that’d given up on him.

Anything could happen while waiting for the right time to rescue him; information could be found from a historic document showing his death, sealing his fate. Changing the past was impossible.
And paradoxically, this meant that every investigation of what had happened, in those cruel and beautiful mountains, was risking his life.

“General Cadorna insists on feeding men directly into machinegun fire. It looks like a mass suicide, and every charge leaves mounds of bodies that don’t rot but are only covered up by the snow.

“I’m impersonating a lieutenant, so I can’t even try to contradict it… and yet, I wish I could have a meeting with the man, just so I could shoot him for all the blood he’s uncaringly spilling.

“It’s not even malice, but pure incompetence: my proposal for counter-tunnels, so we could blow up the enemy’s positions before they got to ours, was met by stunned silence, ’cause nobody else in the officer’s tent had even thought of that.”

I stopped my recitation into the phonograph to massage my temples, then resumed my daily ritual.

“I’m pretty sure that spilling my guts to you is the only thing keeping me sane. I’ve seen others go mad. Their mind, snapping, leading them to throw themselves in the middle of no man’s land, or off of a cliff.

“Same difference, really.”

And on that depressing note, I got up and went to inspect our positions.

In what was a magnificent display of logistics, breathtaking despite its pointlessness, steel railways were being set up to enable the movement of heavy artillery and powerful explosives. The cliffs were almost vertical in points, and lethal accidents involving the machinery were commonplace.

As I inspected the workings, the men breaking the rock with their pickaxes just like prisoners in the worst kind of prison, my adjutant came with a brown paper package.

“Tenente!! C’è posta per lei!”

His face was split in a rare grin. I knew that I had acquired a bit of a mystique around my person… how could I bear the adverse conditions so well, the fact I split most of my rations with them, and most of all my reluctance and refusal to keep wasting their lives in yet more frontal assaults…

I tried not to encourage them, but they had keen eyes and had wondered why I didn’t get care packages from “back home”.

So this was a big anomaly.

I turned over the package in my hands, puzzled. There was no return address, and it felt disproportionately heavy for its size.

I walked back, having decided to open it in the privacy of my office.

And as I opened it, my heart leapt into my threat.

There was a letter inside, but it was in English. What’s more, it was the English I was accustomed to, from the future.

Dear Jack,

My name is Helen, and I am so sorry for what you’re going through. I’m defying my superiors by doing this, but… I can’t bear the thought of you risking your life any longer.

As you can probably tell, I’m from the future, and I’m affiliated with the Time-Space Bureau. It was through them that I was given all fourteen of your recordings.

Problem is, we can’t mount a rescue expedition… because I’m also actually from your past. Your recent past. And due to the risk of paradox, the Bureau refuses to do anything until you will commit your jump. But as a historian, I know that you’re just one uncovered newspaper clipping away from death.”

Oh, what was this fresh bullshit. I knew the Bureau were heartless bastards, but this was beyond the pale.

“But nothing says I can’t go back in time for personal reasons, away from you and any other time travellers, and mail you things that won’t get back to you until some time later.”

“So here’s what I was thinking you could do…”

As I looked at what was in the rest of the package, I started crying with relief. I’ve only recorded twelve cylinders so far, and I was going to live and record two more on pain of paradox, so the Time Space Bureau would be forced to save me if I died.

I kept reading. Helen had laid her heart bare through her letter; how frustrated she was working with the Bureau, how she’d railed against the injustice that was stranding me in the past. How she’d tried her hardest to find out more about me and my own situation, trying to help me because she sincerely believed I deserved better.

And… about her feeling an emotional connection with me, something that transceded the centuries. She didn’t expect anything in return, by arranging for this package to be sent to me she had already risked her own life: crimes related to the timestream were often punished by death or worse.

And what was more, Helen gave me a way out of this mess.

I pick up the last two cylinders Jack recorded. While the others are heartbreaking, detailing the horrors of a meaningless war, these are almost… hopeful.

“But hey, for all the bad things, there are some unexpected upsides. Did’ja know, Italian MREs actually have a little bit of booze in them? It’s true! Tiny packets of cordial spirit, to wake you up in the morning and give you a little bit more warmth. That’s ONE part of my rations I’m not splitting with my subordinates!”

And then he laughed. She’d listened to that laugh a lot, in these days.

“The mountains, too, are beautiful. The Dolomites are the most gorgeous mountains in the world, with Monte Cristallo looking like true crystal in the dawn, and Monte Civetta rising with a stark beauty towards the heavens. Here, you can truly touch the sky, and even though the air is cold and icy, it is also the purest I’ve ever breathed in.”

She could get lost in his descriptions of the mountain ranges he’d fought in. But at the end, there was always something that puzzled her, a brief shriek which she couldn’t interpret. It wasn’t a bird’s call, it sounded, almost mechanical, but…

She hurriedly went to her computer, seized by a hunch. She had to analyze that byte of noise.

It was a dark and stormy night, which fit my needs perfectly.

The blizzard howled its fury against the side of the mountain, driving all my men to huddle in their trenches, while I could walk outside in the open undisturbed. The explosive in my hands was light, but the noise it would create would be distorted by the winds, indistinguishable from a mortar round hitting another peak.

Of course, it absolutely sucked for me, but that was a small price to pay.

I thought again of the letter from Helen.

“It's actually a bit embarrassing, but listening to your recordings is the highlight of my day. The sound of your voice, the way you talk about the men under your care, how you keep your spirits up even after all the hardships you've endured, it’s... ”

I had a guess of what she'd wanted to write, and if I was right I returned it fully. Except I was hesitant to say so in my recordings, since from her perspective she'd already listened to them all, and I would be courting paradox.

I placed half the explosives I had, lit the fuse, and then hurried behind a boulder.


I approached the hole I'd made in the cliff face, and was glad to see my calculations were correct. I'd broken into a tunnel made by the Austrians, which we'd sealed off with some well placed cannonades.

I hurried inside, and started placing the rest of my explosives to seal the man made caver again.

“Giangiacomo Giacomini, disperso, presunto morto.”

Helen's eyes filled with tears. News of Jack, from an old report dug up from wartime archives. And it said that he was “missing”. Presumed dead.

She wanted to scream from the frustration. Now it would be even harder to convince the Bureau to launch a rescue mission!

Sure, the disappearance could be due to the mission itself, but the Bureau was conservative, and she had a feeling that kind of rationalization wouldn't fly. Why waste resources, when they could do nothing and assume everything was all right?

She turned back to her computer and gritted her teeth. The audio file had nearly finished being decoded.

She watched the last few pixels of the progress bar fill up, and then…

“What the hell?”

It was a map. No, more than that, a set of coordinates.

Her head swam. If this meant what she thought it meant…

The next few days passed in a blur. She took a week off, and then bought a flight to Italy, not caring how much it cost.

Once there, she bought a whole set of mountaineering equipment, and trekked to the place Jack had indicated.

Centuries had passed, but she could still see the emplacements and fortifications he'd talked about…

The entrance to a hollow in the mountain face was barred by a bunch of rocks. She took out her pickaxe from her rucksack and started breaking them up and throwing them over the edge.

It was backbreaking work, but she didn't mind, and only found her anticipation growing.

Once she'd cleared the way, she stepped inside.

And there… was Jack.

Portable cryogenic emitters placed all around him, letting him sleep forever, or until he was disturbed. Her own personal Snow White.

Her hand touched skin, and my eyes slowly opened. Then, my hand found her cheek, brushing aside a tear.

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#1 ·
This is not too bad as a World War I story. But for a science fiction story, I'm not too impressed. Time travel is a really common subject, and it feels like I've seen these ideas many times before. One problem is that the ending doesn't really feel like a clever twist, probably because it's foreshadowed too strongly. And as a love story, it's way too rushed for me to sympathize with Helen falling in love.

Wouldn't writing down his thoughts on paper be a more secure record to survive into the future than a phonograph?

Fucking cardboard soles!

“—fucking cardboard soles!”

It's inconsistent with the use of quotes, like right here. It's more than just a minor technical issue, because I was sure that he was just thinking those lines instead of saying them into the recording.
#2 ·
Haven't read this (past the first line) yet, but, https://youtu.be/vmd1qMN5Yo0
#3 ·
The number f typos in the makes it a bid difficult to red.

It's not bad. A summertime chick flick, if it was made into a movie.