A marooned, black-painted cylinder curves smoothly up from the sand, belted with joints and seams. An artificial tor jutting from the sand, girded with tents and crude sun shades. It’s strangled with guy ropes and ladders like a tree in a rainforest, giving the impression the thing's being slowly swallowed by the desert. A fat metal airfoil heaves out from the cylinder at about a third of its length, sprouting stubby opposing arms.
A thick rod of metallic-smelling air is wrapped inside. It used to be seething, thick with the will and exertions of humans. Now, to all intents and purposes, it's in suspension. The zero humidity will keep this construction preserved for decades. Commander Rice really hopes it won't be that long, but a seed of pragmatism is planted.
Rice is still inside the boat. Not entirely voluntarily. She and another woman are gripped by a tightening fist of steel, clenched around the thick, wet atmosphere of her quarters. Condensation glistens on the walls and pipes, and a small lamp squats pathetically on the desk. At sea, this room was snug.
Rice is smoking. Smoking is not allowed on submarines.
"It's a blank piece of paper."
Two women regard each other in a tiny, dimly lit, windowless room. One sits at a desk in a shabby uniform, while the other stands, arms folded, against the opposite wall in a loose-fitting garment that reaches from her shoulders to the floor.
"What is this for?"
"It's for you to list the names, Commander Rice" says the standing woman. She picks up a pencil from the desk, writes down "Freen," then carefully lays the pencil on the paper, sliding both across the desk. "That's my name, to get you started."
"I won't be listing any names."
"Yes, you will."
"I have all the time in the world."
"I think you misunderstand our situation."
"I'm inclined to think you don't understand much of anything. You can't possibly be cleared to know the answers to any of your questions. I'm the commander of this boat."
"It isn't a matter of being cleared. I don't think you know why you're here. I think if you could leave, you would have left by now. I think you're afraid."
"Once again, you don't understand."
"That's true. You haven't said much that makes any sense."
"That is no concern of mine. Leave my ship."
"No. You're going to give me what I came for."
"This is difficult. If we end up having to interact with natives - which we avoid at all costs - we can usually just drop some dazzling fact to make them fall in line. The man outside with the tattoo on his wrist is about to make the biggest sale of his life. Hosiery prices are about to spike because a movie star is about to walk over a subway vent, that sort of thing.
“Unfortunately, you don't seem to know what any of that means. It's difficult to make an impression on you."
"Except that you're here in a submarine in the middle of the desert."
"Yes, we've got that going for us."
"I was serious before. You're going to give me those names. You're going to tell me who else you're going after.”
"I'm not giving you a god damn thing."
“When I was a girl, I used to play with this dog that showed up at our camp,” Freen says. “He always came from a different direction, so I didn't know where he lived.
“He was small and grey. I don't think anyone owned him, but he seemed to keep himself well-groomed. He'd follow me when I went walking through the brush, but he never let me touch him. One time I'd sat down to eat some scraps I stole from father's kitchen. I tried to give him some, but he wouldn't come anywhere near me.
“We kept doing this for weeks - he'd follow me, but jerk away before I could get too close. Then one day, I was walking and he was following me, as usual. I lost sight of him, then tripped and hit my head on a rock. I can't have been out very long, because when I opened my eyes he was licking my ear. He jumped away as soon as I moved. I didn't see him again.”
“My dog died when I was six.”
Rice idly picks at papers on her desk. "We were the lucky ones."
Freen waits. The walls of the room ting and pop like a car engine that’s just been switched off. It is taking a long time for the heat to soak inside. The hull resounds faintly as crew members move around, or a native bumps against the outside.
“I don't know where the others are, but I know I haven't heard about anything else like the Scorpion. "Somewhere in the desert, or otherwise stranded on land."
Rice shifts uncomfortably in her chair. The walls are snaked with a tangle of pipes, some with broken metallic fronds gleaming in the desk light. Holes that once hosted screens gape from the walls.
“All the places we could have ended up. The odds against landing intact are simply staggering. We could be drifting in space, or..."
"Much worse.” Freen nods.
"Fused into the ground. Thousands of feet in the air. Even if we'd re-materialised underwater, we don't know if we would have displaced it. Not much time for testing in wartime.”
“You don't need to enumerate the possibilities to me,” Freen said evenly. “I'm sympathetic, Commander. I am.”
"Sympathetic," Rice hisses. "Why do you keep coming back? Why do they keep letting you on board?"
“Maybe your crew know something you don't.”
“You must have had a contingency. Your mission seems to be heavily concerned with the integrity of your timeline. Dumping a submarine filled with dozens of strangers into a foreign time has...implications. How can you leave something like this to chance?”
“Yes, there is a contingency. The science isn't exact, yet. There were many crews that just did not return. Difficult to motivate sailors for a mission that's 30% suicide, when we can't tell them what they're fighting for. We have no idea where they ended up. But I know what they did.”
She exhaled slowly. “The pills are in my safe, with a detonator. There are charges the length of the ship.” She frowned. “Though I expect your people stripped them already.”
Freen nodded deferentially.
“I won't do it. I've never seen a missing crew brought back, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. Call it hope, call it cowardice. I'm not sure which it is.”
“We gave up hope of locating you a long time ago. We will never be able to replicate the string of failures that led to our landing here.”
"There's a sealed, archived copy of a newspaper on the bridge of our command ship, that was printed a couple of days after our target date. Our instructions were to leave a coded message in their classifieds. That's the only way they'll know we landed safely, our only way back."
Rice reached out her hand and then withdrew it, clenching her fingers. "The Hook is a one-way system. We have to be extracted from their end. We don't know where or when we are, so we can't tell them that we succeeded. That we found you, and that we can save them."
"Einstein famously wrote a letter to our leader, at a time when we were at war and our enemy was developing atomics. He insisted we develop atomics first, before our enemies used them to destroy us."
"Most people don't know Einstein didn't actually write that letter. It was written by a bunch of his contemporaries that the public had never heard of, and Einstein just signed his name to it. No-one knows that we're the ones who made them do it.”
"I know that."
“I also know that you failed. Perhaps that's why you're still here.”
“What do you mean, you 'know'?” Rice paused, and slowly inhaled. “You're not from here either, are you?”
Freen smiled. “Come with me. I've been here much longer than you.”
“I can't leave her. She might be returned at any time, and if I'm not here..." Rice shivers, despite the heat. "We have to keep the Hook running for any extraction attempt. There are ways of scanning from the other end.
“I couldn't stop most of the crew from leaving, which I'll have to answer for later. My Captain's dead. But I'm not abandoning her." Rice looks wretchedly at her gutted work space. Foam pushes through the cracked fabric of her chair.
“Where did the other crews go? The ones who completed their missions and left the messages as instructed?”
“They were extracted to de-con facilities,” Rice says. “The process generates low-level fallout. Mission crews were kept separate to limit the chance of unwanted changes. There were few enough of us that it wouldn't have an operational impact.”
“Did you ever see them?”
“Well, no. There was no reason...” she tailed off. “No reason to see them."
"You were right about one thing," Freen says. "We couldn't tell you what you were fighting for.”
“What do you mean?” Rice is wide-eyed.
“No-one is going home. There are no extractions,” Freen said, gently. “You only remember the ones you thought were lost. No-one goes back.”
“How do you know this?”
“We're the ones who sent you.”
Rice moves her lips, but words don't come out.
“Your mission is over. You passed, Commander. Your Hook is useless. It's time to retire.”
Rice says nothing for a long time. Freen holds out her hand.
Attn: Großadmiral Karl Donitz
Fm: Lt. Yannick Krehl
<Mission successful. Heil Hitler.>
The corpse of the USS Scorpion lies half-buried in the sand of an alien time, abandoned by her crew. Although partly stripped, some parts have remained inviolate. Ephemeral footprints of dust march death down empty corridors. Papers that chronicle an imperilled future rustle and flutter in warm eddies of sterile dust.
A box bound with duct tape huddles in the darkness of a locked iron safe, quietly humming to itself. An amber light illuminates a loop antenna bound to the box on one end, the interior wall on the other. The keeper of an abandoned hope.
The light flickers, and finally turns green. An LCD silently winks on.
ACCEPT CONNECTION? Y/N
This writeup was a theme challenge (in this case coincident with the title) between me and tiger cub.