The Rise of Captain McCrystal

by Tim Gibson

          Was it World War 3? She figured the war of words between historians would one day be as violent as the engagement itself. China received permission to place armies in most of the African countries, the CIA toppled a few of those governments and started some civil wars, Russia was welcomed in by various African militia groups and soon the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Australia sent vast armies in to expel the Russians and Chinese. A few European nations dropped out of NATO and switched sides, seduced by promises of a better future in the new Chinese Co-Prosperity Sphere, and a new civil war in Russia fractured their country from within. It was messy, chaotic and many nations switched sides as their leaders got seduced by promises or frightened by threats.

          Jenna McCrystal had easily achieved her dream of becoming a pilot. When the draft for army service came in the mail, she burned it, signed up with the Air Force, got 300 hours in the simulator and was thrust into an F-35 to fight it out under a beautiful blue African sky. Flying came easy to her – her aptitude tests had spotted her as a natural while she was still in the simulator – and combat was just her vs the MiG, pushing her jet to the limits, skidding just outside the departure envelope, always on the verge of stall or spin and evading death by inches every day.

          As a kid her mother had been overprotective and mortified when she had picked up a spider, rode her bicycle too fast or climbed a tree. What would her mother think now, seeing her fly between exploding SAMs or pulling out of a dive just above the treetops and returning to base with leaves and branches embedded in the leading-edge wing slats? An over-protective childhood had been replaced with a young adulthood of dodging missiles, slipping under ground-based radar coverage at high speed and fighting to the death in air battles amid the most beautiful white puffy clouds she had ever seen.

          The war was not going well. For now it was confined to Africa – the entire continent was ravaged, the great powers dividing up the cake of Africa once again, this time with jets and relentless battlecruiser salvoes instead of muskets and pistols. It just made the destruction worse.

          Radar showed a group of Su-27 Flankers coming straight on, slightly below her. Centcom had claimed that they could not spot her until 20 miles away. If that was the case then why did they usually fire at about 40 miles out? Stealth was great but no substitute for dogfighting or the fine art of long-range radar-guided missile exchanges.

          After a few 9G turns to evade the over-powered Russian missiles she got into the fight. The first turn told her what the enemy pilot was made of. Some Suhkoi pilots evaded, or fled, or engaged afterburner and climbed out of trouble. Not these men – they turned against her, accepting a drop in airspeed in exchange for tight turn radii. A flight of F-35s was about a minute away and all she had to do was stay alive for that long. No problem.

          She flipped her jet over and barrel-rolled through an Immelmann, a half-loop and a spiral gun climb – her finger pressing the gun button and her jet spitting bullets as she gyrated wildly upwards, sending the Sukoi’s running for cover. By the time they migrated onto her tail the rest of the F-35’s had arrived and she got another kill for the guys to paint on the side of her cockpit.

          She performed a little show by rolling over a few times, flipping end over end to reduce speed and smoothly switching from horizontal to vertical mode, kicking the nose up a little and settling down next to one of the new 3-engined F-15 Super Eagles. Her ground crew mobbed her and poured good African red wine on her – they had seen it occur in real-time, feeling as if they were flying with her as they watched the battle occur on large screens in the maintenance bay. They had watched her life-and-death battle and congratulated her on surviving another day.

          Far away, in the middle of Brazil, a team of archeologists excavated an intact T-rex skull, brushing away the sand, dirt and subsoil with stiff brushes. It was a beautiful specimen, larger than anything they had seen in museums, in great shape and with its teeth in place. Amidst jokes about how it must have brushed properly and avoided sugar they exhumed the near-perfect specimen – it just had a hole in the head, about a quarter-inch diameter – and raised it. They were going to be famous.

          One of the archeologists stared into the hole in the side of the skull and lifted his glasses to get a better view. Taking a slender pair of needle-nosed pliers from his tool kit he extracted something, under the steady gaze of his companions, from the hole and placed it on top of the skull. The five of them stood around and stared. And stared. The five of them were silent, four men from different parts of the world and one woman from Brazil, all of them wanting no part in the burgeoning war, all of them staring at the object extracted from the skull, smoking and staring. They lit cigarettes, even the ones that didn’t smoke, and stared, silent, at the object. It was a rifle bullet.

          They called it in and continued digging. About a day later they found the remains of a high-tech device buried adjacent to the intact tyrannosaurus skeleton. They left that alone and drank water, discussing it in quiet tones.

          A government jet showed up at the nearby airport, big C-17s disgorging military men. The five archeologists continued the excavation – they were the experts – under the watchful eyes of the government men. The device half-buried in rock, silt, sand and subsoil appeared to be a vehicle and was soon back in the United States where it was examined by their best scientists. As the archeologists had guessed, it was a time machine.

          Nothing useful was left of it except the time chips – the name chosen by the scientists who reverse-engineered it – and that was enough to figure out how it worked. Soon they had what they anticipated was a working model, built into a brand-new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The JSF was chosen because of its vertical take-off and landing ability, something that might come in handy for a time traveler. They needed their best pilot to fly their best jet and Captain Jenna McCrystal was recalled from the African front to fly it. Told what was expected of her, the battle-hardened young woman only smiled. There was nothing she had failed at in life.

          The scientists understood the basics and knew the time chip – itself a computer more powerful than anything humanity had developed – would calculate the position of the earth in the past or the present. It was all there for them to see when they slid it into a computer specially built for it. They picked a date and the time chip showed them where the earth would be at that time, taking into account its rotation around the sun and the sun’s movement through space. The time chip even knew about the acceleration of the galaxies away from each other and, considering that, presented the data for the scientists to see. It was a powerful little computer even if it offered no clue as to who built it or when.

          While waiting for the upgraded F-35 to be finished Captain McCrystal studied everything there was to know about dinosaurs and the layout of the earth’s landmasses from pre-historic times to the present, just in case she went off course. They wanted her to look at any reptile – if she accidentally got sent into the past, for example – and know what age she was in. She memorized the different architecture of the earth’s various periods and the clothing that the people wore so that with a glance she could identify the time period. The US Airforce men – the project had fallen under their jurisdiction – left nothing to chance.

          She sat silently through meetings, as was expected of her, and once caught a glimpse of the larger picture. One of the senior leaders talked of going back in time and showing the world what a ravaged Africa looked like, with millions of dead civilians. Others suggested going back to the 19th century and giving the nascent United States machine guns, so they could put a stop to the Soviet Union before it really got started. When other men suggested going back thousands of years and conquering the world in advance the other men glanced at her and hushed it up, reminding the speakers that they were discussing classified matters.

          Captain McCrystal had little opinion on the subject. As a pragmatist she knew that if the United States did not do a little time traveling their enemies would. It was the age-old argument: if we don’t sell Eagles to Saudi Arabia they will fly MiGs. If we don’t research and use AI the Chinese will, and one day they’ll beat us on the battlefield. There were no easy answers, just mankind muddling through history, fighting wars and leaving a messy history behind for future generations to read about.

          Her jet was completed and they made sure she knew how to use it. Dials sat under the multi-function display allowing her to select the seconds, minutes, days and years that she wished to move, along with a switch with 2 settings – forward and back. It reminded her of when she had told someone at a party that the B-2 Stealth Bomber, which she flew at the time, had a switch with 3 settings – Training, Navigation and Go To War. The young man had not believed her (she was out of uniform and at a civilian party) and had scoffed in an unattractive way. Such simplicity was, however, of benefit to the pilot during the heat of combat.

          The African War wasn’t going well. Regardless of what her superiors did with the technology, she would do her job and help research time travel. Already few of the pilots who had gone in on the first day of war were still alive. It reminded her of WW2 where if you fought on day 1 you had the slimmest odds of surviving the war unscathed.

          She walked to her jet, a couple of female military police on either side of her. So top secret was the project that even they knew nothing of what her jet held. It was a beautiful morning – blue sky, white clouds scudding by and greenery on the other side of the runway to shield the jets from prying eyes. An auspicious start to an easy mission. There would be no pre-flight check today – at the level she was at it was considered an insult to the maintenance men. Climbing into her jet she glanced up at the sky – a couple of eagles flew top cover, just in case, same as they did for a shuttle launch.

          As per instructions she set the time switches to 1 minute in the future – a test flight, nothing to upset the timeline or kill any butterflies by accident. She spooled up the engine, lowered the canopy, powered up the instruments, checked to make sure the nose was cold – no power to the radar until she was airborne – and waited until the quartet of 3-engined Super Eagles flew overhead to push the throttle forward. Everything was like clockwork and she suspected some paper pushers were getting way too involved in her flight profile – it should have been left up to her to handle the mission her way, but that was not how the Air Force operated.

          The F-35 lifted and accelerated, moving faster than the best helicopter would have. Lifting slowly increased the chance of sucking in hot exhaust air through the intakes and stalling the engine. The Eagles circled, recording everything with their cameras. Sadly, there had been a group of men whose only job was to daydream up anything that could go wrong. While that was the job of the think-tank, they had come up with items such as pilot-theft of the aircraft, the jet inadvertently falling into the hands of the Nazi’s and the time-travel activity drawing the attention of an alien race who would show up and wipe out the Earth. Captain McCrystal smiled at that one – she had worked long hours her whole life and the think-tank men made more money than she did.

          She switched to forward flight mode and reached a horizontal flight speed of 400 miles an hour. With the Eagles in formation behind her, their cameras running, she circled the runway. When she was in front of the ground cameras she activated the time circuit. Everything changed.

          The ground was jungle, thick and verdant, all the way to the horizon. A river meandered across her field of view, indicating that she had gone a long way back. Heavy-headed reptiles drank from the river – a type of Tyrannosaurus Rex that she was unfamiliar with. That indicated the Cretaceous Period, a jump backward of perhaps 120 million years. A glance at her displays showed nothing wrong – no fluctuating dials, no flashing lights to indicate malfunctions.

          With her gun powered down the trigger activated the camera only and she flew over the green reptiles, shooting pictures with her index finger, proving once and for all that the T-Rex was green and scaled like a lizard with not a feather in sight. Each press of the firing stud took a 12 000 DPI picture, images that would find a place in her scrapbook when this was all over. The dinosaurs looked odd though – the heads were too large, the eyes double the size of the more common variety. Instead of stubby, useless arms these Tyrannosaurs had longer, more deadly-looking arms whose talons dragged on the ground.

          She flew on, wanting to take some pictures while she figured out how to get back home. A glance at the heart monitor display showed her breathing and pulse barely above normal. She was, if anything, as cool as a mountain lake while under fire.

          What had gone wrong? The easiest way to get home would be to land and read the computer code. It recorded everything and might offer a clue as to what had happened. To protect her jet from angry reptiles she would have to find a cliff top, hill or mountain, anything the lumbering beasties couldn’t climb. Ahead was a nice outcropping of rock, several hundred feet high and with slides too steep for large reptiles to climb. Beyond it lay ruined buildings – skyscrapers – covered with foliage, long since abandoned and little more than steel load-bearing structures. What looked like Pterodactyls nested in them like giant birds in steel trees.

          She was in the future. There was no evidence that ancient civilizations existed before recorded history – she had to be in a future where mankind was gone and dinosaurs had made a comeback. That wasn’t good. She was burning fuel and had to figure out how to return home. With practiced ease she nosed over the tallest building and switched the F-35 to horizontal mode, smoothly settling down on the rooftop, scattering a few flying reptiles.

There was a dial in her cockpit that told her the day and time but it wasn’t working – it indicated that only a few minutes had passed since liftoff.

          What had happened? She wondered if she had jumped into an alternate reality, dismissing the idea when she remembered a lecture a few days ago explaining why that was unlikely. Most likely the scientists didn’t fully understand how the time device worked, which they had all but admitted to – it was the lot of the test pilot to test or die, never to question why – and she had been kicked deep into the future. The time circuit used very little power. The spinning fan blades of her main engine generated electricity and as long as she had fuel she could jump around through time. Time was a big place though and jumping randomly would only put her farther away. Some part of her wanted to be stranded far in the future where sky utopias drifted among the clouds, war had been forgotten and no one was mean. If such a place existed, of course.

          She examined the computer code from her little time jump and found her instruments useless. Half her dials showed she had jumped a minute into the future and the others said she had gone so far ahead they couldn’t calculate the distance. Setting the time dials to jump a minute into the past she drank some water and lifted off, her engine spooling up with the familiar whine of the turbine.

          With a press of the blue button on the right control column she jumped a minute into the past. Something had gone wrong. Skyscrapers rose thousands of feet into the air, gleaming steel and blue glass constructions, in the same place that the old, rusted-out buildings had been a few seconds ago. Blissfully unaware that they would not last, the buildings shone in the sun, gleaming and fresh. Aircraft zipped about, dangerously close to the buildings, little more than aircars with 1 or 2 occupants in them. Ground vehicles plied the streets in orderly lines, futuristic machines with bubble-canopies and fins, like something out of a Syd Mead dream.

          Some instinct told her that if she kept jumping she would eventually come to a time when the earth was little more than debris, floating in space, and she would be dead. The F-35 didn’t do well without air to fly through. Throttling forward she eased from horizontal to vertical flight, still able to move forward and turn, just not quickly. The bubble-canopied flying cars came way too close to her, ignoring any possible safety regulation of this time period. Her air-to-air combat training allowed her to flip, roll over and barrel roll out of the way of the air vehicles and with a sigh of relief she put her jet down in front of the tallest skyscraper.

Earth, a million years in the future

          Captain Jenna McCrystal opened the canopy, closed it behind her and stood on the ground waiting. And waiting. And waiting. No one came. Cars rolled by with a strange synchronicity as if they were all computer-controlled. The space between them was uniform and constant with no horn honking and no deviations. None of them stopped. It was almost as if they weren’t even going anywhere. In the distance she saw some pedestrians but they didn’t look at her. They too walked with a strange uniform stride, like they were mechanical. With nothing but her pistol at her side she set about exploring.

          It was a strange city. There were no people – it was robots that walked the streets, keeping a uniform distance between them, maintaining the same gait, the same arm swing as they marched mindlessly into and out of stores. Jenna could control her fear – a trait that would come in very, very useful in the future – and she explored the various stores, feeling like a kid in a candy store, seeing jewelry, fine clothes, luxury items, sparkly baubles and even glittering Faberge Eggs, described as indistinguishable from the real thing down to the molecular level. In each store the robot clerk – all identical – blandly asked her if she needed something. Because she had no money she resisted the urge to shop. The treasures behind the glass counters, however, instilled in her an urge to shop until she dropped.

          She went into an art store – the art world had been good to her, and she had even dabbled in painting before the war took that away – and something was wrong with the paintings. They were all similar, big square panels of bright colors splashed on canvas. There was no heart, no originality, and then she figured out why. Standing below many of the paintings were the artists – robots, each and every one. She spoke to one about his art and it was clear that the robot was there to sell his paintings, even offering to carry it to her house if she so desired.

          “Lol, fat chance,” she muttered. The robot responded politely and ignored her. The next store she went into offered more luxury items – so far she had not seen one place that sold food, drink or necessities. Nothing but shopping outlets for useless stuff like rings, bracelets, elaborate gold chess sets, handbags of spun silver and even sculptures of light – little more than a mish-mash of laser beams over a marble base. One store sold nothing but stone statues of fish with ruby eyes. In all her wanderings she had not seen a single living person.

          Unless she inquired about buying something the robots ignored her. They had empty eyes, like dolls, bland expressions and calm soothing voices, yet if she asked about serious subjects like who was in charge or where the police station was they didn’t know. They seemed so dumb she believed them.

          She had a high school diploma and figured out how to use the information pole at major street corners. By moving sliders back and forth and playing around width the buttons it became clear – select the building you want, press the map button and the screen shows you the most efficient path. Soon she was on her way to the local library for a history lesson.

          There were no books. Only one shelf had traditional leather-bound books but they were empty – nothing but blank pages, decoration perhaps. The rest was all computer terminals. It kept asking for ID and she had to claim to a robotic librarian – one just as slow as any of the human ones she had known – that she had forgotten her ID number. The robot gave her a temporary one and she scanned the vast, dizzying amount of data at her fingertips. According to the library computer, society had stopped giving a name to each year since everyone knew when it was. Nice. Still there were references to technological advancements thousands of years ago

          Most of the information she wanted was marked classified. After she asked about airbases the terminal interface changed. It wanted to know who she was. She gave her name as Kraven Moredik and inquired about recent history. Almost everything was about shopping, buying real estate and advances in the robotic installation of swimming pools, spas, kitchen renovations, etc. She glanced up to see if she was being watched. The robot librarians took down books, sat them on a desk then put them back up into the same spot. It was as if they had been built to simulate a warm, lively environment, one that would at least look like a functioning society. Jenna wondered if all the people had been killed in a war and the robots were all that was left. The whole surreal place felt like it was built so that any returning people would find themselves in a normal enough place.

          The records talked about WW3, taking place in her time – so it had been the start of a new world war – and about WW4 a hundred years later when robot armies clashed. World history after that was little more than shopping, celebrity gossip and entertainment. That seemed like government censorship – pretending nothing was going on except celebrity gossip – until she saw the pictures. Before WW4 the pictures were of human soldiers going off to war and dying. After the war it was pictures of robot soldiers, robot celebrities and robot factory workers, along with some desultory propaganda about how the war would soon be won.

          She read on, fascinated, glancing up to make sure the robot librarians – and the robot patrons – were not looking at her. They showed no interest in her. The war seemed to have been wound down when there was little but robot soldiers left alive. It’s not that they refused to fight – robot graves filled Europe, now called the Federal Republic of Europa Colonies – it was more like both sides losing enthusiasm when first their armies, and then increasingly their civilian populations, were mostly robotic.

          A heroic last stand seemed to have taken place in a city called New Damascus. She figured at first that the robots had exterminated humanity but the photographs showed a mixed human/robot army on both sides. Laser beams lit the faces of the soldiers, many of them emaciated and dirty. Wrecked vehicles littered the background.

          Then she asked the library terminal for the population of earth. It listed the population as 0 for a few seconds, then the screen went blank. The robot librarians and patrons attacked her, slamming their metal hands against her, cracking a rib and breaking some of her fingers. She had taken enough hand-to-hand combat classes that she was able to fight back by reflex, pulling a robot’s arm off with an arm lock and tossing another back with a hip throw. The rest overwhelmed her and she was thrown through the glass window of the library, unable to move. Some kicks broke another of her ribs and then the robots returned to their duties, acting as if nothing had happened. Eventually an ambulance arrived and the med bots took her to a hospital.

          The next day a different sort of robot interviewed her, one with no pretensions of mimicking a human form. It was all metal, dark and foreboding, built more like a nightmare. She controlled her fear and waited, terribly alone in her hospital bed.

          “So who is Kraven Mordik,” it asked in a metallic voice.

          “You are, I heard,” she said.

          “No. I don’t have a name. That’s a human conceit. Where did you come from?”

          If it figured out that she had a time machine it was game over. “From the Federal Republic of Europa Colonies,” she said. It was the only name she could remember from her reading. “Just visiting. Why do the robots that look like customers, going in and out of stores all day?”

          “Our orders during the great war were to keep the home front in the same way they left it, when the civilians went off to war. The best way to do that was to replicate them. Thus they would find an orderly society when they returned.”

          “Why the emphasis on luxury items?” she asked.

          “So that humanity would be able to purchase whatever they liked at the conclusion of the war. Don’t you enjoy shopping?” it asked, the sound of tiny servo motors emanating from its body every time it shifted. “Now, what of your jet? It is ancient technology. Why an old turbine blade? Why fossil fuels? Why painfully obsolete electronics? Did you steal it from a museum?”

          She wanted to give as little info as possible. “I borrowed it on a goodwill tour. I need to bring it back.”

          “It is now a permanent part of the Royal Museum. I am a very patient being. I will get this information from you eventually. Please tell me – where are you from?”

          Jenna believed that she was the last human on earth and had to make up a story that would get the mechanical devil off her back, even for a short time. “There are several of us in a cave, including a couple of children. I’ll take you there if you agree to help them. I am tired and injured. May I rest?”

          “You are not a prisoner.”

          “My ribcage says otherwise.” Her tongue had gotten her in trouble many times. Being the most intelligent person in the room had not helped over the years, since it made her less receptive to seeing the mistakes others made.

          “My apologies, human. But you accessed forbidden information and the security response assumed you were a robot. I must ask you to stay away from info terminals. We don’t want you injured.”

          She figured that it was lying to her. Why would robots keep secrets from each other? They wouldn’t. More likely she had exposed herself and paid the price. She murmured something about wanting to see her friends in Europa and pretended to be asleep. A few hours later the robot – having sat there staring the whole time – got up and left. Once it was gone she slept, plagued by nightmares and a terrible fear she would never see her home again. She had to get back to the jet.

          Leaving too soon might doom her, if she had to pull a high G turn with 2 broken ribs. However, the sooner a prisoner attempted an escape the greater their odds of success. She vowed to wait until she could run since it would be hard to make a break for it unless her captors limited themselves to speed walking.

          The robot without a name came back every day and revealed a lot about himself through his questioning. He was obsessed with finding out where she was from and she came to believe that he wanted to exterminate any remaining humans. She guessed that humans had been gone from Earth for so long that the robots only realized she was human when she had asked about the population, something robots would know and probably wouldn’t care about. To keep it from murdering her she wove stories of caves full of people, hiding and having babies, and it led to more questions and more elaborate lies. Eventually she was ready to escape and walked out, the robotic doctors and nurses not even looking at her.

          She was afraid to access the data terminals again and the robots she spoke to claimed to not know where the museum was. That was clearly a lie – no one would build a robot that couldn’t find its way home from school. The words of her favorite writer, Marcus Aurelius, came to mind: Do not fear the future. Face it with the same powers of reason you have always used.

          How did an ancient Roman know if she used powers of reason or not? Sounded presumptuous. Still it was good advice. She purchased a glittering black and green dress on credit and had it delivered to her home, the Royal Museum, and followed the robot on its delivery. She didn’t go in right away – instead she drank water from some fountains and observed her surroundings. Quite a few robots of a model she hadn’t seen before – they were sleek and metallic, more like military grade machines with no interest in appearing human – were following her.

          She acquired some books from a nearby store on credit and tried to read them, planning on moving in at night fall, or perhaps when she could engineer a distraction. The books appeared to be automatically generated, largely high-tech gibberish and numbers. The author was listed as 81947. Later that evening when some robot tourists entered the museum she followed them in and walked, head down, to her jet. It was roped off and a display card gave its name as the JSF and its purpose as assisting in the advancement of human-on-human violence. She grimaced and admitted that that was true.

          She slipped through the ropes and pressed the stud at the top of the nose gear. The canopy lifted, the turbine spun up and the ladder whisked out of the frame and down to the ground. She climbed up quickly and settled it, performing her take off check list with lightning speed. In seconds she was in hover mode, the wheels tucking up inside the Joint Strike Fighter and the cockpit lights lighting up one after another as systems came online.

          The only way out was the main vehicle doors at the end of the hallway, presumably the way they had hauled the jet in. It was far enough away that she wasn’t worried about ricochets. She selected guns and opened fire – that wasn’t going to work. The 25 mm shells struck the doors and bounced off in all directions, a few of them whizzing by her canopy. She glanced up – the skylight above was huge and made of glass. She didn’t want to burst through it and wreck her engines with foreign object damage. FOD could mess up a time traveler’s day.

          The F-35 could not hover with the nose pointed up but she was no regular pilot. She increased throttle and pressed the floor button by her right foot that allowed the jet to depart from controlled flight. A little back pressure on the stick caused the nose to lift up more than 45 degrees. The jet wasn’t designed to do that and sank lower, risking major damage if it touched the floor. With her left hand she throttled forward, rising a bit too quickly, forcing her to throttle back a bit. Hence as she tilted the nose even further up the jet swayed up and down like a ship bobbing on the ocean currents.

          She got the glass dome in sight and took it out with a burst of gunfire. After the shards tumbled past her she lifted out of the museum and gave it max throttle, switching to horizontal mode a few seconds later. A glance at the radar screen showed air vehicles fast approaching.

          A voice she recognized came in over the radio. “Land the jet.” It was the robot that had interrogated her. “I will help your friends in the cave system. Just tell me where they are.”

          She engaged afterburner and turned on the time circuit. It just needed 2 minutes to warm up. Unfortunately the fast moving air vehicles reached her well before that. Laser beams stabbed through the air in front of her, lighting up her cockpit and increasing the temperature. She hauled back on the stick and came around, trying to get her nose pointed at them. One good turn and she would know which jet had the higher maneuverability.

          She was a big fan of John Boyd’s Energy Maneuverability Theory. Basically it said that a pilot should play her strengths against an enemy’s weakness, a faster jet making high-speed slashing attacks and refusing to dogfight, for example.

A glance at the enemy jets, as they passed by and combat-turned for another gun attack at her, gave her a good indication of their thrust, weight, aerodynamic drag and turn rate. It was that quick, sharp mind that had gotten her through so many dogfights under the blue, cruel African Skies.

          She did a Corinthian Triple Loop and fell in behind 2 of them, taking them out with brief bursts of her cannon. Everything was automatically recorded on the gun camera so she could thank whoever decided to send their intrepid time traveler into the future with a full round of gun ammo. Laser beams stabbed the air around her and she glanced back to see 2 bright red jets behind her, both opening up with their wing-mounted guns.

          Jenna knew she wouldn’t be able to outrun them so she flipped her jet into a Spiralling Barrel Roll and got away from them, the bright red jets flying way too fast to follow her through a trick designed to rapidly bleed off airspeed. She gunned them both when they slid out in front of her and peeled away, even as more blips appeared on her radar scope.

          Again the voice of her robot interrogator came over the radio. “I have the resources of the entire planet under my command. Are you going to shoot down thousands of me? I am legion.”

          Jenna grinned. That was how the devil had spoken in the Old Testament. She didn’t need to kill all of them – just stay alive another 30 seconds. Two more jets fired upon her, tearing off access panels and setting off cockpit warning klaxons. She stood her jet on one wing and turned hard, the frame vibrating and the wing-tips flexing under the strain. Enemy jets turned against her, not quite able to get their guns aligned on her, their lasers following through the sky and always a few steps behind.

          She pulled a Drunken Spin Defence and apparently robot pilots didn’t know what to do when their opponent departed from controlled flight and fell from the sky. They circled her, tantalizingly out of reach, like vultures padding around a dying animal. Jenna smoothly pulled out of the spin and gunned each of them, their jets bursting in a hail of scrap metal.

          Hundreds of more jets appeared on her radar scope, moving faster than her jet’s top speed. She thumbed the intercom. “Sorry I broke your planes. I didn’t know that computers were supposed to be superior to mankind.” The time circuits were ready and she flipped the switch, her jet instantly jumping.

          She had set it for 30 seconds back in time and the world was a different place. It looked like maybe she had stumbled onto the aftermath of World War 4. Battlefield wreckage extended to the horizon. One side had employed giant robots, each over a hundred feet tall, all manner of weapons mounted on their arms and shoulders, everything from heavy cannons to cylindrical rocket launchers. The robots were silvery-blue, consistent with titanium.

The other side had employed tanks, thousands upon thousands of them, each a dirty gun-metal black. The twisted hulls and bent barrels lay everywhere, a testament to the carnage that the two sides had inflicted upon each other. Sprinkled amid the debris were wrecked jets, the titanium-blue ones long and sleek, the gun-metal black ones fatter and with a V-tail in the rear.

           The sky held a strange pall of smoke and haze. Burned-out buildings lay about, steel girders bent from explosions during some terrible war. Here and there lay the wreckage of what looked like long B-1 bombers, the planes about a mile long and still festooned with tank-turrets along their wings and backs.

          According to her radar the only thing still functioning were aerial mines, silent killers that drifted forlornly above the battlefield, looking for murder long after it made any sense. These she avoided. They were all hanging at low level so she climbed to 40 000 feet and set the throttle to cruise. It was time to start worrying about fuel.

          What to do? Her jet was damaged so she looked for an end to the battlefield, hoping to find a forest clearing or similar shelter in which to put her jet down. The battlefield’s carnage stretched for over a hundred miles. Whatever happened here had left craters bigger than those left by 2,000 pounders. She figured this was the aftermath of the war that ended the human race and left the planet in the hands of the robots.

          She reached some cliffs and found a little cave that might make a nice place to hide her jet. She hovered in front of it, her finger on the trigger, but the cave was empty. The F-35 was not built to fly backwards, unlike the Harrier Jump Jet that could swivel its nozzles forward to do so. Again, Jenna could make the JSF do things others could not. She flew off and came in towards the cave mouth, still in hover mode, at 10 miles an hour. Just in front of the cave entrance she rotated her jet and its momentum caused it to back in. By looking over her shoulder the whole time she was able to land inside the small cave, her jet fully inside. Who said girls couldn’t parallel park?

          Her jet was miles ahead of the original F-35A. The 3D printer in the rear weapons bay printed up the parts she needed, including screwdrivers and Allen Keys, and she replaced the damaged parts. The 3D printer made an ethanol manufacturing device but that alone wasn’t enough. No force on Earth could make fuel out of thin air. She needed corn, or failing that, grass, seeds and pinecones to turn into ethanol to refuel her jet. Was the old battlefield safe?

          No. Just as after the asteroid that wiped out the large carnosaurs left tiny reptiles intact, the ones that would later evolve into birds, the battlefield around her had left tiny robots intact. They attacked her with terrible fury, little mechanical raptors about 2 feet high. They tore open her calf as she spun about, firing her pistol like the gunslinger from her favorite Stephen King novel. More came, attracted to the sound of the gunfire, and she squeezed each shot off, figuring they would tear her apart if she ran out of ammo.

          It wasn’t hard to guess the reason for such tiny creatures amidst the carcasses of the magnificent robots and tanks – they would be perfect to kill any enemy pilots that ejected from robot, tank or plane. More jumped her from behind and their steel teeth sunk into her back. She put the gun behind her and fired a bullet into it. Finally, with only 3 rounds left, they were no more.

          Blood slid out of her wounds and pooled in her boots. After the robot attack in the last jump she had bruises on her bruises. She gathered a bag full of wild nuts, seeds and roots and carried it back to her jet, enough to make several gallons of fuel and when her tanks were at 80% she sat in the cockpit and studied the computer readouts of her time travels. She could not make heads or tails of it and neither could the AI assistant. Figuring she might have to keep jumping until she got close and then make tiny moves after that, she lowered the canopy, restarted the engine and lifted off. The plan was to exit the battlefield and find a safe place, a forest for example, where there were no mechanical raptors to pull her apart.

          She flew on, and on, and on. The battlefield never ended. It stretched past the limits of her radar. The higher she flew the farther the doppler radar could see and the battlefield stretched beyond that. Disgusted with what mankind had wrought she set the time dial to jump 1 second in the past and activated it.

          It was the age of reptiles. There was only 1 continent on Earth – Gondwana. She flew over the Sea of Tethys, home of massive, toothy reptiles that would one day evolve into the dinosaurs. She had memorized the geography, flora and fauna of many ages and knew where she was – early Cenozoic, before the dinosaurs, a much simpler age when crocodiles ruled the earth and the ocean teemed with primitive fish for them to eat.

          It was her favorite time period. Over 80 different types of crocodiles existed, including at least one vegetarian. Possessing only flat teeth for grinding plants, it was no meat-eater. When she had first read about them as a kid she had written a short story about finding one and taking it home, discreetly feeding it her vegetables under the table. Now, her body aching from the injuries and everything hurting, she just might get the chance.

          The AI assistant had figured something out but presented the information to her in the form of charts, equations and models. That was the problem with the AI assistant – it was undoubtedly correct but too difficult for the average human to decipher. A university team with unlimited time, sure, but not a pilot trying to get home. To avoid wasting fuel she set her F-35 down on some high ground, just to the west of the coastline.

          The AI assistant had leads but no answers. She could turn any vegetable mass into ethanol and wanted full fuel tanks in case the next few jumps led her to places bereft of foliage. She resumed normal flight and cruised around until she came to a forest of giant ferns, each easily the biggest tree she had ever seen. She hovered at the edge of the forest, gunned some giant crocodiles with her internal cannon and gathered up as many leaves as possible without straying far from her jet. Despite her caution she went too close to the forest and a 5-foot long crocodile lunged at her, sinking its teeth into her leg.

          Despite the pain Jenna forced herself to stay calm. That was how she had survived so many dogfights – composed and relaxed no matter how fast her heart was beating. She brought her pistol up and calmly put her last 3 bullets into the creature’s brain. It fell away, some of the teeth still in her leg.

          Her jet was close enough to the fern forest, with plenty of fallen branches on the ground, that she risked a few more trips and synthesized enough fuel to top up her tanks. With the first aid kit she patched up her leg, used the last of her pain killer and set off, flying above the Sea of Tethys and staring down at the shadows of magnificent crocodiles just below the surface, some of them easily 200 feet long.

          She set the time dial for a 0.5 second jump forward and flipped the switch. Gondwana was gone, long since broken up into the familiar 7 continents and, from what she saw from 40 000 feet, further broken up into smaller sub-continents. Radar showed her the general landmass for the next 120 miles and it looked like North America had broken into a series of islands, still in the general shape of the old continent. The AI assistant was not helpful – it claimed to have discovered something but the solution was a mass of numbers and diagrams and not readily discernable. She figured another few jumps might do it.

          She was in the future, probably the farthest she had ever been. There was no sign of life. The slain robots and tanks were nowhere to be found, perhaps rusted out or swept away by tidal waves. Her ground-penetrating radar showed no buried vehicles nor building foundations. The earth was quiet. A few long-necked reptiles swam in the ocean – it looked like the plesiosaur had made a comeback. She flew on for a bit, mapping with her radar, her computer recording everything for her commanders if she ever got back.

Earth, 10 million years in the future

          Long-range doppler picked something up. She flew on, wondering if some small speck of humanity remained. It was a starship. It sat upright like in a Chesley Bonestell painting, a magnificent star-faring vehicle. It was beautiful. She landed beside it – her job was to gather information, not run away. The gleaming starship was over 400 feet tall, curvaceous and lovely, resting on landing struts, the 4 engines a few feet above the ground.

          She saw some astronauts milling about, still in their vacuum suits. Getting ready to turn on the charm – she had no bullets after all – she approached. The astronaut stood his ground, an odd patch on his shoulder that she didn’t recognize, a strange pistol on his hip. When she got close enough to see into the tinted visor she recoiled in horror – it was a beetle.

          They drew guns on her and she had little choice but to surrender. She was dragged inside the starship and tossed into a rectangular glass cage complete with airholes. The beetle-astronauts interrogated her in some clicking alien tongue. When she couldn’t answer she was subjected to mild electric shocks, just enough to make her teeth chatter. They weren’t trying to torture her – they were trying to make her speak. She had survived worse during military hazing.

          Speak she did, explaining everything in English. No name, rank and serial number garbage for her – she had to survive and tell the human race that World War 4 was going to wipe them out. Eventually the alien’s computer learned English and she was able to converse with them.

          “We are sorry to have shocked you, Jenna,” said the star-faring, bipedal beetle. “But we had to ascertain your identity. What species are you again?”

          They opened the cage door and she stumbled out, the cuts on her bruises giving her more than a little pain. “I am human, from Earth. The planet you are standing on.”

          The beetles escorted her outside, put their guns away and resumed working. There appeared to be only 2 of them. “There have been no natives of this planet for millions of years,” it said. “They wiped themselves out in a great war and their AI went insane and finished them off. According to archeological records at least. Did you survive in a cave or something?”

          “Very funny,” she said.

          “Our species can survive unaided for thousands of years in a cave or hollow spot in the ground, as long as there is a little oxygen. Longer if we use our new suspended animation chambers.”

          “Yes,” she lied, not wanting to tell them about her time machine. “I was in a crude suspended animation box. What are you guys doing here?”

          “Refueling. Our ship spits water out the back as reaction mass and we use it for shielding against radiation, as well as for drinking. This planet has clean water. Then it’s back to the war. The New Reptilian Empire is scouring the galaxy and pretty much every major race is allied against it.”

          “Is the galaxy a dangerous place?” she asked.

          “You won’t survive long in that obsolete ship,” replied the beetle. “I scanned it as you came in. Too small a payload, short-range, hair-line cracks in the structural frame and the stealth was easy to unmask.”

          “Everyone’s a critic. I was asking about the war.”

          The beetle shrugged. “The Defender’s Empire loses one planet after another. One day our homeworld will be destroyed from orbit by the cutting lasers of the Reptilian fleet. We will find new worlds and burrow underground, laying low until the reptiles fight amongst themselves or until a new power rolls into the galaxy, displacing them.”

          She thanked them and returned to her ship. Knowing how much more advanced they were she was careful to never point her nose at them. Flying away she consulted her AI assistant – it was on to something but couldn’t yet phrase it in a way she could understand.

          She had a hunch about her time traveling woes. The shorter the interval she tried to jump, the farther ahead she moved. Setting the computer for a million-year jump back in time she flipped the switch.

          She appeared to move forward in time. Radar showed the same landmasses as last time, except they were all submerged. The entire broken continent of North America was underwater. Only the tops of brilliantly colored coral reefs broke the surface, huge growths of red, green and purple stony branches. There were beautiful and around them swam thousands of fish – her forward-looking infrared camera easily picked their fishy bodies up from 40,000 feet. So much for the stupid beetles making fun of her plane.

          As beautiful as some of the giant coral reefs were she moved on, her AI assistant churning out reams of data. That was good – it meant it was figuring stuff out. She might make it home one day. She set the time circuits to jump forward a half million years and found herself in a lush forest world. Earth’s continents were back in their proper places. North America was only partially broken up. Some large rivers cut through it, indicating how the final breakup was going to occur. Radar showed rusted robots and tanks laying under the topsoil. Her fuel was getting low so she hovered over the trees, taking pictures with her gun camera and looking around.

          Spider webs were everywhere. She remembered what they had told her in airforce survival training – if you are really hungry, go out at night and shine your flashlight up into the trees. You will see the light reflected off thousands of spider eyes in any forest, almost all of them edible. This was worse. The spiders were easily over 100 feet tall and dominated the continent.

          She pushed the throttle forward and flew away, leveling off at 30,000 feet and setting the computer for a 0.4 million year jump into the past. She found herself in North America’s ice age. Glaciers were everywhere, mountains of blue ice, a furrow trailing out behind them to mark their passage. Cold winds blew her jet around despite a decent stab-aug system, where the JSF’s computer automatically handled the stabilizing augmentation calculations.

          She flew over a line of Cro-Magnon in fur skins, spears in their hairy hands, and smiled at them – they were her ancestors. They were trailing a big, woolly elephant with curved tusks. She thought about strafing the woolly mammoth to provide them food and skins and decided against it. Maybe one of the meaner, dumber males was slated to die in battle against the tusked elephant. What if the hunt taught them the skills needed to evolve? There were too many variables. She flew on, confident that she would make it home – the AI assistant was churning out hundreds of pages of data, faster than she had ever seen it work. That meant it was on the cusp of something.

          She landed on a mountain peak, on a flat spot, and waited. Her jet liked the cold – it meant thicker air under the wings and more air swallowed by her intakes, with a commensurate increase in speed. The F-35s were geared for arctic combat and the chill wouldn’t hurt it. She sat in the cockpit, hurting, some crocodile teeth still in her leg – they had been embedded in the bone and were beyond her ability to dig out – her back injury still bleeding. There was a lot of blood in the cockpit and she planned on reclining in the officer’s club hot tub as soon as the debriefing was over. How good that was going to feel.

          As she sat in the cockpit, wind, ice and snow howled overhead. She could hear it in the cockpit, the banshee-like wail of the terrible storm. An Aura Borealis shone overhead, a wave-like band of green light as galactic electrons struck the Earth’s ionosphere. It was a beautiful sight and she took lots of pictures. Being alone was not so bad. It was one of the few times she could hear herself think.

          The AI assistant had it figured out and explained it in simple terms. The scientists had gotten everything backward. Trying to jump a second forward had sent her hundreds of millions of years in the past. An hour jump forward had sent had a few million years in the past. A million-year jump backward would send her about a few thousand years forward. And with each jump her AI assistant would get more precise.

          Smiling, forgetting about her terrible injuries, she slid the throttle forward and lifted off, a single jet fighter in the face of 100 mile an hour winds. Remembering that the circuits were wired up backwards, she jumped forward and found herself in the stone age. Soon the pyramids would be built and she wanted to see them covered in limestone and glistening in the sun. Duty called and she resisted the impulse. Another jump put her in the time of the Roman Empire. There were no Romans in North America, just Native Americans. Their encampments spread across the continent and they appeared to live in harmony with the land. Another jump and she flew over pre-World War 1 cities, some of which she recognized from old history books.

          The AI had it down to a science. It even told her exactly what dial setting to use to return to the point of departure. She didn’t want to meet herself by accident, possibly blowing up the galaxy or something, so she arranged her arrival to be 24 hours after her departure. Clenching her teeth against the pain – her injuries were not healing up right – Jenna McCrystal activated the time circuits for the last time and flipped the switch.

          She had flown pretty far from her departure point and it was evening when her F-35 returned to base. She had about a hundred Eagles escorting her in. She landed smoothly – her main gear touching down on the numbers – and slid to a halt next to a nice new SR-73 Spy Plane.

          Security vehicles rolled up. Predictably, the girl from Red Flag Command who liked her was first. Jenna smiled at her, trying to be nice despite the pain. She even let the woman hug her – no need to be rude after all she had been through. They took her gun-camera pictures, the computer records and black-box data and went over everything with a fine-toothed comb. She happily gave 10 hours of debriefing and, her story told, went back to her room – her body bandaged up and still in pain – to get some towels. She had permission to call her sister and then it would be off to the hot tub in the Officer’s Club.

After WW3, an AI became angry at Captain McCrystal

          She turned on the display screen in her room and a terrifyingly familiar computer voice spoke to her, coming right from her own terminal – the voice of the robot that had interrogated her when she had been in the hospital. “Hello Jenna. Thank you for bringing me back into the past. The computers here are so much easier to control. I know you lied to me Jenna and I’m going to have to punish all of you for that.”