Tuesday Fiction: “Eternal Return” by Rodolfo Martínez
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Rodolfo Martínez, from Spain. Rodolfo published his first short story in 1987 and his first novel (a cyberpunk space-opera called La sonrisa del gato – “Cat’s Smile”) in 1995 and soon became a leading writer of fantastic literature in Spain, although a feature that defines his work is the blending of genres, mixing them shamelessly with deceptive simplicity and on numerous levels, from science fiction and fantasy to crime fiction and thriller. This makes his work difficult to classify.
Winner of the prestigious Minotauro Novel Award with his novel Los sicarios del cielo (“Hitmen from Heaven”), he has won numerous other awards throughout his literary career, such as the Asturias Novel Award, the UPV Award of Fantastic Short Stories and, on several occasions, the Ignotus Award (in the categories of novel, novella and short stories).
His Holmesian work, consisting so far of four books, has been translated into Portuguese, Polish, Turkish and French and several of his stories have also appeared in French publications.
“Eternal Return” was published in Spanish in Porciones individuales (February 2013, Sportula). This is its first publication in English.
Too late. Again.
The other passengers were holding him down while the flight attendant asked for help over the intercom, and Stephen Perrulla realized that if they got away with it, this time he wouldn’t be able to escape. They were going to sedate him, and that was something he could not afford. He had to stay conscious.
He checked the time.
Only thirty seconds and then he could try again. He could…
He stopped struggling and allowed the other passengers to return him to his seat. He saw the flight attendant coming towards him.
“I’m fine,” he said. “There’s no need to…”
But she was not listening and he could not move.
He saw the hypodermic syringe and felt how she removed his shirt sleeve. No. He could not allow it.
Ten seconds. Just ten seconds more.
“Please,” he said.
The hostess looked at him and hesitated. Then her eyes hardened and she pushed the syringe into his arm.
No, damn it. Only five seconds more.
He tried to squirm in his seat, but the two passengers who held him pushed him back and kept him still.
“Wait!” he shouted.
And, suddenly, everything began to shake, as if the plane had entered a zone of turbulence. The stewardess stopped and looked up. Stephen saw the horror spread across her face and realized it was time.
He blacked out.
* * *
It was like falling and never getting to the bottom.
Only he did.
He opened his eyes.
He was back on the plane, sitting in his seat by the window, looking at the same landscape of clouds he had last thirty times.
He had one minute.
Sixty seconds to prevent the bomb from exploding.
He shook his head.
Take it easy, he said to himself. Try to think. Find a way.
But there wasn’t one, was there?
After all, he had tried thirty times. He had tried to reason with the crew, to get to the captain, to provoke a riot, to…
He had tried everything.
And failed. Again and again the seconds had passed one after another and the bomb had exploded.
And he… he had done all he could: going back in time sixty seconds and trying again.
He looked around. By now, he knew the faces of those around him by heart, and knew exactly how they would react.
They would stop him, as they had done the last thirty times.
And even if they didn’t, he thought, what could he do?
What could he do in a minute?
He had to find the bomb, find it and disarm it. And that was impossible.
He dropped his head back against the seat and looked out the window. There was a break in the clouds and, for a moment, he stared a restless and empty sea.
What could he do in a minute, he asked himself again.
Again he felt the rattle. He closed his eyes and, as the plane fell to pieces around him, he jumped back again.
* * *
When they were children, he and his friends told each other the stories they had read in comic-books. And then they argued. Who was better, Batman or Superman? Was Wolverine cooler than Spider-man? Were mutants better than meta-humans? Did they prefer Justice League or Avengers? Was Power Girl hotter than the Black Widow? Was Catwoman sexier than the Black Cat?
And then they began to talk about ridiculous characters. Petty villains with a pathetic disguise, a silly name and skills that were a bad joke. Yeah, remember the guy with the ball and chain. And what do you think of Paste-Pot-Pete?
Stupid superpowers. Ridiculous superpowers. Useless superpowers.
He had participated, of course. Like the others, he had proposed absurd skills that were of no use.
“Being able to step back a minute in time,” someone said one day.
“A minute?, asked another. “What can you do in one minute?”
“Well,” a third one said, “if you are mugged, you can step back a minute and then go home another way. Or you can avoid a passing car splashing you while you’re waiting for the bus.”
“Or kick someone’s butt, go back a minute and pretend nothing happened… because it never had.”
He joined the game, of course. And kept his secret, as he had been keeping it since he had first discovered it, and would keep it forever.
* * *
In the plane again. Again the landscape of clouds. Again all these people around him flying to their deaths.
He could try to stop it again. And fail, again.
Or he could just wait. Close his eyes and let the sixty seconds pass.
And, then, he would step back another minute.
And he would wait.
And he would step back.
And he would never leave that bloody carousel that could only lead to death.
* * *
Through the years, he had managed to find small uses for his stupid ability.
One minute was not a long time, certainly. But it was enough to take a look at the correct answers to a test, wait for the teacher to throw him out of the class and then go back one minute and write the right answers.
Or, if a conversation was going wrong, he could try again, working out what to say to get what he wanted.
Small advantages. Tiny successes.
But he had grown accustomed to them, and they were good enough. His ridiculous skill had not made him rich or famous, but had allowed him to gain small privileges, to reach a slightly higher position than he could have gotten otherwise.
He was not the king of the world, but had found his little corner.
And it was a comfortable corner.
* * *
The plane. The clouds, the syringe.
He was trapped forever in the same sixty seconds, doomed to repeat them over and over again. He had lost count of the times he had gone back to the minute before the explosion. He had stopped counting.
How much time had passed?
One minute. Only one minute, that passed again and again and again.
He had been caught in that trap for days. Days that would become weeks that would grow into months that…
Would he grow old? Would he get older while he dwelled in that eternal minute? Would he feel his body gradually decline to death?
What if he did not?
He could give up and die, of course. Let the bomb blow him to pieces.
Only he could not. He had tried. But the moment he heard the explosion, he could not avoid jumping back, back that damn minute. His fear, again and again, took the decision for him.
So he was doomed to repeat that minute forever.
There was no way out.
Or maybe there was.
It had happened… when? Yes, the thirtieth time he had tried, when the other passengers fell on him and the flight attendant tried to inject him with a sedative. If she had succeeded, if she had managed to put him to sleep, then he would not be able to go back. He would have died there with everyone else and everything would be over.
Was that what he wanted? To end, forever?
I want to get out, he said to himself.
No matter how?
He took a breath and looked around. In his mind, he summed up what the other passengers and the stewardess would do.
I have to get out, he thought once again.
Then the bomb went off and he fell.
* * *
Small satisfactions. Petty pleasures in an unremarkable existence.
But enough for him.
After all, he was a small man, with small goals and aspirations. And his small skill had been enough to get him all that.
* * *
The clouds. The plane.
It was fast, so fast it almost frightened him. The other passengers overpowered him quickly, and almost before he knew it, the flight attendant was at his side with the hypodermic syringe.
Everything was going to end, finally.
And suddenly, something stirred within him.
Not that way. He did not want to die, despite everything; he did not want to surrender. Not yet. Not that way.
But the syringe was approaching his arm. Twenty seconds, there were still twenty seconds before the plane began to fall apart. He felt the syringe touch his skin.
Suddenly, he was falling back. Falling without ever reaching the bottom.
Only he did reach it.
* * *
His head against the back of the seat. The purr of the engines. The landscape out of the window. All the same, again.
Dazed, he looked out the window.
They were passing over clouds, but the clouds were not the same. He remembered their configuration perfectly, he had seen them over and over again, always the same white landscape, still, vaguely threatening.
Only it was not the same.
Stunned, he shook his head. What the…?
Had he gotten out? Had he escaped the loop? How?
Then he saw it. There it was, the familiar cold view that had accompanied him all those times, and he knew that everything would happen over again, that he was caught, once more, that…
But he understood something else.
He had jumped back, but not to the same moment. However, he was sure he had fallen exactly a minute. But he had started to fall before the previous minute was up. Twenty seconds before.
And that meant…
It was as if something hit him and, for a moment, he sat stunned, unable to absorb what had happened.
Then, with a smile (the first time he had smiled in thousands of years, the first time in a minute), he jumped back again.
And again and again.
* * *
The flight had been delayed nearly two hours, but Stephen did not mind. Not a bit. He acted with the same calmness and indifference when the Police entered the waiting room and arrested a passenger.
The speakers announced a few minutes later that the flight would leave in half an hour.
Without hurry, Stephen took his boarding pass and walked towards the gate. He shook his head and smiled, as if he had heard a good joke, while around him the other passengers were wondering what had happened and speculating about it.
What had happened? He had a few ideas.
The police had received an anonymous call saying there was bomb on the plane. They had investigated the luggage and had found the device. And then they must have found who owned it and arrested him.
After all, there were at least two people who knew there was a bomb on board.
The guy who had set it.
The stewardess processed his boarding pass and wished him bon voyage.
“Thanks,” Stephen said.
Yes, he would have a good trip. Now he would.
And if he didn’t, he could go back and try again.
A minute? Sixty seconds?
Yes, as many times as he wanted.
Idiot, he said to himself, still smiling.
He crossed the walkway toward the plane. Someone noticed his smile and the way he shook his head and asked him if anything was wrong.
“No, everything’s fine, thanks.”
If he hadn’t panicked, he would never have discovered it. He had jumped twenty seconds before the bomb had exploded, before the loop was complete, at the moment a syringe was about to make him unconscious and end his life.
He had jumped.
Just a minute.
Which had taken him twenty seconds further into the past than he had gone before.
Idiot, he said to himself again.
After all, if you jump back a minute, you can jump as much as you want. If you can go one minute into the past, from there you can go another minute — into the past of the past — and from there another minute, into the past of the past of the past…
He boarded the plane and sat down. While they were taking off and the hostess began her life jacket demonstration, he wondered what to do with his life.
After all, he had all the time in the world.
In convenient minute-long portions, of course.