A Rock in the Air
by Neil James Hudson
On 6 August 1945, Hideyoshi Kita acted without honour or courage, but only with cowardice and self-preservation. He ran. He ran away from his family, his friends and his work colleagues, whom he knew already would be consumed by the blast. He ran to save his own skin, as if he could move faster than the explosion that had never happened before.
Already he guessed what had happened. He had ignored the radio warnings to take shelter from an imminent bombing raid. No one else had paid attention, and like a sheep he had taken his cues from the actions of the others. But he knew also that this could not have been an ordinary bomb. He had heard the rumours, that the Americans (and most likely, his own country) were working on an atomic bomb. But no one seriously believed that they were anywhere near perfecting it. Even if they had, there would be a warning, a demonstration and demand for surrender before its use.
He knew that he could not outrun a bomb of any sort. And yet, his legs still moved, and he became aware that he was succeeding. That his city, that had burnt suddenly with the fire of the sun, was cooling again. He could see its sudden ruins, as if in an instant it had become an archaeological discovery.
The world had become a blur, as if different realities were superimposing themselves on each other. He could not tell if it was night or day, seeing only a grey half-light. There were no people, only impressions of movement. He was half aware of the city turning into an enormous campsite, of the air clearing, of some buildings being restored. Of some vast activity that he could not see.
And then he tripped, and put his hands out as he hurtled to the hard ground. But he did not hit it. Instead, he found himself on a soft mattress, surrounded by walls. He had been transported to a makeshift room, perhaps a cell or some kind of hospital bed. He rolled onto his side and saw only one other item in the room, a blackboard on which a message had been written in white chalk, in English and in Japanese.
“You have been thrown forward in time,” he read. Although as he was reading, another message appeared beneath it, which made him feel nauseous.
“You are decelerating,” said the second message.
He closed his eyes then, and began to sob. He had no understanding of what had happened to him, only that everything he knew was dead. The blast had taken place only a minute ago. Perhaps he was dead himself.
He opened his eyes, and read a third message, only in English this time and in a different handwriting to the other two. “My name is Amelia,” it said.
He closed his eyes again.
This time when he opened them, something had changed. There were no windows, but this was only a wooden shelter and there were gaps in it. He could tell there was something wrong with the light outside. It was flashing, on and off in quick succession. A strobe light.
He tried to gather his wits. He was sure that his city had been hit by an atomic bomb, and that he had survived. He studied the messages again. Could an atomic blast throw you through time, in the same way that it might throw you across distance? Had he survived because he had been thrown clear of the destruction into the future?
Then how had he appeared to those who had now taken hold of him? He had not seen anyone else, because to him, they were moving too fast to see. But to them, he would have appeared slow, immobile even. No one could have moved him. He would soon have been found as rescue teams entered the ruins looking for survivors, and people would have taken an interest.
They had tripped him deliberately, he suspected, and would have had more than enough time to give him a soft landing, and build a temporary shelter around him. The only question was how much time. How far had he been thrown? And when would he finally come to rest?
The strobe effect was day and night, he decided. They were right that he was decelerating. In the seconds after the blast he could not tell them apart, but he was beginning to slow down. He found it impossible to count the days.
There was an itch on his forehead, but otherwise he found himself uninjured. And he felt sure that the flashing outside was beginning to slow down.
And then he became aware of a presence. There was a figure at the foot of his bed. It must have been staying still for long periods, purely in the hope that he could see it. But not still enough. He could see only a blur, of approximately the same size and shape of a human being. He wondered if this was Amelia.
For now, there was nothing he could do, and nothing they could do. They could not even feed him–any food they left would rot long before he saw it. All either party could do was wait. He closed his eyes again, and immediately saw nothing but the fires of his city, whose fuel was the people he loved.
He opened his eyes when he became aware of a high-pitched noise, like a tape reel being played too fast. He could guess what it was. They must have been speaking slowly as possible, perhaps in fact playing a tape as slowly as they could, but he still could not understand it as speech.
He wondered if they would have more luck with his own, and uttered a single word. “Year,” he said, as quickly as possible.
It was a few seconds before he realised that the number had been added to the blackboard. “1950,” he read, although as he looked, the “0” was altered to a “1”. He wondered if there had been enough time for another war (for he had no doubt that the destruction of his city had ended the last one).
The figure at the foot of his bed was becoming more and more distinct. He was sure that it was a woman, probably the Amelia who had signed her name on the blackboard. She was not Japanese, and he supposed that she was American. One of the new rulers of his country.
He concentrated on the noise, presuming that she would be speaking in English. But when he finally made sense of it, he realised that it was his own language.
“Can you understand me yet?” she was saying.
“Yes,” he said, as quickly as possible.
She was wearing a nurse’s uniform, and had brownish hair tied back in a bun. He still couldn’t make out any of her features. The itch on his forehead was becoming more irritating, although he already suspected what it was.
The number on the blackboard changed to 1952, but she made no further attempt to communicate with him for now. But as the minutes passed, he became certain that she was smiling.
When they finally tried to communicate again, they took little interest in himself and the horrors he had just seen, and were interested only in what might have happened to him. It was not the nurse who was talking to him, but as he had suspected, an adjusted recording. “Where were you exactly?” they asked. “What were you doing? Were you part of any classified military experiment?”
He was unable to help them, and often just shrugged. He had no idea why he alone had been spared from death. He guessed that it was just chance, that the survivors of an explosion are always randomly selected. They had not had time to test the effects of an atomic explosion on a human being. Or rather, he was the test.
He addressed his own questions to the nurse, whom he could now see more accurately. She could not yet answer, and probably could not hear him without technical help. But she continued to hold still so he could see who cared for him. And he found that he could now count the days, for it was at the beginning of a new night when she kissed him on the forehead.
When finally she answered him, he knew that it would not be long before he reached normal speed, although by then it was 1953. He already knew what she was trying to say, and finally managed to make it out above the otherwise unintelligible noise.
“Amelia,” she was saying.
He repeated his own name, as fast as possible. “Hideyoshi Kita,” he said. No one had asked him this.
It took him some time before he realised that she had replied, “I know.”
By now he was hungry, but he was not sure it was a good idea to eat until he had reached his normal speed, and he still felt too shocked from his experience to do so.
He hardly dared talk to Amelia. He considered her a supernatural being, who had whisked him from his death and now watched over him perpetually. But as he approached normal speed, he had to know what had happened.
“You won the war,” he said, when communication had become easier.
“No,” she replied. “We stopped it.” By now he had no trouble understanding her words, although she was still running fast.
“Why have you stayed?” he asked. “You are still here after eight years.”
“I like your country,” she said. “And I like my job. And I’ve waited a long time to talk to you.”
She must have aged, he thought, unlike himself. But it did not show much, perhaps just a few lines on her face, but he had never been able to see it clearly enough to tell.
He learnt that she was an army nurse who had been dispatched to Hiroshima immediately after the Japanese surrender (something died inside Hideyoshi’s heart at the mere mention of the phrase). She had been in the party that discovered his immobile form by accident, but had accepted when offered the opportunity to stay with him.
“How can you be kind?” he asked her, genuinely puzzled. “After such an act of barbarity, how can you show kindness to those you tried to kill?”
She had no answer.
The day that he finally reckoned he had caught up with the rest of the world, he ate ravenously. No longer was Amelia a blur to him, but a real presence whom he could touch and talk. She did not seem to be in his room for as long as he had thought–when he first noticed her, he thought she must have been there permanently–but she continued to kiss him on the forehead each night, as she had done for eight years.
“Do your scientists talk to you about me?” he asked her one day.
“Sometimes,” she said.
He had in fact seen little of them. Most of their tests must have been in the early years, and they must have thought they had little new to discover now that he was no longer an impossibility but was instead a mere human being.
“Do they use the phrase–” He tried to remember. “Simple harmonic motion?”
She stiffened, and he knew that his guess was correct.
“When I throw a rock in the air,” he said, “the rock moves quickly. But as it climbs, it loses speed. Finally, for a split second, an immeasurable point in time, it stops.”
He looked at her, to see if she understood.
She completed his train of thought for him. “And then it falls back down,” she said.
“You are getting slower.”
“And you are getting faster.” It was clear that she did not want to admit this.
“Neither of these is true. I am slowing down, until I reach the point where I stop, and then begin to accelerate back into the past.”
“That is what they say.”
“Then we must soon part company.”
He could not tell if she was nodding slowly, or if it only appeared so.
Both of them knew when he had reached his final day.
It was becoming difficult to understand her, although he did not have the same difficulty he had had when she was too fast. He must be causing that kind of difficulty to her.
At night she gave him the usual kiss. He had long since given up trying to understand her motive for it. He had always assumed it was platonic, merely a fond gesture towards a favourite patient. This time, it felt as if she knew he would not be there in the morning.
And then, to his astonishment, with unbearable slowness, she climbed on top of him. He did not believe he could perform under such circumstances, but he found that he was as eager as she was. He had to move with terrible slowness to avoid hurting her, but he found that this was in itself an exquisite form of pleasure, and as she became more and more immobile, he found himself more and more excited. The expression that was freezing on her face was unreadable, he could not tell if it was one of pleasure or of mourning. And he was not even put off when the door opened and a semi-naked man walked backwards into the room. He had been expecting it.
The moment of climax was the still point, where the rock hangs in the air before its change of direction. For a split second his two selves merged, and time stopped. And then he rolled off the bed and left through the door, not looking back, taking the first steps on his journey back to 1945.
He could still survive. If he were swinging like a pendulum, he could pass straight through the year and head back into the past, decelerating and finally coming to a halt, then moving back towards the future again. In theory this could happen indefinitely, but in practice, there was always some kind of resistance or friction. Sooner or later, he would come to a stop in 1945. And hopefully, find himself moving forward in time at the correct speed.
Provided, of course, he was not a rock that hit the ground, in the form of the blast that had sent him flying in the first place. All he had to do was ensure that he was not in Hiroshima at the time of the bomb.
Every time he passed that moment, he would be passing the deaths of his family, the destruction of his whole life. Did they know? Would his parents know as they died that he had fled? Would anyone in the future know?
And it was only then that he realised that he may have conceived a child.
As soon as he had thought this, it over-ran all his other thoughts, all his plans and theories. He felt now that he was deserting his own child and its mother, as surely as he had deserted his family in 1945. Amelia must have thought he had just vanished. What would her child make of him?
There must be a way of sending it a message. Boy or girl, it was to take care of its mother, to look after her. He began to think of ways in which he could transmit such a message, but already he knew that there was only one way.
History is one long message to the future, he thought. By our own actions, we tell the future how it should act. We provide lessons, instructions, examples.
Hiroshima would be forever the centre of history. Nothing that anyone did afterwards could happen without taking it into account. All the deaths would forever be a lesson to humanity. And he must make his stand with them.
The rock is motionless in the air for a split second in time. Does it, for that, belong there?
His child would know one thing about its father. It would know that he had had an opportunity to run, to leave his friends and family–yes, even his own mother–and run. He had had the opportunity to take the coward’s way out, and he had not taken it.
He began to walk to the centre of Hiroshima.
It was difficult to tell how fast things were moving when they were moving in reverse. Behind him was a wooden shelter in which scientists examined a human being like a chemist’s experiment, and a nurse tended to her patient, unaware of the future. With such a mother, showing kindness to the defeated, and such a father, giving his life as a lesson to humanity, the child of the future had nothing to fear. There could never be another such bomb. (Of course, it was too late to ask Amelia about that.)
He began to run, aware that he was moving faster than he should be. He was no longer in simple harmonic motion. Rather, the blast was reclaiming its own. He ran back towards his people, the ones with whom he would forever be counted.
He was moving as if through a dream, and perhaps he was. Perhaps in the last split second of our death, he thought, we get one last opportunity, to choose between being the person we are, and the person we should be.
There were fires around him now, and he cried out as they grew, and burnt his flesh. And then there was only the light.