A wonderful way to start the new year, Bierce thought as he faced the firing squad.
There had been no solemn ceremony, no marching of the prisoner to the post, no last cigarette. The fat colonel had merely picked out three men and ordered them to load their rifles. They set up beside a decrepit stone bridge over a dry creek, waiting for the prisoner to be tied to a stake used in better times to tether horses.
No one offered him a blindfold. Bierce had come to Mexico with his eyes open, and would go out the same way.
He thought about protesting again, telling the colonel once more that he was an American, a noncombatant. But the man had been unmoved and was unlikely to care. As far as he was concerned, Bierce was with Pancho Villa’s army, and his nationality was irrelevant. The colonel no doubt saw himself as a patriot.
“Combustible rubbish,” Bierce murmured, his old phrase coming back to haunt him. He felt unafraid. People had fired guns at him before. Some had even hit him. Others probably had wished they could. Leland Stanford, for instance would have gladly shot him — or more likely, would have hired someone to do it. “Bitter Bierce,” they had called him, and he had been secretly proud of the name.
A sudden wind lifted dust to swirl around them, the grit stinging his eyes. He wondered idly if he’d be the first man to die in 1914 by gunfire. His faith in the human race told him he wouldn’t be the last.
The colonel barked an order to his soldiers. The three men lifted their rifles smartly, preferring this duty to shooting at rebels, who would fire back. Judging by their deportment, it was easy to see that Villa would ultimately prevail.
The colonel stepped back. Then, he barked the command to fire.
Bierce shut his eyes and braced for the impact of the bullets. Kennesaw Mountain, he thought, trying to remember how the bullets had felt back then. But the Civil War was half a century ago and he found he had no recollection of the pain.
Bierce waited. There was no sound of gunfire, he realized. No sound of the wind. In fact, no sounds at all.
The name was mispronounced. It irritated him. He opened his eyes.
A small man with black hair and large goggles that made him look like an owl was standing in front of him, smiling slightly. “Mr. Ambrose Bierce?”
Bierce was unimpressed. “I never believed in you, sir, and I’m not going to begin now.”
The man looked confused. “Believe in me? Who do you think I am?”
“Satan,” said Bierce. “It’s hardly likely God would send an angel for the likes of me.”
The man laughed. “I’m no angel. My name’s Peyton. Fred Peyton.”
“I must admit I never believed in the afterlife,” said Bierce, “but seeing you at this moment indicates I may have been mistaken.”
“Afterlife?” The man gave a short, smug laugh. “You’re not dead. Look.” He stepped aside.
Bierce saw the soldiers. They were frozen into statues, wisps of smoke issuing from their guns. He could spot tiny dots in midair a few feet from the muzzles.
They hung in the air, defying time and gravity.
“They haven’t reached you yet,” Peyton said. “I’m here to make sure they never do reach you. You see, Mr. Bierce,” he went on, a knowing superiority in his tone, “I’m from the future.”
Bierce found the manner irritating. “That period of time,” he quoted, “in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true, and our happiness is assured.”
“Oh, it isn’t all that good. But we do appreciate your talents.”
Not enough to recognize my words, Bierce thought. “What are you planning to do?”
“Rescue you, of course.” Peyton nodded over to his left. A small structure, the size of a two-hole privy, stood along the side of the bridge; it hadn’t been there when Bierce had been led to be slaughtered. “My time machine. You see, it’s a device–“
“I have heard of H. G. Wells,” Bierce said.
“That’s great. I’ve come to take you with me.”
Bierce thought about it. “And what shall you do with me there?”
“Whatever you want to do. You’ll be famous.”
Conspicuously miserable, thought Bierce, but did not say it. It was unlikely that Peyton would recognize that quote, either.
“You could write some more of your stories,” Peyton prattled on. “And there are plenty of Bierce scholars who’d love to meet you. Others will be delighted to get eyewitness testimony about life during this time. The era before the world wars is a very hot time period right now.”
World wars? The idea didn’t surprise Bierce; neither did the plural. He felt very tired. “And what do you expect to get in return?”
“Why, nothing, Mr. Bierce. Only the satisfaction of saving a revered literary figure and allowing him to create again.”
Money, thought Bierce. Lots of it, judging by the amount of flattery in Peyton’s statement.
He paused. It could be he was mistaken about Peyton. Maybe The Devil’s Dictionary had been forgotten. It had, after all, been almost an afterthought for him. “Have you ever read any of my work?”
Peyton laughed. “I’m afraid not. I handle the science end; I can barely keep up on the technical journals.”
Everything fit into the same depressing pattern. “I’m not sure I’m going to like this future,” he muttered.
“Oh, don’t worry. In my time, you’d still be considered a young man. You could live another forty years — forty years of riches and fame. You’ll live quite well, Mr. Bierce, I can assure you of that.”
It was all very tempting. He had talked about wanting to die down here, but now that the bullets were flying his way, he wasn’t surprised he felt differently.
“Now,” said Peyton, “I can undo those ropes and–“
“No,” Bierce said. “I shall not go anywhere.”
Peyton paused. “What do you mean?”
“What I said. I know you lie, and I will not get caught in this trap.”
“Trap? What are you talking about?”
“This is not really occurring. It’s just a figment of my imagination, the last thoughts of my dying brain.”
“Wherever did you get that idea?”
Give me strength, thought Bierce. “I wrote a story about it once,” he said very quietly.
“But this is real.”
“So my protagonist thought. I will not to spend my last few instants dreaming a false hope of rescue.”
“But I assure you–“
“Go away,” said Bierce. “Let me die in peace.”
Peyton was perplexed. “But you don’t have to–“
“Enough. Just leave me alone. I wish I hadn’t been fool enough to conjure you up.”
The consternation of Peyton’s face was quite satisfying. “What can I do to convince you?”
“Nothing,” said Bierce. “Anything you do is just a product of my imagination.”
“Isn’t it worth the chance? What if you’re wrong?”
Bierce shrugged. “Then my death would be very ironic, wouldn’t it? I always liked irony.”
“Aren’t you willing to give it a try?”
“No,” said Bierce firmly. “Even if you are real, you’re not doing this to help me. It’s to enrich yourself, no doubt.”
“How can you know that?”
“Because you are human, which means there’s no hope for you. I don’t want to spend my life as a trained monkey in your exhibition.” He nodded at the firing squad. “Now please move away and let them put an end to this.”
“You’re throwing your life away!”
“Am I? Well, once I do so, I won’t be in a position to miss it.”
Peyton seemed to seethe, unable to comprehend that his offer wasn’t accepted. “You can’t do this!”
The reaction pleased Bierce. “I can do whatever I want.”
The imaginary man — as Bierce was beginning to think of him — looked ready to continue to argue, but was interrupted by a loud Klaxon-horn. “I can’t stop time for much longer. You have to decide now.”
“I have already decided.”
Peyton knew. Bierce could see defeat hanging all around him. He seemed to want to say something, but the words wouldn’t come out. Peyton shook his head, then walked toward his privy box. A few feet from it, he stopped. “How did you become so cynical?”
Bierce could answer that easily. “Chickamauga.”
“A battle,” he said. No reason to enlighten the man as to the details. There had never been a bloodier day, and if it was ever surpassed — well, Bierce didn’t want to be around to know. “I saw how brutal man could be, how easy it was for men to die.” How many dead? he wondered. It didn’t matter. In addition to the corpses, there was one more casualty: his idealism.
“There has to be a limit to cynicism.”
“So far, mine hasn’t even come close to being enough.” He nodded. World wars, he thought. People never learn. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I would like to meet my death with a little dignity.”
Peyton seemed about to say more, but the sound of the Klaxon-horn grew more shrill and insistent. “You are a very bitter man, Mr. Bierce.”
“Thank you,” said Bierce. “Goodbye, sir.” If this was ironic, so be it.
He shut his eyes and awaited the bullets.
“If you hear of my being stood against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it a pretty good way to depart this life.” –Ambrose Bierce, December 13, 1913
Chuck Rothman’s fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, Galaxy, Aboriginal SF, and elsewhere. He lives in Schenectady with his wife Susan, daughter Lisa, and cat Lightning and works as Webmaster at Siena College and as treasurer of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. For more about him, see his Web site.