Flash Fiction

Short Fiction

We're Running Out of Bootstraps (flash fiction)

“Madam Director? We have a problem.”


“Beethoven. A research squad was sent to observe his composition processes, but he wasn’t there.”

“What period?”

“1802 onward. He’s simply-”

“Calm down, Ms Hart. I’ve seen this before. Who do we have on staff who can play piano?”

“Well, there’s old Norris Friar. Works in time-stream stabilisation. He’s quite good, actually. I heard him play at the office Christmas party. And he knows a bit of German.”

“Does he have field experience?”

“Let me… oh. His records with the department are sealed. Sanitised temporal missions, most likely.”

“Perfect. Here’s what we’re going to do. Fill out form D-37 and schedule Friar for emergency facial surgery. Then run forms BB-2 and BB-5 to head office, have them signed in triplicate, and organise a cache of all of Beethoven’s sheet music, as well as period-appropriate currency. Friar will need, oh, say, eight hundred marks. If we don’t have enough in the store-room, send a team back to retrieve some direct from the bank of Hamburg. And an acting coach! He’ll need to pretend to be deaf.”

“You’re making Friar into Beethoven?”

“Classic bootstrap, Hart. Never fails.”


“Madam Director?”

“What now, Hart?”

“It’s Mozart.”


“We don’t know when it happened, but there’s simply no trace.”

“Do we have anyone else who can play piano?”

“Friar was our best. He’ll be back on Tuesday’s timestream, but he’s lived in the 1800s for twenty years. Much too old to play the part.”

“This is a problem. Do you know when Friar learned to play?”

“He said once he’d been practicing since childhood, but-”

“Listen, Hart. This is important. We have to go back and interact with an existing agent’s timeline, which means forms P-22, P-23 and XX-Lambda. All in triplicate. We need to locate Friar at an appropriate age… thirteen should do, accounting for slippage. And we’ll need to teach him period-German.”

“You’re taking a child and-”

“This is how bootstraps work, Hart. We only need him to play Mozart for ten, twelve years, and then he can come back as a young adult with a fat pension.”

“But weren’t Mozart and Beethoven contemporaries?”

“Shit. Fill out a form for emergency intersection and shoot an agent back five weeks to tell me to tell Friar not to speak to Mozart when he’s playing Beethoven.”

“The higher-ups won’t like this-”

“Hart, I’ve received more than enough communications from our department ten years down-stream to know that everything I do now only leads to more promotions. Our choices have been sanctioned by the future. Get it done.”


“Madam Director, I’m so sorry, but-”

“Who is it this time?”


“Jog my memory. Was he important?”

“He’s not remembered as well as Mozart or Beethoven, but he was instrumental in the creation of chamber music.”

“So we can’t just let him-”

“Also, he taught Beethoven.”

“This is getting complicated.”

“That’s what I said last week, Madam Director.”

“Quiet, Hart. Let me think. Haydn was twenty years older than Mozart. That means we can retrieve Friar as soon as he returns from his period as Mozart, put him under the knife-”

“That’s another D-37?”

“So long as he and the later Friar look different enough, he can be Beethoven’s teacher without ever knowing.”

“Forcing an agent to teach himself, in the field…”

“Well, now we know why his records were sealed. Make sure that, when Friar returns from playing Haydn, we dump him at least twenty-four months ago. Get him a job with time-stream stabilisation. Far enough back so I won’t know I did it.”

“We’re risking some major tangles, Madam Director-”

“Just get it done, Ms Hart.”



“Yes, Madam Director?”

“Are all the great composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century where they should be?”

“As far as I know.”

“Have we located the bodies of the original Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven yet?”

“Teams are still searching-”

“If they’d ever found them, they’d have reported by now. I don’t like not having control over the situation.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Something drastic. Get me three copies of form G-22.”

“You can’t be-”

“It has to be done. For consistency, for history, for the stability of the universe. Now, we’ll need a field agent with language skills, a talent for blending in…”

“Friar just got back from being Beethoven.”

“Do you think he can effectively dispose of a body?”

“He’s spent almost fifty years of his life play-acting in the reign of the Habsburgs. I think he’d relish the chance to kill his way across Germany.”

“I trust your judgement, Hart. Schedule three jumps – one to remove the original Mozart, one for Haydn, one for Beethoven. Oh, and Hart-”


“They can never be found.”


Friar was back, now almost seventy years old and sick to death of the Germans. He’d thrilled the Salzburg courts as Mozart, given birth to the modern symphony as Haydn, taught Beethoven before returning to become Beethoven, and then skipped back along his own timeline to vanish the originals. Three musical legacies secured. No major anomalies. Time had not imploded.

The director leaned back in her chair, content for the first time in months, and felt a ring of cold steel press against the nape of her neck.

She knew. “Ms Hart?”

“Madam Director. I’m sorry.”

“This is impossible. I’ve received reports from the future. I’m the director for another ten years-”

“Twelve, actually. But things got too tangled. Orders came from twenty years down-stream. You have to go.”

“Whose orders?”

“Officially, or unofficially?”


“Your orders. You sent the command back. Form C-3, and a D-37. The C-3 is your kill-order, and the D-37…”

She nodded. “You take my face. Very neat. Which makes you the future director. Which means you authorised your own promotion.”

“Classic bootstrap.”

“You learned from the best, Hart. But what if I filled out my own C-3 and sent Friar back to stop you?”

Hart paused. A quaver of uncertainty crept into her voice. “You didn’t.”

“No.” The director closed her eyes and smiled. “Not yet.”

– – –

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