Chronomancy Department of the Linguistic Protectorate by JM Paquette

For Zhenya

They knew that they will meet each other, and it will change their life.

I read the line again, my brain struggling to make sense of the timing. “Zahara?” I asked, looking up to my field agent, trying to decide if this was another of her language related mix-ups or if she genuinely meant what she said. My face must have shown my hesitation.

“Don’t make that face at me,” she scolded, her accent impeccable as always. “I can practically hear you thinking.”

“Did you mean that they know they will meet at some point, and the meeting will be life-changing?” I tried to clarify.

Zahara scowled. “No, Miss English Grammar Nazi. I meant what I said. They knew it will happen.”

“Would happen,” I corrected gently.

“No. Will happen. This is not the subjunctive mood. This is a definite thing, not a wish or a hope.” She paused to make sure I was listening, then added, “Nor is it contrary to fact.”

I shook my head. “But how can you be so sure? The future isn’t set. It’s always in motion.” I paused again, then asked, “Isn’t it?”

Zahara was shaking her head in that sad slow way of a person with far superior knowledge as she marveled at my ignorance. “Do you ever even look around?” She gestured at the sign that we both could see through the glass walls of the front office. “You work in the Chronomancy Department of the Linguistic Protectorate.”

I shrugged. “I know. But it’s just a fancy name for what we do.”

She narrowed her eyes at me. “And just what do you think we do here?”

I shrugged again. “It’s just fancy advertising and clever wordplay.” I recited the company motto: “We protect the words of yesterday so they remain for tomorrow.”

Zahara was nodding at me slowly, willing me to grasp some fundamental concept. “And how do you think we do that?”

“You rescue books that are in danger of being destroyed?” I’d always seen Zahara as a glorified librarian, a rescuer of old volumes of forgotten lore. It was a great gig. I’d seen her travel expenses.

“Destroyed by what?” she prompted, not willing to let it go quite yet.

“Time?” I replied, a little bit of snark creeping into my voice.

“For someone so smart, you really are quite dumb,” she finally decided. She reached out to turn my head to see the sign again. “Chronomancy.” She said the word slowly, enunciating each syllable.

“Time,” I repeated.

“Time travel,” she corrected.

I shook my head at her, something inside me bubbling up and then disappearing just as quickly. “Huh?”

“Nevermind,” she grumbled. She pointed to the file I was working on. “Just leave the document as is, ok? They will meet. It is a certainty.” I stared at her, disbelief plain on my face. She rolled her eyes. “I’ve seen it.” She put her hands up in disgust. “Look, we’ve already had this conversation a few times. Each time it seems to get harder for you to understand. Time is wearing thin here.” She looked away from me to something I couldn’t see, then back in my direction, her face sympathetic. “This is why you could never be an agent. Time erodes too quickly around you.” The softness faded from her face. “It’s all we can do to keep the words consistent with you around.”

“But—“ I tried to say something, anything to bring the world back into focus.

She shushed me. “It’s fine. In a few minutes, you won’t remember this at all.” She pursed her lips. “Poor thing.” There was another of those long pauses as I just sat there, staring at her. “Still, better we have you here where we can keep an eye on you than out there wreaking havoc on the space-time continuum like your sister.”

“Sister?” I didn’t have any family.

There was that flash of sympathy again, and I had the feeling that I had seen that look a dozen times before, in that very same way, in this very moment. The world started to fade away, my ears buzzing, eyes cloudy, and then I was back, staring at the file on my desk with eyes blurred with fatigue.

“Zahara?” I asked, turning to my field agent. “I don’t think this is what you mean…”

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