PEACE FOR OUR TIMES • by Chris Ovenden

“One hundred days,” I say as the prime minister leafs through the contract I’d given him. He scans the pages through a pair of black rimmed spectacles held in front of his nose with a chubby white fist.

He looked much as I had expected him to: black suit and bowtie, slouched in his chair with a cigar wedged between his fingers. The office we were in seemed rather humble for his station, though. A cramped little dungeon, dotted with wooden posts to hold up the floor above. The walls were mostly bare, save for a bookshelf and a few photographs and newspaper clippings, soon to be replaced by sprawling maps of a world at war, no doubt.

“One hundred days,” I say again, “split into no less than three hundred nights, spread out over the next ten years. We’d work out a schedule for you, arrange your transport.”

The prime minister lays the contract down on the desk and tucks his glasses away into his jacket. “And what would I be doing on these nights, exactly?” One got the impression that there was a little too much flesh in his mouth when he spoke.

“Dinner parties, public speaking.” I shrug. “Who’s to say, it’s all down to the client’s personal tastes.”

It was usually best not to think about what clients might want to do with the escorts.

“You’re a celebrity, or at least you will be. People in the future want your time. They want to show you off to their friends, spend their evenings talking to you over a glass of whisky. We just facilitate that demand. We take you to the people who want to meet you most.”

He goes back to looking at the contract, straightening it up with his fingertips so that its bottom edge runs parallel to the desk.

“Suppose I sign. What’s in it for me?”

“Everything.” I say with a grin.

“You’re talking about the war.”

I nod. “And more. We ensure that things go as they’re supposed to, that all your efforts are successful. We make sure that you become the man that our clients want to meet.”

He pops his cigar into his mouth and strikes a match to light it.

“So I sign this, and the war ends before it even starts.”

“Ha! That wouldn’t be very theatrical now, would it? No, there most certainly will be a war, I’m afraid, and there will be casualties. But we’ll be there to make sure the right side wins.”

“And if I refuse this… generous offer of yours? What then? I mean, who’s to say we need your help?”

I flash the prime minister another grin, then stand up and step over to my right to inspect the pictures on the wall.

“Wonderful shot, this,” I say, pointing to a framed newspaper clipping. Its headline piece shows a skeletal man in an old suit triumphantly waving a sheet of paper above his head like a tiny white flag.

“Fascinating man, your predecessor,” I say, leaning in a little closer so that I can see the white streaks in the old premier’s hair. “He turned us down. We made him a similar offer, not long before this was taken actually. Hundred days, win the war.”

I take the frame off the wall and hold it in my hands, running a thumb over the old man’s face. “Such a shame.”

We really had made the old PM an offer, and he really had turned us down. Of course, we always knew that he would. Did he even have a choice?

“Peace for our time,” I say, holding the picture up to the prime minister. “We all know how that turned out, don’t we.”

I set the picture back on the wall and return to my chair. The prime minister glowers at me from across the desk, chewing on his cigar like he’s trying to eat it.

“We could always talk to your friend on the continent,” I say. “I hear he’s keen on this sort of thing. Not our first choice, of course, but we can make do. Time has a strong current prime minister, but even the greatest rivers can be diverted.”

He scowls and takes out his pen.

Chris Ovenden teaches philosophy at the University of Manchester, UK. When he isn’t marking papers he likes to write flash fiction about robots, time travel and possible worlds.

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