Plumes of smoke drifted across the clear summer sky, carrying with them the acrid smell of still-burning fires. Below, narrow streets winded among facades riddled with holes, pavement stones upturned by tank treads wherever the lumbering mechanical beetles had struggled to turn some corner. Here, a lamp post leaned against a partially collapsed house, where an artillery shell had pierced the wall and exploded, scattering blackened bricks every which way. There, water gurgled out of the exposed pipework of what had been a lovely public fountain, forming pools in the tattered shadow of an awning.
There was no sound but for the crackling of flames; at least, not until the rapping of boots echoed among the endless files of three-story buildings. Two dozen soldiers marched as orderly as the torn ground allowed for, peeking nervously at the gloom behind broken windows while they fingered the straps of rifles. But there was nothing to see, not even the flapping of a pigeon's wings.
Until, that is, they came across a smaller rowhouse, tucked away between more imposing neighbors, and remarkably intact, from the flower beds in the front to the immaculate curtains billowing in the top floor balcony. The front entrance was even locked, unlike most others in town, as one of them established by shaking the handle. He looked back on the rest of his troop, straightened his shoulders, and pounded on the door with a balled up fist.
Somebody even answered.
It was a fairly young man, of average height and build, with brown eyes and hair, wearing a dressing gown over threadbare trousers and house slippers. He appeared to have been interrupted while grooming himself, and required a palpable amount of time to take in the devastated street, never mind the uniformed people blocking it.
"...May I help you?" he asked.
The officer rolled his eyes. "This is now a restricted military area following the annexation. You're on the wrong side of the border... sir."
"I had a drink too many last night," stated the host.
"Bet you he's a spy, sarge," a voice from the back rose among laughter. "Just shoot him and let's go."
The officer rolled his eyes again. "I'm afraid you'll have to follow us."
The host stared blearily at the unfamiliar khakis, seemingly trying to count the pips on the man's epaulets. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"
"Sarge, watch out!"
Stopped in the middle of lifting his sleeve, the officer looked up to see one of his men point a pistol at the host, while grabbing his wrist with the off hand. But all that came out of the dressing gown's pocket was a short chain, from which hung a perfectly ordinary timepiece.
"What have we here?" He dangled the shiny object for everyone to see, before reaching for the latch.
"No, wait!" The host seemed more awake now, enough so to look distinctly worried.
"Or what?" snickered the soldier. "Finder's keeper's."
He flipped the lid open. A moment later, his eyes went wide, his face white, mouth opening in a silent cry as he dropped the pistol to clutch at his chest, then fell to his knees, and finally face down on the cobblestones.
Only a buzzing bee broke the sudden silence. The moment passed.
"Ian, check up on Vasy." The sergeant's own pistol came out before he'd finished speaking. "What did you do to him, mister?"
The man took a step back. "You don't understand. I... Wait, don't!"
Having shaken his comrade's shoulder to no avail, the second soldier gave up for a moment and reached for the pocket watch now lying open on the ground. One look and he started sweating. His hand shot up to the uniform's collar and tugged until the brass button popped. It didn't help; he crumbled soon after.
"Damned thing is booby-trapped!" exclaimed one of the others, with one less stripe on his sleeve than the sergeant. "You four, carry Ian and Vasy."
After a brief hesitation, he proceeded to mount the bayonet to his rifle, with which he carefully hooked up the chain, trying not to look directly at the clock face. Nothing bad happened.
"Good thinking, corporal." The sergeant nodded approvingly before turning to his own charge again. "Now move."
"I don't think it will let me," the man protested, hands in the air. The pistol pointed at him begged to disagree, so he turned away from the door and took a few steps.
Behind him, the corporal tripped, his rifle clattering on the pavement while the timepiece rolled free only to stop at the feet of its owner. He looked back on his captor -- a mute question -- and, taking the latter's slight shrug for an answer, he started bending down.
With a strangled cry, the corporal rushed him, lunging with his bayoneted rifle. It struck true, impaling the man's midsection. Their eyes met for a long moment, then the weapon withdrew. There was no blood on it, nor did the victim give any signs of pain. But then the blade started sizzling. Before half a minute had passed it was reduced to a useless lump of rust.
And the watch was in the man's hand again.
The sergeant shot him. Just like that, without another word, he fired three times. From a few steps away, he couldn't possibly miss.
Somehow, the bullets instead struck his own men who had taken point.
"Told you so," the local man said. He walked back to his door, conspicuously checking the time.
"What the hell are you?" the officer asked dryly.
"I'm a prisoner. And I'm going to be punished for failing in my duties last night. But you... you are running out of time."
In the distance, a bell struck seven times. The officer shuddered. They hadn't been in town for an hour.
"Whose prisoner?" he insisted.
"Haven't you guessed yet? This town doesn't belong to us any more than it belongs to you. That's why the border has always passed straight through."
As the rising sun touched its tip, the little fountain at the next corner sprung to life. It filled abnormally fast, then the water was spilling through a breach in the rim... flowing their way... filling the street.
"Everyone pull back! Retreat! Let's get out of here! Leave the dead, we have to move fast!"
"But they're alive, sarge. Ian and Vasy, they're breathing."
"And the others?"
The soldier's expression was answer enough. They stumbled in disarray back the way they had come, while a few buildings away a barbershop pole started spinning, and the gramophone in the window of a cafe blared a song as cheerful as it was discordant. Still nobody was in sight apart from the man in the dressing gown.
"People like you come and go, sergeant!" shouted the latter. "But places like these endure. And you can't shoot time itself."
Everyone ignored him. Someone else was coming up the street presently: an old man dressed in black, tall and thin, calmly wading through the ankle-high water with an hourglass in hand. The sergeant's thoughts flashed back to the antique timepiece shop he had deemed safe to ignore, mistaking its decrepitude for abandonment. They ran left, then right, along twisty side streets, but somehow the rising water kept finding them.
"Which way, sarge?"
"Somehow, corporal, I think that's the wrong question."
A fat crow perched on a telephone wire cocked its head at them and cawed three times.