Been busy this last week getting a bunch of stuff ready for Thunder Valley Press to publish, so I’m a little later than I’d like getting the Free Fiction Thursday story up. But hey! It’s still Thursday, so we’re good!
This week’s free story is a science fiction tale about Langford Russell, the first man who traveled back in time. Facing a forced retirement before he’s anywhere near ready, Landford finds himself confronted with the possibility that the time travel program he helped pioneer has a far more sinister purpose than merely observing history.
Published by Thunder Valley Press
Copyright 2010 by Annie Reed
“Are you going to miss it? Being a hero?”
I heard snickers and groans, pretty typical for a crowded classroom full of nine-year-olds. I’ve been in enough of them over the years to know. These days the desks are all molded plastic, clean-lined, ergonomic, not the knee-scraping wood and metal-framed contraptions I grew up with. The cafeteria smell’s gone, too; now it’s the smell of too many bodies crowded together in too small a space. Everything’s more crowded these days.
The girl who’d asked me the question, a pretty thing with braids in her auburn hair and shaved patches the size of my thumb on the sides of her skull — the newest thing in fashion, my granddaughter tells me – blushed a bit but managed to keep looking at me.
“Children!” That was the teacher, a harried woman whose face — lined around her mouth, weary shadows underneath her eyes — looked every one of her middle-aged sixty or so years.
“That’s okay, that’s okay,” I said. I held my hands up in a shushing gesture and the room quieted down. I smiled at the girl with the braids and naked strips of pink scalp. “It’s a legitimate question. Not the first time I’ve been asked, so don’t go getting embarrassed, no matter what these guys think.” I winked at her and she smiled back. I still had some of my old charm. At least it still seemed to work on nervous nine-year-old girls.
“So are you?” she asked again.
Now it was my turn to blush a little. No matter how old I got, hero worship was something I’d never been comfortable with.
“Well, see… I don’t think of myself as a hero. Not at all. I’m just a workingman like everybody else. Sometimes I go talk to nice folks like you, and sometimes I go someplace in another time. It’s all just part of the job.”
“But aren’t you going to miss it? Going to other times?” This came from a boy farther back in the crowded classroom. He was thin — pretty much everybody’s thin these days, but I’m old enough to remember when a lot of people weren’t so I tend to notice — and had a rainbow-colored shock of hair over his left ear and forest green spiral body art covering his head where the rest of his hair should have been.
There were fewer giggles this time.
“Of course I’m going to miss it, but I’ve been working hard for the last seventy years or so. I think it’s about time I did some traveling in this time zone, see the world, enjoy my granddaughter and her children.”
That was my canned response. In truth I was going to miss the hell out of this job. I wasn’t ready to retire. I went to work like everybody else, did what I was told, then before I knew it enough years had gone by that now I was about to retire whether I wanted to or not. Nothing personal. It’s in the program. It’s your time.
Just didn’t feel like my time.
I answered a few more questions from the kids, standard stuff like–
–who’s the most famous person you ever met in the past? (Nobody as far as I know. Most of what we do is observe and record, no interaction, but there were a few trips I’m kinda fuzzy about, so who knows?)
–what’s the most exciting thing you did? (These days, waking up without a backache is pretty damn exciting, but I couldn’t tell nine-year-olds that. I made up a story about outrunning the bulls in Pamplona, and that seemed to get everybody laughing. Could just be the idea of me with my old man’s body outrunning anything, much less a bull.)
–do you ever change anything on purpose? (The stock answer is no, we don’t change anything, just observe. But I wouldn’t actually know. Just like everybody else, I flow with time; any changes made in the past become something that’s always been a part of my present.)
Eventually the classroom lights dimmed a bit and a warning tone signaled the end of class. The children gathered their datapads, their few paper books, and filed into the crowded hallway. I slid off the corner of the teacher’s desk and rubbed my sore rear end. The teacher walked up to me, holding out her hand. Her grip was firm, her skin rough.
“That was wonderful, Mr. Russell. You’re very good with children.”
“I’ve had a lot of practice.” More and more over the years. I was the most recognizable person who worked in the program. Langford Russell, the first man to go backwards in time.
The first guinea pig for the program, more like it.
I found another guinea pig waiting for me in the crowded hallway outside the classroom. Tall and thin and a good fifty years younger than me, William Gibb was a prime example of why I was sent to talk to a bunch of nine-year-olds. The program’s always needed new blood. There’s a lot of past to observe and record. I talked to William’s class more than a decade ago, and he was impressed enough that when he turned eighteen, he joined and became a time traveler like me.
I just wasn’t expecting to see him here today. It occurred to me that maybe he’d been sent to observe what I said to the class. Make sure the old coot didn’t let anything slip he shouldn’t. I didn’t much like that idea.
“Don’t you have better things to do than babysit a relic like me?” I asked.
William’s voice was softly accented. He could sound British or Irish or even Australian when he wanted. It was a good talent to have when you’re supposed to blend in. Me, these days I just look like everybody’s harmless grandfather. Put me in the right clothes, and I blend in damn well.
“Oh, no, nothing like that,” William said with a shy smile. “I looked up your schedule, knew you’d be here. There’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”
A sea of children flowed around us, laughing and chatting and shouting to each other. So many of them crowded in the hallway, I could barely hear myself think much less carry on a coherent conversation.
“Outside,” I said.
William nodded. Together we wound our way through the maze of hallways to the relative quiet outside the school. Not that it wasn’t noisy outside, too. The world was a pretty full place these days. People crowded the sidewalks, packed in cars on congested streets, worked in smaller and smaller cubicles only to go home to the tiny apartments they shared with family or friends or even just acquaintances. Privacy was fast becoming a rare commodity. It’s another reason I enjoyed all my trips to the past. I wondered sometimes if the people who lived back then appreciated all the wide open spaces. I know I sure did.
We managed to find a vacant spot on a bench at a bus stop about a half block away from the school. A city bus was just pulling away, its exhaust belching smelly black smoke. We’d have a few minutes before the next group of commuters started to congregate. I sat down at one end of the bench and William sat next to me.
“What’s so important you had to track me down out here? It couldn’t wait for my retirement party?”
Some people at work were throwing me a surprise party that afternoon. I wasn’t supposed to know about it, but it’s hard to keep something like that a secret even for people who are trained to keep their mouths shut.
William quirked an eyebrow at me in amusement. “Figured you might know about that. And no, I didn’t think this could wait.”