“I thought it was supposed to be bigger.”
“Well how should I know? This is what the guy at the shop gave me. It’s not like I ever saw one before.”
The two boys stared down at the black rectangle on the table, breathing in musty basement air. Marty, the older one, was twelve; Chester, his junior by only four months, was eagerly anticipating his birthday next week. The strange device in front of them was meant as part of Chester’s birthday present, along with the much larger box that the man in the antique shop had told Marty he’d need to use the thing, but so far Chester had showed little appreciation. He poked the boxlike object skeptically.
“But I thought all that old stuff was huge, like dinosaurs. My dad told me the computers used to take up whole rooms! And they had to use big cards with holes in them to put the numbers in. It’s all supposed to be big.”
“Well it goes in the big box. This thing is like one of those cards. That black tape inside has the picture on it, and the big thing is what you play it with.”
Chester seemed to accept this, poking his finger into the slot in the larger box, which was covered by a flap of hard plastic. “So how’s it work?”
“It has to get hooked up to the TV first. It’s an antique, remember? It’s got wires.”
“Does your TV even have wires?”
“Course not, but it’s got the place for some. My dad says it’s stupid but my mom says we need it ’cause Grandma hates wireless. She’s always coming over to show us her pictures, but she won’t use the beam on her album. She says the pictures might get lost in the air.” The two boys snickered at the thought. Marty plugged one end of a tangle of wires into the six ports on the wall. “Okay, hand me the player.”
Chester obeyed, pushing the larger black box over to Marty with the heels of his hands, stretching his body out like a worm. Marty took the device in hand and started turning it over and over while Chester lay down on his stomach and put his chin on his hand. “Did you find it yet?”
“No. They must put them in a different place.”
“Maybe it’s that black wire.”
“That’s the power, genius. You have to plug it into a grounder source.”
“What about those things on the back then?”
“That’s it. It’s probably only got two sound inputs.”
“So is anything even gonna play?”
“Of course it is! You think I woulda got it if it wasn’t going to play? We just need to give it some powerâ€¦ there. I knew my mom kept these old sources down here.”
“So what now?”
“Now we put it in.”
Marty picked up the cartridge from the floor. One edge had a flap on it that reminded him of the flap on the big box, so he pushed it in, that end first.
“Is it working?”
The TV flickered, the screen turning a different shade of black. The quiet hum of nothing issued from two of the speakers, the ones closest to the wall on either side. The others stayed deadly silent.
“Is that it?”
“I dunnoâ€¦ maybe we didn’t do it riâ€””
The screen suddenly flared to life, going white and grey and grainy, a visual mish-mash that changed the quality of light playing over the two shocked faces. There was only a split second of delay before the sound came through, blaring white noise from the two forward speakers. Both boys jumped and Marty quickly turned the volume down. The low thrum of static filled the room as they stared at the screen.
At last, Marty broke the not-silence with a snort of disgust.
“Guess I got gypped. Man, what a waste. This is why they don’t make this stupid stuff anymore. C’mon, let’s go find something better to do. I shoulda known this thing wouldn’t work.”
Chester stayed silent, still blinking in the wake of the strange white light.
“Chester? Come on. I’ll get you a better birthday present, all right? Jeez.”
It took several moments for Chester to move. He answered with a short sound of assent, and Marty immediately turned to climb the stairs back up to the first floor. Chester stood and started after him, but hesitated after only a step. Quickly, he knelt by the player and hit the eject button. The cartridge popped out with a mechanical whir and Chester stuffed it into the huge pocket of his baggy pants. He ran to catch up with Marty.
“Nah, it’s okay. You don’t need to get me a better present.”
The artificial snow still danced behind his eyes.
“See,” said Don, as he tapped on the screen, “I told you. Even if I prevent Velocivich from inventing the warp drive, someone else does it within a year, and we still colonize Tao Ceti before the end of the century. You can’t change history. History has a way with things.”
Behind the control panel of the temporal regulator, Rex sighed. He was two years younger than Don, but he’d finished a much more prestigious education program and he had trouble taking the word of his associate. “Fine,” he said, but he made sure to cringe just enough to show Don what a concession he was making. “This time, fine. Just fix it before the boss turns up.”
The overseer, who had spent the better part of a century studying the peculiar flow of temporality, wouldn’t have approved of his employees playing with the continuum to settle a bet. Last week, Rex had nearly lost his overtime pay, but he wasn’t going to let that happen again. Especially, especially not on the account of his arrogant, uneducated coworker.
“He left already,” said Don. “Besides, that’s the beauty of this. Even if we caused nuclear annihilation, we could just go back, tweak a few things, and set stuff the way it was before. No harm, no foul. As long as we stay inside the bubble, we can’t mess anything up in this universe.”
Again, Rex sighed. He was good at sighing. He twisted a knob and slid a lever upwards to correct his coworker’s perversion of the timeline, and Velocivich’s regulator coil resisted the overload. On their trans-temporal viewscreen, the warpsmall ship twisted into a whirl of blue and white as multiple dimensions compressed into one and the ship disappeared at a point halfway across the galaxy. History was safe for another shift.
“You don’t believe me?” Don demanded.
“Its just not good to mess with this stuff,” Rex said. “It’s not about the bubble. Time isn’t meant to move around like that.”
“A steak dinner says you’re wrong,” Don challenged. Rex sighed. If there was a sighing competition, he would win. “I’ll prove it. Watch. All life on Earth, bam. Gone in one swipe. I’ll fix it before the shift and no one will ever know.”
“It’s not about getting caught,” Rex repeated as he watched his coworker grab for the levers. “I mean, I’ve studied these things. I know how they work. It just isn’t the type of thing you should play around with.”
On the viewscreen, under Don’s control, the orbit of a small asteroid shifted nine centimeters to the left. It collided with another asteroid, then a comet, altering the comet’s trajectory nearly an entire degree. Rex drew in his breath sharply as the slab of ice and stone met a small planet to the left. The perfect marble of blue and green quickly shifted into swirls of dust and grey.
“Forward,” Don whispered as he turned another dial. The ball of water and soil cleared as millennia passed, and where blinking cities should have occupied the landmasses, relative darkness swept over the Earth. “Zoom,” Rex’s partner whispered, and the viewscreen obeyed. Waving blades of grass consumed thousands of pixels, giving way to two-story cottages and strange animal-driven carriages tumbling down cobblestone roads. On a huge field to the left of the communitys, a dozen small shapes kicked a ball across a manicured field of pristine green.
“What the…” Rex started, but the rest of the sentence was not yet complete in his mind. “Are you telling me…” he tried, but once again, the words failed. When the words failed, he sighed, and then he sighed again for good measure. “Fix it,” he said quickly. “Right now.”
“Steak dinner?” Don prodded. Rex nodded, barely thinking. He turned away from the viewscreen and shuddered.
“Ugh,” he said as he forced the image out of his mind. “Those goddamn monkeys make my scales crawl.”
Caleb’s hand reached for the rope one more time to hoist himself up onto another ledge. The icy winds howled around him as he hit the heat-release button on the ice-pick to pull it back easily from the sheer face he’d just managed to climb. A breath-taking view of the blue sky melding with the pure white peak of the mountain had him stunned. All his instruments read correctly. The air content here at the peak was clean, and although the temperature was far below habitable levels he could fix that with a Kelvin-Stabilizer, no problem. Everything was ripe to study an untouched environment. Perhaps he could save the desecrated lands below.
He breathed deeply now, taking in the formulated oxygen from the bio-lung which was strapped to his back with suitable tubing which twisted around to mold over his face. The soft flesh of his eyes was protected by the three-spectrum detection goggles latched around his thick skull. It was good that he brought with himself only the essentials.
As he pulled the equipment form the vac-pack, the tripod unfolded by itself with a tiny mechanical whizzing and his gloved hands pulled the Kelvin-Stabilizer from the self-warming sack. The device was no larger than an apple and it was comprised of billions of little circuits meant to regulate a climate to slowly make it into a habitable place.
The mountaineer had placed the device down and went to retrieve suitable solar cells for its month-long endeavor when the low rumble and the loud crunch made his spine go stiff. He spun his head around, hoping that he would at least be able to see the landslide before it became his doom.
Instead, he found himself in strange company. Standing almost a half-click tall on four taloned feet, a magnificent, enormous dragon of the greatest azure that Caleb had ever witnessed grasped at the peak and shook a coating of snow from its scaly form. The word dragon was lost in the annals of legends, far beyond the myths of telepathic implants and body-powered communications devices. So, the experienced pioneer, in all of his humility, focused on the grand impossibility before him.
The creature spoke in a voice that rocked the very air around them, shaking it against Calebâ€™s well-protected form. â€œI believe I stepped upon thine trinket, sire.â€
â€œIâ€¦Iâ€¦ uhhhhâ€¦..â€ Caleb sputtered.
Pulling up its foot, the dragon revealed the device smashed and beyond repair in a now awe-inspiring print upon the surface of the peak. â€œYes. It seems thy magical artifact is indeed a casualty of my movement, sire.â€
â€œWhâ€¦ what are you?â€ Calebâ€™s words could only form out of primal fear and a mind overcome with awe.
â€œMe? Why I am Azureghoste, sky dragon of the northern bounds, terror to all those who wake the mountain! Though, I was once known by the name Majestic. You may call me such.â€ The bellowing hurt Calebâ€™s ears, but he replied with a rush of curiosity.
â€œIâ€¦ what are you doingâ€¦. I meanâ€¦ uhhhâ€¦ why are you-â€œ
â€œPardon me, sire, but your items are far too simple to have defeated me. Many knights have already come with swords and fire and then soon after with sticks that fired rocks. Some sticks were bigger than others. Already they begin to make false dragons to fly overhead and frighten me, but I shall not be moved. You have come with none of these things, sire. You come with small baubles which my foot hath crushed so readily. You smell of a strange metal that bends and melts under heat, but there is but one of you, sire.â€ Its head shifted and blue eyes larger than Caleb himself stared at him in absolute confusion.
Caleb raised a brow. His head rang with the deep thundering sound of the dragonâ€™s voice. â€œI didnâ€™tâ€¦ I mean Iâ€™m notâ€¦â€
â€œGo now, young mortal. Tell the others that they must come back with better magical items if they hope to defeat me. I shall sit here and anticipate their return to see if they can challenge the great Majestic.â€ The being lay back down, its head slumped around the rocky peak of the mountaintop itself. It stared lazily at its newest mortal visitor, waiting for him to depart. Bewildered and dumbstruck, the pioneer turned back as the Majestic one contemplated its next meeting with humankind.
“There’s a storm coming,” Leaphorn said, and moved to close the shutters. Zhang removed his ear-buds and glanced up from his monitor, looking out the window. Beijing looked as clear as ever. He dismissed Leaphorn’s prediction with a wave of his hand, rose, and proceeded to make tea. Zhang had to navigate around the thrift-store cast-offs that Leaphorn called furniture in order to get to the hot-plate, which only made his mood worse.
Trouble was, Leaphorn hadn’t been wrong about the storms since he moved in four months ago. It was one of the many things about Leaphorn that quietly pecked at Zhang. His causal ease with Zhang’s native tongue was another. When he had first responded to Zhang’s “roommate wanted” ad, Leaphorn had spoken like those Indians in the old movies, with his Mandarin in harsh, broken sentences. That was part of the reason Zhang wanted him to move in. Now he spoke like he’d lived in Beijing all his life, and his ramshackle chairs were clashing with Zhang’s modernist decor.
“Keep the glass in,” Zhang said over his shoulder.
“You’re insane,” Leaphorn said. “The storm’ll tear up the glass.”
“The glass will be fine,” Zhang said. “Because there is no storm!”
Leaphorn didn’t press. He folded his arms and stood silent. So silent that Zhang could hear the wind picking up.
It started as a low whistle, and a fine yellow tint fell over the cityscape outside the window. Small specks of quartz smacked staccato against the glass pane. The wind’s howl split into two, and then three, whipping up and down the scale with dissonant savagery. The buildings outside were getting lost in the blanket of airborne sand.
Leaphorn raised his eyebrows and motioned to the shutters. Zhang shook his head. He was going to say something, but the machine-gun fire of pebbles on the window drowned him out.
The buildings across the street were now completely obscured. Instead, only ever-shifting patterns of gold and ochre could been seen. Despite his years in Beijing, Zhang had never actually seen a ruin storm before, only heard them from behind ceramic shutters. He has witnessed the damage afterwards, the steel and concrete shredded and worn by the repeated rage of sand and wind. But he had never seen one.
Zhang moved closer the window, shrugging off the hand Leaphorn placed on his shoulder. The chips of quartz had severely scarred the window, making it difficult to see the outside. But Zhang could see the shadows through the amber morass. Things that could be stray newspapers or bicycles or cars or uprooted trees. The window had started cracking, but Zhang didn’t notice. He was transfixed by a particularly bizarre shape tumbling through the sand. One that seemed to be growing bigger.
Zhang was so mesmerized by the chaotic choreography that he didn’t even notice that Leaphorn had tackled him until he was on the floor. The window exploded above them. Sand and glass and quartz spilled into the room like shouted curses. It took the two of them to close fast the ceramic shutters and keep the storm outside.
Zhang coughed and surveyed the devastation . Everything, the walls, the furniture, everything in the apartment was covered with a veneer of fine yellow sand. Everything seemed to be made of sand, all part of one homogenous sculpture. Everything was the same.
Except one thing. Half-submerged in his teapot, almost casually, rested a human hand. Scraped and leaking into the pot, its small, feminine fingers were clenched in a fist, save one. The middle finger remained stiff and erect, even at the cock-eyed angle its position in the teapot afforded it.
Leaphorn was the first to start giggling. It didn’t take long for Zhang to join in. Together, they drowned out the tempest.
â€œWhatâ€™s your business?â€ yelled Marie from the gate tower, pointing her rifle at the small caravan below. A man emerged from the covered wagon holding a wool hat in his hand. He was gaunt, his bones pulling hard against his leather skin.
â€œMaâ€™m we were hoping we might have a word with someone who would be able to speak for your people.â€ Marie pointed her rife at his chest.
â€œYou stay behind that yellow line there, you can speak your peace.â€
The man shifted on his feet and rubbed his neck. â€œMaâ€™m, I just wanted to say how I think mighty highly of your ancestors for planning this place and anticipating the Fall like they did.â€
Marie nodded. â€œYou honor us for saying so.â€
â€œAnd I wanted to say how you all look like fine folk, real fine.â€
â€œKind of you.â€
â€œAnd Iâ€™m sure, if not for the Fall, you wouldnâ€™t have that rifle pointed at my head and we might be good friends.â€
â€œNo point dwelling on what might have been, my pa used to say.â€
He nodded. â€œRight you are, Maâ€™m, right you are. I was just hopinâ€™ being that you folk seem to be doing well, that you might be able to open your house to weary travelers.â€ He motioned toward the caravan where Marie could see children poking their heads out from the tarp covered wagon. They were all different ages and colors. Strays this man must have picked up for labor or sex or maybe even out of some kind of sympathy. Might be some of them were even his own children. â€œWeâ€™ve been going a long while Maâ€™m and it ainâ€™t been easy.â€
â€œHard times.â€ said Marie.
â€œWe willing to trade whatever weâ€™ve got. It ainâ€™t much, we were hit hard by some bandits and they took some of us and our valuables, but weâ€™ll trade what weâ€™ve got. He motioned to a woman, who crawled out of the wagon, smoothing out her hair. Her footsteps squished in the mud and Marie saw she had bags wrapped around her feet with rope. The man smiled and motioned her.
â€œThis here is my sister, we can do whatever labor you needs doinâ€™ and the children can work too, they do anything for the food. Helen here is friendly and clean and sheâ€™d be willing to give company if any of your folk are lonely.â€
Maries voice changed. â€œThat ainâ€™t your sister and Iâ€™m insulted you tried to trick me to thinking so. Thatâ€™s your wife or I donâ€™t know a breath from my face. We donâ€™t know those we ainâ€™t married to here.â€
The man turned his hat in his hands, clenching at the fabric. â€œIâ€™m sorry Maâ€™m. I didnâ€™t mean to offend.â€
Marie motioned with the rife. â€œI think you better move along. Unless you got trade like weapons or seeds or gasoline, you need to get yourselves off our land. We canâ€™t take another mouth to feed and weâ€™ve got all we need. You should go north. I hear it told that there is some work for a big compound up there.â€
â€œMiss, weâ€™ve been up North. We just came from there. There is a camp of folk like us outside the compound just waiting for work that doesnâ€™t come. What goes on there is terrible, the people sometimes, when someone dies. . . They are just so hungry.â€œ
â€œI donâ€™t need to be hearing your tale of woe Mister. I got troubles of my own. I was raised a Christian woman and I feel for you, if I had enough food I would give you what I got, but I donâ€™t and I canâ€™t. I got my own people to think of.â€
â€œI donâ€™t fault you for that.â€
â€œSure that you do, as I would in your position.â€ She cocked the rife. â€œYou better start moving.â€
â€œAlright Maâ€™m, I hear you.â€ He began to walk away from the line and then turned suddenly and forced his words. â€œUh, Maâ€™m, please donâ€™t shoot me for stopping for a minute, but we do have something you might find useful. Iâ€™m not sure that you might be interested in such things, being that you are people of the cross, but a couple months back we passed through a factory and picked up a bunch of, uh, preventatives, and we hid them under the wagon. They was the only thing the bandits didnâ€™t take. If you want to trade those, we got about three hundred of them.â€
â€œPreventives, eh?â€ Marie nodded to someone behind the wall and a basket was lowered down with a rope.
â€œThereâ€™s a tomato in that basket, you put one of your preventatives in there and if we like it, we might talk.â€ The man approached the basket and tentatively put a little package inside. He took out the tomato and took a large bite, and then another. He handed it over to Helen, who let the children take one bite each, made them chew slow.
Marie picked the little square out of the basket and looked it over, finally ripping it open with her teeth. Inside was a wet rubber ring. She slipped it back in the package and into her pocket. She held the rife across her chest. The man saw her perfect white teeth as she smiled.
â€œMister, if you got a few hundred of those then I believe we can do business.â€
Sammy, donâ€™t stray too far now.â€ Alice had a firm grip on her six year olds hand as they walked through the courtyard of the Faire. A woman stood near the front gates and handed out what was supposed to be paper. For only a thousand credit entry fee, however, Alice knew it was imitation. She smiled to the woman as they passed and looked at the map drawn across the plasti-sheet.
â€œHmm… okay, Sammy, where do you want to go?â€ She bent down and shared the map with her son, who was all wide-eyed at the sights and sounds. Staring back at the map and brochures, the boy’s eyes sparkled as he pointed at a section. â€œOhhh! That one, mommy! I want to see the Stock Market Reenactment!â€
Alice Gardnerâ€™s husband came up from behind after having some issue with the credit transfer on the fingerprint console. His face was wrinkled with frustration and an obvious lack of understanding as to the purpose of their visit. â€œCan you believe they make people walk around here? I mean câ€™monâ€¦ walking?â€
â€œOh, dearâ€¦ now whereâ€™s your 20th century spirit? Not everyone had trans-spatial ports in their homes back then,â€ she reminded. The husband muttered and his wife pinched his cheek before they led little Sammy along. Alice loved the 20th century, and Douglas was just going to have to deal with it for today.
A few moments later they were face to face with a man in obviously fake glasses standing behind a counter with a reproduction pocket protector, his torso padded with polymer foam to make him look fat. Even his hair was awkwardly and anachronistically short. â€œHey there folks!â€ he called to the family. â€œEver been to a computer store? We have only the finest in Desktops, Laptops and the amazingâ€¦. Gaspâ€¦ Palm Pilot! Care to take a look at myâ€¦ cool selection?â€
â€œYour what selection?â€ Douglas blurted out after Alice had already politely declined. Sammy wanted to see the Stock Market go wild with people tossing paper in the air as if paper were worth nothing to them. After the man had explained what cool and awesome meant, Douglas moved along with his wife.
â€œI guess I just donâ€™t get it, Alice. Why should we go somewhere to be in the past? Isnâ€™t what the present provides for us much better thanâ€¦ heyâ€¦ are thoseâ€¦?â€
Sure enough, Douglas had found something that struck his fancy. Alice rolled her eyes as the grown man walked over to the shop owner who was wearing only the finest Basketball Jersey. Like the computer merchant, this man also wore period glasses, although his were tinted and darker. â€œExcuse me, sir?â€ Douglas whispered. Hecouldnâ€™t lift his eyes from the product to make eye contact with the merchant.
â€œYo, yo.. I see youâ€™re looking at the finest in footwear made by machines. Actual machines, too. Now these have a lifetime guarantee and we can make sure you get the suede replaced with real suede if you get it damaged or something, homey.â€
Douglas didnâ€™t understand a damn word the man said. He picked up the Michael Jordan tennis shoes and looked back to Alice with the same pleading eyes as their child. â€œSweetie, itâ€™s a Michael Jordan tennis shoe! Itâ€™s made of real suede! Feel it! I have to have thisâ€¦ how muchâ€¦?â€
The man with the dark glasses smiled and did an air-hoop shot. â€œI see you like the quality footwear. Well, our going price is five million credits.â€
Debating over the purchasing of the shoe would to take time, and Sammy was getting hungry. Alice kissed her husband on the cheek and looked back over to the merchant, â€œHeâ€™ll buy them; he just needs time to pick out the laces and the design. Can you tell us where the food dispensers might be?â€
â€œHells yeah! The Food Court is down the ways and to the left. You canâ€™t miss it; they got excellent pizza this time of year.â€
Sammyâ€™s eyes lit up as he tugged on his mothersâ€™ hand, leaving Douglas to decide over the type of shoe he wanted. The Faire was going to be a long day coming and it would leave their credit accounts thinned out, but in the end, Alice will have enjoyed her walk through simpler times.
â€œMom, itâ€™s pizza! I bet they make it by machine, too! Letâ€™s hurry!â€