This week has been particularly trying as I’ve tried to get this story ready and up. As I’ve been going through the 52 in 52 process a lot of my old story ideas have started racing to the front of my mind hoping that they might get a second chance at being written. This is one of those stories. Back in late 2006/2007 I was going through some significant life changes and I tried my hand at a few novels, like you do. None of them were finished and some were absolutely rubbish that never should have been typed, much less stored electronically for the ages, but there were a few gems that managed to fight their way out. This one is one of my favorites. This week is unique because I’m going to post the proto-story, that is to say that I’m going to post the original – warts and all – that I put down on paper almost a decade ago. I’ll warn you ahead of time that this is completely unedited and essentially a ‘vomit-pass” at the story and it’s pretty rough. Below that I have the new one that I have been writing, you can just skip down to that one if you want to save some time. I thought it might be interesting to see how my writing has changed in the last seven/eight years and also what hasn’t changed. I confess, I’m doing this mostly for me but some of you might be interested too.
EDIT: I took out the Proto-Story. It seems to have gotten in the way of people reading the version that I wanted them to read.
Time Travel Sucks and Other Stories from the Society for the Betterment of Humanity
There is a bright flash of light. It is the kind of flash that you can see through your eyelids no matter how tight they are shut. And through your hands and sunglasses and lead plates that are 3 inches thick. I know because I’ve tried just about everything except the lead plates (and that’s mostly because I don’t want to carry them around with me). It always does, each and every time. Then you get a flash of heat in every atom of your body, a tickle on your tongue, and a flash of cold that could freeze your nipples right off. Your gut drops right into ground, then flips up into your throat (rookies usually throw up the first few times) before everything goes black. It only takes a few seconds but they are the longest few seconds you’ll ever experience and it never gets any easier – never. Getting recruited for this job is the biggest scam in the world and once you’re in there’s no going back, mostly because you never know when you’re back and I mean that in a literal sense. My name is Jonathan Vargas but people call me Jack. I’m a time traveler. I remember when I first found out about this gig, the video they showed; I should’ve known right then and there that this was a huge mistake. “See the building of the pyramids, walk in the footsteps of your favorite religious figure, see ancient Rome…” bullshit. Have I seen some of those things? Oh sure and every day is a “new wonder and sight that is beyond imagining” it’s just that you have to watch it hiding behind crates or rocks or whatever else so that the natives don’t see you and you don’t cause a paradox that rips the time/space continuum into a million pieces. You know what I’m rambling; let me give you a little context.
I work for the Society for the Betterment of Humanity. As I mentioned I’m a time traveler. That’s my job. I’m not a scientist or in the military. I’m not good with math or languages. I’m just a guy, a guy who wanted an easy and exciting job and I answered the wrong ad on Craig’s List. Seemed like a great idea at the time. I’m thirty-five years old, I didn’t finish college, and I have spent most of my life not sure of what I want to do. When the Society sent me the information packet it all seemed pretty farfetched, but the pitch was simple – actually the ad read just like this: “Wanted: male 25 – 40 for new job opportunity. Long term travel required. Seeking applicants with a taste for adventure and the unknown.” Sure that’s me, or at least it used to be. So I called the number and they send me a DVD (A DVD?!?!?!) which starts off like a bad sci-fi movie with a starfield moving toward the screen, kind of like warp travel on Star Trek and this voice comes on and says, “have you ever wanted to travel through time?” What you’re thinking, that’s totally what I was thinking too. Then it starts talking about time travel and I thought they meant in the figurative sense, like going out and doing archeology or something and it’s like they know that’s what you’re thinking because the voice over comes on just when you’re thinking that and says, “no, really, we mean traveling through time and space just like the movies.” Actually, the more I think about it, it’s possible they did know that was what I was thinking. Who knows who could have been watching me, then they go back to the future and report about it and then the Society makes changes to the video and send it back in time so that I’ll be more convinced to join up… See this is what happens, you start to second guess everything and your mind gets all tangled up with all the different time-lines you’ve visited and it’s hard to keep straight what you changed and what originally happened and then which quantum universe you’re in determines what you can remember and… Oh forget it! The point is time travel is not easy, it’s not fun and it’s not funny.
Then I smell it, the rancid combination of fart and puke. I shake the trip and the smell off and my vision returns. We are… somewhen, but figuring that out isn’t my job. To my right I see Dr. Aaron, she’s blonde and tall and looks like she belongs in a magazine and not the frontier lady dress that she is currently wearing. Her hair is in a ponytail and bobs all around as she swings off her pack and starts gathering her devices and notes. She is the “Brain” they sent with us this trip. Next to her is Wills, he’s the new kid who puked. To my left is Capt. Richard Bell, he’s leading us this time and he’s a prick. Then there’s Stinky, the engineer who’s supposed to get us back. He’s responsible for the fart. He does it every trip without fail, but he’s also the most requested engineer in the Society. We appeared in a big dark building; that’s not a good start. Usually if you show up in a big dark building things get hairy. It’s like it’s a rule. We were shooting for the American west, cowboy days. I don’t know the exact year, they don’t tell me that stuff, nor do I know what we’re doing here but I’m always assured that I’m told what I need to know. As I get accustomed to the dark I can see that we are in a store room, maybe a warehouse. OK, I can work with that. There’s a lot of cover in a warehouse; a good number of hiding spots. There are crates in here, crates with writing and it’s in English. So far so good! Then the prick goes into it.
“Alright, people, you know the drill. Start looking around in here and tell me if we hit our target. Provided we are in the right time and time-line we can get started. The sooner we start the sooner we go home. And Vargus clean up the newbies puke.”
See, he’s a prick.
Technically we are each supposed to have a job. Capt. Bell is the prick that tells us what to do and decides whether or not we’ve accomplished what we were supposed to while we’re here. Dr. Aaron is the historian and medic. She’s the one who tells us how to act while we are whenever we are, is given the “original” history that needs to be changed, and patches us up if we need it. Her and people like her are called “Brains” by me and people like me. Stinky, as I mentioned before, is the engineer. They get us back from whenever we are. I like those guys and Stinky is the best. The only problem is that the man farts every time we travel, as you may have noticed. It’s sick. As if traveling isn’t hard enough then you have to deal with the dueling scents of rookie puke and Stinky’s farts. But there’s a reason why he’s the most requested engineer at the Society and it’s because he’s got the longest perfect record for getting teams home. That’s a big deal. You can put up with some pretty bad smells when they come out of a man that can bend time and space as well as he can. He’s also one of my only friends. Having this job does a number on your personal life. I had to take off my backpack to clean up the rookie’s puke. Thankfully he paid attention to protocol and didn’t eat anything before we traveled. It’s mostly just a wet spot on the floor. A smelly wet spot, but all that takes is a little of my special saw dust made just for us time travelers: time dust. I have no idea what makes it special, but we aren’t allowed to take it from the building or use it in our own time line. See, I’m a grunt. I get all the bullshit jobs that none of the important three want to do. I’m here to clean spills, get food, and do whatever to make the job easier for Capt. Bell, Dr. Aaron and Stinky. That’s what the kid is here to do too; he’s training. He looks really young to me, maybe twenty-three. I guess they had to start recruiting younger. At least it looks like the green is fading from around his gills.
“You OK kid?” It’s his first trip so I feel like I should be nice. Besides he and I are in the same boat and it won’t hurt to have an extra hand in my corner when this trip goes to pot, and it will go to pot.
“Yeah, thanks.” Then he spits some left over puke out of his mouth managing to miss the time dust that I’ve already spread on the floor. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a stick of special “time gum” for him.
“Here, this will get the taste out of your mouth.” I said it with all the sincerity I could muster seeing as how I now needed to use more time dust to cover his spit.
I guess it’s important to know that the entire team gets outfitted with special stuff for each trip. First, and most noticeably, we get period dress. I’m especially fond of this when we go to ancient Rome or ancient Egypt. Dr. Aaron looks great in that stuff. All of us have general supplies that are kept in our pockets or pouches (depending on the style of dress). Its stuff like “time gum” which biodegrades really fast after ten minutes of chewing, a small beacon so the engineer can find us if we get lost, and even some currency appropriate to our trip. Then there’s the special kit that we each get. Leaders get the only weapon, usually a gun, and PDA that has mission info in it. Brains have a similar PDA but with a full “original” history and reference material. I say “original” because, when you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you start to realize that you end up going back quite a bit to fix mistakes from other trips. There is no “original” history anymore; we’ve screwed so much stuff up. Engineers have just one job, get the team home, so they get a backpack, made as time specific as possible, which has the return equipment; it looks like an old traveling salesman’s suitcase that opens up to show something that vaguely looks like an old typewriter, but where you’d expect to see the keys there are dials and switches. Where you’d put paper is a large glass cylinder that spins and fills with electrical discharge. Wires come out of everything on it and it always smells like it’s going to catch fire. It’s totally archaic, but it’s my favorite piece of equipment because it gets us home. Grunts like me get a time-suitable backpack filled with all the miscellaneous stuff like the time dust, water, rations, matches – camping supplies basically – and some crazy batteries to jump the return equipment, just in case. Also, before you ask, yes we bring our own water. You know how you’re not supposed to drink the water in Mexico when you visit? Same thing when you time travel. The last thing you want is Montezuma’s Revenge when you’re three and a half centuries away from home.
The kid finally gets it together and takes off his pack. Not only is he young but he’s kid of small too. About five foot five and a bit lanky. He’s got a mop of dark hair and very sharp features. His cowboy stuff doesn’t fit him right either. He just looks awkward. He was probably a goth kid back in high school. We start to look around the room. I start glancing at the crates; Wills searches intently for any info that might be on them. What he doesn’t know, and I do, is that Stinky will have it all figured out in a couple minutes. I take a chance to sneak a look at Dr. Aaron; most of the time she’s the best part of the trip. Back home she always looks so serious with her hair up and wearing the tan jumpsuits we all have to wear at the Society, but in costume that’s a whole different deal. She’s about five foot four – great height – with blonde hair down to her shoulders. Soft features and a button nose that twitches when she thinks too hard. Her eyes are green and sparkle. She looks like she belongs in a magazine. I would love to see her naked. The frontier lady get-up isn’t the most flattering thing she’s worn, but I’ll take what I can get. If only we were in ancient Rome or Egypt, or maybe she could just wear a French maid outfit. Yeah, that’d be good.
Before I get caught staring Stinky gets our attention, “Got it! Looks like we hit the right spot, with an extra six hours to spare.” That was good news; we have time to eat!
“Very good,” Bell sounded cocky. What a prick. “Team, let’s mobilize and see if we can put ourselves up in the local hotel.”
Dr. Aaron looked up from her tablet as if she was in a video for a swimsuit calendar, at least that’s what I saw. “If we arrived where we should have then we should be inside the warehouse at the edge of town.”
“We’re wherever the co-ordinates that were given to me point to,” Stinky started putting away the return equipment and getting it packed away. As he was closing up the case we heard the opening of and saw a beam of daylight shine in from a door that was behind a stack of crates. Everyone froze, as is protocol, and the Captain put his hand on the six-shooter he was equipped with for the mission.
“Whoever you are, I heard ya’! You better come out or I’ll fill every square inch of this building with bird shot!” It was an angry native! Those are the worst kind. “Come on out, now. I’m serious!” And he sounds old and nervous, a bad combination in an already bad scenario. Somebody needed to fix this.
Dr. Aaron made the first move, “Hello? I’m afraid that we were just looking for some shelter.” A woman’s voice did have a way of diffusing these situations. “I’m coming out from behind the boxes now with my husband. Please don’t shoot us.” As she spoke she gave us the hand signal to hide. Wills, Stinky and I did just that as quietly as possible making sure that we were in place by the time she and Bell were visible. She introduced the two of them to the native and gave the approved cover story about being new in town from back east and received the anticipated hospitality. Soon the three of them were all chuckles and apologies and they left with him, hopefully to accomplish the assignment.
This is always the boring part of the work. Eventually the Brain and the Captain will go off and get the job done. Sometimes they take a grunt with them, but I prefer it when they don’t. When things go wrong, as they sometimes do, the grunt is the one who won’t make it back. They don’t pay me enough for that. While they were off doing what it is they do, the three of us stayed back to sweep the area for temporal bogeys and then prepped for the eventual departure. As grunts and engineer, we are tasked with staying in place unless forced to evacuate by extraordinary or life threatening circumstances. It sounds like the Society is concerned for our safety, but the truth is they want to mitigate the risk of time-stream errors and paradoxes. They don’t want our corpses stinking up the timeline and they go to extreme measures to make sure it doesn’t happen. Since our fearless leader and the Brain were now out of our presence the countdown started, for this mission it is four hours past action point. That may sound a little confusing. If the team is ever separated, and we almost always are, then there is a predetermined time when everyone is due to rendezvous at the original arrival point. That time is determined in relation to the “action point” which is the thing in history that we are attempting to alter. So in this case we arrived about six hours prior to the action point and then we will wait a maximum of four hours after that point before Stinky, Wills and I crank up the machine and go back to our native time and space. Typically we are out pretty quickly after the action point, but as I’ve mentioned Capt. Bell is a prick and he likes to show off, especially if the assigned Brain is as attractive as Dr. Aaron. If I could I’d bring a book to read to pass the time, but I can’t because it might get left behind causing a paradox. Playing cards, you may ask, can you bring playing cards to pass the time? Nope, same problem. Playing cards from the present (future?) are significantly different from the past so they could cause a paradox. Music? Nope, paradox. Smart phone? Nope, paradox. Hell the PDA’s that the mission Captains and Brains use were just recently certified and had to be outfitted with a self-destruct device just in case they are lost or left behind. We don’t even get to pack our stuff, everything is packed for you at the Society and then you get thoroughly searched before departure. So what do we do to pass the time? Every grunt has their ways, most break protocol and purchase something from the current time period to occupy thier time, but I personally like to play a little game I came up with called Ration Bar Poker. One of the few things that we all bring with us are the ration bars. They are each printed with a serial number on the packaging so that the Society can keep track of where each bar is assigned. These serial numbers are a combination of numbers and letters ten characters long, so you play it a bit like ten-card stud. You break up the bar itself into five pieces and that becomes your betting money for the game. Depending on the expected duration we could each be carrying up to ten of fifteen of these bars and that can pass a good amount of time. The packaging is also one of the few things that we carry with us that doesn’t instantly biodegrade. The kid and I have to make sure that all of the trash is picked up before we go. We tucked ourselves into a back corner of the warehouse where we were out of direct sight of the door and got ready to wait.
“So this is what we do? We just wait here?” The kid, Wills, had been so quiet until now that I was surprised at the sound of his voice. He stood awkwardly by his pack, his right hand gripping his left arm and kneading it.
“Pretty much,” I told him. “Pull up a crate, I’ll show you how we play poker out here.” I pulled a bar from my pack and waved it with a big smile. I was feeling a little extra peckish and was looking forward to eating my winnings.
Sticky snorted, “No way, Jack.” Then he looked at the kid, “Don’t fall for it. Before you know it he’ll have all your food and he’s terrible at sharing.” Stinky laughed, the kid gave a small smile. I punched Stinky on the arm.
“Great! Now what do we do? We have a whole day to kill.” I leaned back on my pack on the ground and tore open the bar in my hand and started gnawing on it. Stinky just shrugged and lay out on the ground to take a nap.
The kid walked up to me, “I guess you could show me how to do stuff? This is my first mission.” He had a point. I was supposed to train him and I guess now was as good a time as any. It was certainly better than just sitting around for the next nine hours. I told him to grab his pack and I took him through his job as a grunt.
After fifteen minutes there was nothing else that I could tell the kid about being a grunt.
“So, we’re, like, the team bitches?” Wills asked with a completely reasonable level of offence.
“Well, yeah, I prefer the term “gofer” or “support,” but, yes, essentially we are the team bitches. The most I’ve had to do in my last 4 missions is put down some of this time dust on puddles of puke.” You could see the disappointment come across his face. I suddenly felt really bad for him. What did they tell him to get him to sign up? Wills turned around and walked away. I gave him his space and went and had some water and ate again. We were still over eight hours away from departure, but I didn’t want to eat too much later otherwise I might puke on the return trip and so far I have a pretty good record of not puking. I plopped myself on the ground and ate while Wills sat and faced the wall of the warehouse.
The hours passed slowly. The sun started to set and we heard the piano in the saloon off in the distance. I always wondered what real cowboy whiskey tasted like. It’s a shame I couldn’t run over really quick and have a drink – but, you know, paradox. Besides we were close to the action point and it may be in that very saloon where something happens that may mean the future for humanity or the destruction of it, it’s so hard to tell. Then the door opened and closed, we followed protocol and froze.
“Let’s go!” It was the prick. Capt. Bell rounded the boxes looking for us with Dr. Aaron behind him.
Stinky woke up with a start, “All set, Captain?”
“Yes, this mission was a success. Let’s get back.” He had a shit eating grin on his face and looked back at Dr. Aaron who shook her head.
“Yes, I need to get the smell of cow pies out of my hair.” She moved next to the rest of us as Stinky opened up the case for the return equipment and started working the dials.
I started cleaning up my area and doing an idiot check for any last minute time bogeys that I’d need to cover up or collect. I called to the kid who was still over by the wall, “C’mon Wills, let’s go home.” He picked up his pack and moved slowly over by Capt. Bell. Stinky was hunched over the equipment. Sweat was building on his balding head and he kept wiping his mustache. Working with the equipment is always a delicate operation.
Then we heard a mumble out of Wills. I looked up at him and he was standing there with his head low and holding his left arm again with his right hand kind of twisting on his center of gravity.
“What was that Wills?” Capt. Bell asked.
“I don’t want to go.” Wills looked like a sad child. I was embarrassed for him.
Captain Bell smirked and put his arm around Wills, “This is your first trip, right? I know, it’s a really amazing thing that we’re doing here, we are traveling through time, but it also means that we have to be very cautious and so we can’t stay.” Bell was being as friendly as a prick can be, but it wasn’t enough. Wills made a face that was a twist of anger and the start of tears and then grabbed the six-shooter off of Bell’s belt! He shot Bell and then turned the gun on Stinky! I called out and that distracted him enough, but the gun went off and hit the return equipment. Dr. Aaron screamed out and Stinky started swearing. The kid turned the gun on Stinky again, but I was able to reach him before he could get another shot off. I had the gun in my hands and we were wrestling as I heard the equipment squeal in ways I had never heard it sound before and Stinky swearing up a storm. I started feeling the warmth that comes with the trip and my vision started to white out – at least we were still going home. The brightness came and then we were elsewhen.
I came too and I was on a dusty plain. No smells this time, except for the dust in the air. I looked to my left and I saw the device, sputtering and whirling down. I saw half of the body of Capt. Bell, the lower half. Stinky and Dr. Aaron were nowhere in sight, but Wills was here, he came too quicker than I did. He was standing away from me and still had the gun. He was looking out over the plain and I could hear him crying. Then the panic set in.
“What the hell did you do?!” I screamed at him as I ran. I wanted to tackle him and shake him! I wanted to know what the hell he was thinking! I wanted to know what they told him to get him to sign up. Before I could reach him he turned around a put the gun to his head.
“I’m sorry.” Then he pulled the trigger. The sound didn’t echo, there was nothing around for the sound to bounce off of, but it stopped me in my tracks. There’s a protocol for dead bodies in the time line. A bit of kit I don’t like to even talk about. Like I said, the Society doesn’t want our bodies stinking up the timeline and they have some very extreme measures to make sure it doesn’t happen. It’s a device, every member of the team has one but they so rarely get used. Normally if someone dies in the field we just bring the bodies back with us so they can be properly buried or whatever. In rare cases, like this one, we each have a very small device, the size of a make-up compact, which we use to dispose of bodies. We each carry one, just in case. We use them whether the body is dead or not, like a hyper functional cyanide capsule that also eliminates any evidence of the body. It’s the panic device, a last resort. I always keep mine in a separate pocket away from anything else I may use; I really don’t like to think about it. But now here I was, with one and a half bodies in a place I did not recognize alone with a piece of equipment I do not know how to use.
I went to Wills and took off his pack. I kicked the gun away and found his device in his front pocket. I set it on his chest and watched his whole body burn and vaporize away. It felt like I got punched in the gut. I felt a tear in my eye. I went and did the same for Bell’s legs. Then I gathered Wills and my packs together next to the return device. I sat down next to it and broke down. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I pulled out my own device and looked at it; so much power in the size of a compact. The wind blew at me as I sat and I tried to prepare myself for what I had to do.
Then I smelled something, something familiar – it smelled like an electrical fire! The return equipment! It wasn’t dead! I pulled it closer to me and looked at it. It was definitely run down, and you could see the damage that the bullet made, but the central cylinder was still in one piece and there was still charge flowing in it, I figured that had to be a good thing! I put my device back in its pocket and started messing with the dials and switches. I’d never been this close before, now I saw that there was a small readout displaying red numbers that I didn’t understand. As I turned wheels some of the numbers changed, when I flipped a switch and then turned the wheel some of the other numbers would change. I was just changing numbers wherever I could. I could still get home – as long as I knew where home was. I started thinking really hard about anything that Stinky had ever said, anything that could have been a clue, but he never talked about coordinates, only that he had gotten us to them. And I knew that this could be tricky, because not everyone was as good as he was. In my panic and desperation I made a decision. I took all the supplies that I could out of Wills pack and added them to mine. I grabbed the gun with its three bullets and threw it in there too. Then I sat at the machine, whirled some dials and hit the switch. The machine started revving up, the cylinder spun, and I got that warm feeling. What’s the worst that could happen, I figured, maybe I end up at home or somewhere with more people, but I had to try something. The light got bright, I felt the heat and I was gone…