By Patrick M. Tracy
Before being displaced in time, Sam had been a pipefitter on a steam ship. The Claudia Jane had been her name, though she had not been a graceful ship, as the name might imply. No, she’d been an awkward hog of a vessel, with twin side wheels churning and blunt bow slowly pushing through the water. The tiny berth he’d shared with another man, a laconic Finn who tended to eat only pickled herring and hard tack, and been a loud, roaring box of steel buried in the steerage compartments.
Sam would sometimes lie awake and think of the noises the Claudia Jane used to make. Sleep was often a long time in coming anymore, and those memories of another time, another self, would sometimes sooth him and take his mind away from the irregular beating of his heart. His hands folded on his breast like the coffin-filler he would soon become, he would look up at the acoustic tiles, still half amazed that it was nineteen ninety-four, and that he had lived far longer in this time frame than his own native one, which he’d been wrenched out of in eighteen sixty seven and pulled almost a hundred years into the future.
It was far too late to consider the fact that he should not have picked up that silvery artifact he found in the dead man’s hands, or that the man himself hadn’t looked quite right…no, that was all rarefied and cooked out of him, leaving an old man much like any other. His story had but one wrinkle, really, and one that he’d never shared with another soul.
Sam had gone to work at the Lever Brothers factory soon after he arrived, feigning limited English for a time to keep the questions to a minimum. Thirty years he’d labored in the serpentine pipes of the giant soap factory, a hulking landbound equivalent to the Claudia Jane, another hot, loud, dark place for men like him to pay out their rent on earth.
He’d read a story once, supposedly literature, about a man becoming an insect. He imagined that it was supposed to be a symbolic thing, a metaphor, but he had truly been a beetle, scurrying around in the bowels of the vast equipment of humanity, unknown and nameless. For Sam, who’d been an insect, the story was different, somehow more revolting. There was no mystery about men becoming insects. The mystery was how to become human, how to ascend from the dark, scuttling warren of all that takes place below society’s notice. It was a mystery that he’d never had any luck in solving, and his time was nearly done. All of life remained an unknown thing to him, a daylight world only guessed at by denizens of a cave.
His heart was not well. Sam had been to see specialists whose titles had been difficult to comprehend or pronounce these last two years. None of them had smiled, cracked his knuckles, and gotten to work solving the problem. Unlike the pipes and valves in a factory or a ship, the inner workings of a human were not easily mended with a craftsman’s hand, a welding torch, and an assortment of wrenches. No, this off rhythm, this racing and juddering of his heart, it wasn’t something that could be put to rights. At least, not by any knowledge humanity currently possessed. It was all right. He had experienced his time. Two times, two lives separated by one unknowable chasm. While he may have made no headway in understanding what it is to be human, very few could claim to have done any different. Now it had come to this, and the man on the threshold, who had opened the locked door and come in without a sound or a word.
“I thought you might come,” Sam said. He wasn’t surprised to see the figure at the door, dressed in clothes that weren’t quite right, but made the effort. Even in the gloom, he wasn’t quite a perfect duplicate of the dead man from ‘67, but very nearly so. Something from the same mold, though with slightly different air gaps and tailings, so to speak.
The man stepped closer, standing over Sam, a quizzical expression on his face. “It took a lot of effort to find you. I’m glad you only used the device once.”
“I could have used it again?”
The stranger, the alien, nodded. “It had the energy to make eleven jumps, maybe twelve.”
Sam wasn’t afraid. What would a dying man be afraid of? “I didn’t know. I don’t know how I made it–do what it did–the first time. Where would I have gone? Back to where I left off?”
The stranger gave a sardonic smile. “This one doesn’t do that. It doesn’t…go back, as you’d see it.”
“Ah, well. I didn’t have a bad life, I suppose. I did enjoy the television, and the jazz music.”
“Jazz, yes. Many of us appreciate that movement. Television is…dependent upon temporal concerns, though. Often, it isn’t broadly applicable.”
“You’re here for the device, then?”
The stranger nodded. “I hope you still have it.”
“In the top drawer, next to my watches. I’ve never said a word, never told anyone.”
The stranger stood at the bureau, facing away. “We know. We appreciate that you’ve…as they say in this time, carried the water for us all this time. Ah, here it is.”
“I’ve always wondered one thing,” Sam said.
The stranger turned around, holding the device in his hands carefully, like an egg.
“Did I foul anything up, doing what I did?”
The stranger shrugged. “It’s hard to tell. Maybe you were meant to take the relocator. If you changed things, there’d be no real way to find out. The continuum is a tricky thing.”
Sam lay back, his heart beating like a monkey on the drums. The stranger nodded once more, pressed a button on the device, and vanished. A loop of rope had stood open for a long time, narrowing with the years. Now, it closed. Sam closed his eyes, letting himself fall asleep. He didn’t think he’d wake up this time, and that was, perhaps, as it should be.