August, 79 A.D.
The sky was falling.
Pumice stones rained in a dissonant curtain, shattering roof tiles and clattering in the courtyards. An amphora near Jacynda Lassiter’s feet exploded. Crimson wine splashed her pure-white stola, cascading onto the ornate tiles. She braced herself in the doorway as an earth tremor rocked the walls of the villa, her eyes flooding from the scorching stench of sulfur.
Cynda wiped away tears with the back of her hand. “Alfred Bartlesby?”
The academic didn’t acknowledge her, his pale, bald head bent over a table illuminated by the anemic light of a half-dozen oil lamps. He huddled over a mound of papyrus scrolls, seemingly oblivious to Vesuvius’ rage.
“Bartlesby?” she called again.
Cynda turned at the sound of a choked sob. A terrified girl, infant in arms, fled along the street. They were racing toward their graves. There was no sanctuary to be found here. The once-thriving metropolis of Pompeii, the jewel of Campania, was about to become an ashy footprint in history.
Her distraction had cost valuable time. “Bartlesby?” she called again, taking a few steps forward. The academic still ignored her, murmuring to himself as he furiously inscribed notes. One of the lamps guttered and died, but he didn’t notice.
“Hey!” she shouted. “The bus is leaving!”
Bartlesby glanced up, surprised to see her. “Ah, well, actually, I would like to stay a while longer.” He pointed at the papers in front of him. “I have a bit more work to do.”
“Not an option,” she called over the sound of the pounding stones on the roof. Ash filtered downward from the ceiling, from every crack and crevice, cloaking them in a fine layer.
“I paid extra to stay until the last moment,” he protested.
Cynda swore under her breath. This one was a linguist. He’d be hard to budge. She opened the case of the golden pocket watch nestled in her palm. The time interface’s digital display hovered in the murky air above the watch.
“It is the last minute, Mr. Bartlesby. You are about to become a permanent fixture of the Pompeian landscape.”
His eyes widened. “So soon?” Still he made no effort to rise.
Exasperated, she grabbed the academic’s pudgy arm, hauling him off the low stool. He juggled his scrolls, grasping them to his chest while stammering protests. A parchment tumbled out of his fingers as they reached the door. He bent to collect it.
The digital display flashed bright red.
Time Incursion Warning!
Cynda leaned out into the street and stared up at the boiling mountain. An unearthly roar split the air, nearly deafening her. Death surged toward them—an impenetrable wall of superheated material, the pyroclastic flow that would entomb the city for sixteen hundred years.
“Oh, my God.” Cynda’s hand shook so violently, it took her two attempts to perform the required maneuver to initiate the transfer—wind the watch stem four times forward, two back, three forward, one back. A hum emanated from the device, barely audible over the cacophony of destruction.
The holographic clock wavered in the murky air, counting the seconds until the transfer. 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .
Cynda closed her eyes and prayed as the characteristic halo encompassed them. A moment before they shifted into the future, blistering heat shrouded them. In the distance, she heard the agonized screams of those who had no means of escape.
Time Immersion Corporation
Cynda bit her lip in frustration, waiting in the penitent posture until the disorientation lessened. Apparently, Bartlesby forgot that part of his pre-transfer briefing as he struggled to his sandaled feet. He was back on his knees in an instant, retching.
When she finally stood, the ‘tourist’, as the customers were euphemistically called, was out of the time pod and teetering toward the Arrivals Lounge, flanked by two customer service reps. One toted his stack of papyrus, nodding her head in agreement while Bartlesby babbled incoherently, windmilling his arms to indicate explosions. A trail of ash cascaded from his stola. In his wake, one of the DomoBots tidied up the mess with electronic expertise.
Cynda was in no hurry to climb out of the time pod. Every Time Rover had a personal ritual to reorient to the Now. Some recited off-color nursery rhymes, others counted back from one hundred until they felt their brain cells stabilize. Her trick involved wedging herself in the door of the garlic-shaped time pod and inventorying the chronsole room: the ‘Reorientation to Place’ technique.
She began her mental checklist. Corporate cobalt decor—check. High ceilings—check. Ergo chairs and desks—check. Bored employees—check. Low thrum of technology just one notch above my tolerance level—check.
Concerned eyes peered over the top of the chronsole counter.
“Hey!” Ralph called in greeting. That’s why she’d gotten out of Pompeii alive––Ralph had been the chronsole operator. He was known for swift extractions.
“Hey,” she responded in a dry whisper. Clearing her throat made no difference—most of Vesuvius still seemed lodged there.
Her first few steps out of the pod would have made a drunk proud. Until she put chocolate into her system, her equilibrium would be on the fritz, along with her sense of humor. PTS—Post Transfer Syndrome. It beat PMS hands down.
Behind her, the pod door closed and went into what they jokingly called ‘Spin Dry’: a maintenance cycle that reminded her of one of those old front-loading washing machines.
She halted at the chronsole desk and leaned on the nano-laminate top. It was currently a fetching shade of blue. At the beginning of each hour, it shifted color to add "visual excitement" to the work environment. In Cynda’s opinion, it failed miserably.
“Hey,” Ralph repeated, his glasses reflecting the overhead lights. Most folks had their eyesight corrected by an OpticBot, but not Ralph. He said the glasses made a statement.
Without prompting, he pushed a candy bar across the counter, one of the vintage kind with loads of sugar and preservatives. No high-protein, high-energy wallpaper bricks for her. Peeling off the wrapper with all the finesse of a gorilla, she demolished the first bar. Her hands continued to shake. He thoughtfully liberated the second candy bar, eyes blinking rapidly to overcome the stench of sulfur that seemed to envelope her. Wisely, he didn’t comment.
Her mouth half-full of chocolate, she demanded, “Why in the hell are we cutting these so close? Why couldn’t I have snagged him a couple days earlier? If the transfer hadn’t worked . . .” She trailed off, attempting to short-circuit the profound tremor running the length of her body. The jump from Pompeii had been suicidal, even for a Senior Time Rover. Neither she nor Bartlesby were meant to be entombed with the city. The discovery of their bodies during the excavations in the eighteenth century would have required a lot of ‘fixing’. Either way, she and the tourist would be dead.
Ralph looked genuinely chagrined. “I guess marketing is trying to make up last quarter’s shortfall. The longer the tourist is on site, the more money. It’s all a matter of economics—at least from TIC’s point of view.”
“Economics? Do they have any idea how those people died?” she demanded, the image of the young girl cradling the child replaying in her mind.
“No, they probably don’t. Marketing’s never been real strong on reality.” Ralph lowered his voice. “I’m really sorry, Cyn. I wouldn’t have made you go that close to the end. I’d have fudged the time.”
Her anger melted. It wasn’t right for her to chew on him. Ralph always looked out for her. They’d been buddies ever since he’d beaned her over the head with an alphabet block in pre-school and she’d promptly retaliated with a toy truck. They’d both been sent home with notes to their respective parents. From that moment on, they were joined at the hip. Lovers came and went, but Ralph was a constant.
“All we need is for one of these guys to croak and—”
He touched her arm, and she fell silent. A statuesque blonde customer rep was exiting the Departures Lounge, guiding a middle-aged couple toward one of the time pods.
“You’ll see, Marjorie, it’ll be fun,” the man said, tucking a hip flask into the pocket of his voluminous raccoon coat. The woman shook her head in dismay, apparently not as keen about the upcoming adventure as her husband. The rep ushered them inside the pod and encouraged them to relax.
“You’ll be at your destination shortly,” the rep said with practiced ease.
“I have motion sickness,” the woman warned.
“Not a problem. No motion involved.”
Ralph and Cynda traded looks. This lady was in for a helluva surprise. “A forty-story plunge down a drainpipe” was how one Rover described it. Oddly enough, the length of the drop didn’t seem to change no matter how much time you covered; just one long drop, followed by a very sudden stop.
The rep tapped her high heels over to deliver the Time Order and a warm smile to Ralph. She leaned against the chronsole, her well-rounded bottom jutting in the air. It was too perfect—no doubt the latest in posterior implants. Perky one day, sultry the next. You decided what you wanted your butt to look like, and the implant changed to match your expectations. From what Cynda heard, they cost a fortune.
Apparently, customer reps made more than Rovers.
“Hi, Ralph,” the blonde said, her voice low and full of promise.
His eyes twinkled. “Hi there. Are we still on for dinner?”
She beamed. “Sure are. And dessert, I hope.”
“Always dessert,” Ralph replied.
Cynda noshed her way through another candy bar, watching the pair with amusement. For some reason, Ralph’s silver-streaked ponytail and oval, Teddy Roosevelt glasses simply mesmerized young women. It never made sense, but the beneficiary accepted he was a skirt magnet. Last week, it had been a brunette in accounting. Today, it was Miss Well-Rounded Caboose in the nostalgia heels.
The blonde threw her a sidelong glance. With a decided sniff, she returned to business. “The Hartmans are scheduled for 1925 Chicago. Mr. Hartman wants to get a glimpse of Al Capone.”
“Roaring Twenties Chicago,” Ralph said, inserting the nano-drive containing the Time Order into his terminal. His fingers flew over the touchscreen as the entries scrolled in the air. Studying the order, he observed, “A seven-dayer. Big bucks for that.”
“It’s their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary,” the rep replied. “Mr. Hartman wants to give his wife something special and then write a few ‘man on the scene’ articles for Roaring ’20s Retro Magazine.”
Ralph raised an eyebrow, double-checked his entries and announced, “Ready.”
The rep nodded her approval. “Go for it.”
He hesitated, looking around. “Which Rover’s handling the Outbound?”
Ralph shot Cynda a quick look. “They’re flying solo?”
“New policy,” the rep replied. “Unless it’s a dangerous locale, no need for an Insertion Escort.”
“Chicago in the middle of a gang war? Nah, no danger there,” Ralph grumbled.
A noncommittal shrug from the rep. “You know Corporate.”
Ralph muttered under his breath as he keyed in the approval code. The pod door closed automatically. A few seconds later, the couple haloed their way into the past. The vid-monitor didn’t transmit Mrs. Hartman’s final words, but her wide eyes and quaking hand at her mouth delivered the message effectively enough.
“Incoming,” Ralph said, waggling an eyebrow. A moment later, a reassuring “Chron Transfer Complete” emanated from the computer speaker. The blonde tromped off, her heels making a racket. Her fanny wiggled unnaturally in time with her strides.
“No Outbound Rover?” Cynda muttered. “This isn’t a good sign, Ralph.”
“Time to polish the old vid-résumé, I think.”
Cynda bent over the chronsole and smirked. “I see you’re working your way through the customer rep-tile pool,” she chided, indicating the retreating blonde.
“Be nice. She’s a blast.”
“Oh, I bet. You just like her designa-tush.”
“Hey, you’re not the only one to get time lag, you know,” Ralph protested. “Since I don’t like chocolate, sex is the best way to cure it.”
“Nonsense. All you chron-ops get are hangnails.”
Ralph frowned and promptly retaliated. “You have another assignment.”
“What? You’ve gotta to be kidding me!” Cynda’s eyes danced around the room, hunting for the boss. “Where is that moron?”
“Referring to our fearless leader as a moron, though technically correct, is probably not a good career move,” Ralph advised. He conscientiously opened another candy wrapper and handed over the contents.
She shook her head, waving the candy bar in her agitation. “I’m not going anywhere. TIC owes me eight days off. I’ve just set a new world’s record for time leaps.”
“Actually, not. I believe that Harter Defoe did that in––”
“I don’t need a walking encyclopedia. I’m going to get this settled and go home. I need some . . . down time.” She blinked, but it did no good. It looked as if someone had stuck a crimson filter in front of her eyes. The chocolate wasn’t having the desired effect against the time lag.
Ralph’s mouth twitched into a slow, libidinous grin. “Down time?”
She refused to be baited. “Where is our fearless leader?”
“Thad’s gone for the day. Meeting at Corporate.” Ralph pushed a pulsating hot pink nano-drive across the counter and pointed toward the Rover’s locker room. “Hie thee hence. I don’t want you busting my eardrums when you find out where you’re going.”
Hot pink? “An Overdue? Where?”
Instead of answering her, he logged himself out and rose from his chair. A young man stood nearby, digital clipboard in hand. The next shift had arrived.
“Where?” Cynda demanded, reluctant to claim the nano-drive and obligate herself.
Ralph pointedly ignored her. Addressing his replacement, he said, “Five out today. One Overdue. Cynda’s handling that.” Before she could complain, he pushed the hot pink time bomb closer toward her and commanded, “Away, loud strumpet.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I could refuse this, you know. I have enough seniority.”
“You could,” Ralph said. They both knew she wouldn’t.
He donned a set of vintage headphones, adjusting them on his ears. Classic Led Zeppelin wafted around him. Waving, he hiked toward the double doors at the far end of the chronsole bay.
“Be sure to say hello to Oscar for me,” he called right before the doors thudded behind him.
“Oscar?” Cynda repeated. “Oscar who?”
The next shift’s chron-op plopped in the chair, executing a sunny smile in her direction. He looked all of twelve. Her mind rummaged for his name. Irving? No, that’s not right. She conjured up the mnemonic. Ivan the Infant. That was it. Ivan. What had his parents been thinking?
Bewildered, she scooped up the drive and headed for the closest empty desk. Jamming the drive into a port, she fidgeted as the information materialized at eye level.
Retrieval Order--Overdue Tourist
Location: London, East End
Date: August 25, 1888 A.D.
Time Grid: Late Victorian
Wardrobe Code: LVL1888F—Class 4
Due: August 21, 1888 A.D.
“1888? Oscar . . . Wilde.” Oh, damn. “Thad, you son of a . . . ”
Cynda let the oath trail off, realizing it was wasted. He knew she loathed Victorian London, rated it right up there with Europe in the throes of the Black Death.
She scanned the rest of the order.
Tourist Name: Michael A. Turner
Profession: Profess of Sociology
Last Known Location: A. Phillip's Board House
Address: New Castle Street, Whitechapel
Special Instructions: Insert Rover on 8/24/1888 for retrieval.
She checked the time date again. TIC was cutting it close––no one was allowed in London after August 26. Company policy.
“Just like having four days off between leaps,” she muttered. She studied the digital image of the missing academic; he looked like someone’s granddad. Maybe this trip wouldn’t be that hard after all.
To escape the smiling child at the chronsole, Cynda carried the nano-drive to the locker room. Flipping the drive into her locker, she peeled off the stola. As she prepared to toss it in the recycling basket, she spied the scorch marks. A shudder coursed through her.
“Too damned close.” To get her mind off the near-fatal encounter, she selected her favorite peach body wash. After a moment’s thought, she slung it back in the locker. Given where she was headed, a shower was a complete waste of time. After a moment, she picked it up again. There was one more stop to make before she headed to London, and for that, she shouldn’t smell like a lab experiment gone awry.
The door chimed as Cynda entered the deli, a quaint holdover from when restaurant owners actually welcomed each customer in person. She loved Eli’s Deli for many reasons, all of them having to do with lack of technology. At other delis, you placed your order using your Personal Security Interface (PSI) as the link. The order was ready when you walked inside the door, the cost auto-debited from your bank account, and the caloric intake added to your nutritional database. No need to talk a real person.
Which is why she adored Eli’s; they still relied on the personal touch. Cynda savored the ability to order her food from a human being, not the PSI on her wrist or a gleaming Server-Bot with a false smile and a paper hat.
“Hello, beautiful!” Eli called from behind the counter.
Another reason she loved this place. Eli was in his mid-sixties and learned the business from his father and grandfather, both named Eli Greenwald. She’d dubbed him E3, and he liked it.
“The usual?” he asked, eyeing her closely.
“No, I think I’ll have the . . . ” She stared up at the chalkboard listing the day’s special. “I’ll have the tuna salad on whole wheat, please. And a couple extra kosher pickle spears.” She pushed her auto-cooled lunch tote across the counter and they traded looks.
“Fish on wheat, hold mayo, extra mustard and lettuce, two spears, coming up,” he intoned, giving her a wink. Scooping up her lunch tote, he vanished into the kitchen to collect the pickles while his daughter made the sandwich at a nearby worktable. Every sandwich was made by hand. Eli swore he could tell if a Bot made his food, though she thought that might be a bit of an exaggeration.
Cynda waved her left hand near the register interface. The cost of the meal vanished from her bank account while the calories were added to her Daily Intake Record for insurance purposes. The register interface beeped.
“Recommend extra mayo and cheese to increase overall body mass,” it said.
“Deny,” she said.
“Recommend double chocolate milkshake to increase caloric—”
“Deny,” she said, frowning.
The thing beeped and stopped bugging her. Thin was her thing; it was just what the parental DNA had provided. Perfect for being a Rover. Less weight reduced the time lag and the cost of transfers. Unfortunately, the insurance companies didn’t see it that way.
Leaning against the counter, Cynda resisted the urge to drum her fingers. Other customers picked up their sandwiches and left. She made sure to look nonchalant, or at least as mellow as one could when committing a criminal act. Word was you got five years for the first conviction, and the numbers piled up with each subsequent brush with the law. She was courting a jail sentence because of the tomato seeds she’d hidden in the bottom of her lunch tote.
It was Blair’s fault. Her wild-haired brother had somehow talked their parents into jumping ship—going Off-Grid, as it was called. Now they were stuck out there. Because of him they had no health insurance, no guarantee that next year’s crop would thrive and they’d have enough to eat, no PSI units, none of the supposed perks of being part of society. They were now persona non grata. Because of Blair’s boneheaded defiance, she risked everything to smuggle seeds to her parents.
Seeds were money to an Off-Gridder. The non-genetically modified varieties were rare, and easily a quarter of Cynda’s paycheck went into each packet. Once her parents had their own supply, her father would be able to establish his medical practice, no matter how rudimentary it might be, and that would generate income. Until that day, she would break the law. If it all fell apart, she’d be the one doing the jail time while Blair played farmer and ranted against the evils of society.
“Creep,” she muttered. “I should have drowned you when I had the chance.”
Her eyes slipped over the few patrons dining in. Nobody seemed out of place, but then a Gov agent wouldn’t. She had to figure her PSI interface would be mum about that, as well. The security geeks would know how to block that information. The PSI was great for scoping out your fellow citizens, but it seemed mute when it came to the Powers That Be.
She heard the double doors open behind her and Eli reappeared, lunch tote in hand.
He placed the wrapped sandwich inside and handed over the tote with a smile. “I picked the crispest pickles for you,” Eli said.
“Thanks, E3. I appreciate it. Yours are always the best.”
Turning, she caught sight of a man paying a bit too much attention. She knew it wasn’t her figure. Ralph had once described her as a pipe cleaner with boobs.
Bluffing, Cynda took her sandwich to a nearby Designated Green Space. The ordinances allowed you to eat in a DGS, providing you weren’t there longer than thirty minutes: a rule designed to prevent vagrancy. Stay over the half-an-hour limit, and one of the black and white CopBots would order you to move on.
Settling on one of the ergo benches, she unwrapped the sandwich and took a bite. A satisfied sigh came unbidden; Eli’s creations were always heaven. A few benches away, the man who’d been watching her in the deli took a seat, licking a vanilla ice cream cone. A check of the PSI unit on her wrist told Cynda he was 37, single and worked for a mortgage company. On the Social Compatibility Scale, he rated 8.7 out of 10.
Not likely. The chickens were coming home to roost sooner than she’d hoped. The trip to Victorian London took on a new urgency. Maybe the heat would die down while she was gone. If not, she and Eli would be sharing the same cellblock at the Correction Facility. She wondered if E3’s wife would be able to smuggle in some dill pickles every now and then.
Time Rovers Book 1
Copyright ©2006 Jana Oliver
Cover image courtesy of Yocla Designs
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means now known or hereinafter invented, electronic or mechanical, including but not limited to photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law.
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