This novellette was published in the March, 2011 issue of Analog Magazine
by John G. Hemry/Jack Campbell
In faded photographs, fifteen year-old Betty Knox had worn not just the usual modest skirts and blouses, but also the usual barely-concealed teenage uncertainty visible in eyes behind dark-framed glasses that hadn't really been fashionable even by the questionable standards of the mid-1960's. She looked like she should be carrying a book even when she didn't have one.
Now, fifteen year-old Betty had a wariness well-hidden in those same eyes as they glanced from side-to-side at her classmates. Unlike the rambunctious teens around her, she moved surely, carefully, more aware of what she was doing. She also moved, James Jones thought, like someone unaccustomed to her neat blouse, mid-length skirt and sensible shoes.
While the other teens leaving school streamed off in various directions, Jim sidled close to Betty as she briskly strode down the sidewalk. “Uh, hi.”
Her eyes shifted to him. “Hi.”
“Dictionary Jones. I know.” Betty was really giving herself away now. She should be getting a little shy, a little giggly, nervous at being approached by a boy of the same age whom she knew only because they shared the same school. Instead, Betty seemed amused, the veteran of decades of clumsy come-ons who thought this one not just lame, but also cute.
It annoyed Jim, so he cut to the chase. “And I know that after Johnson, Richard Nixon is elected president. Then Ford. Who comes next?”
Betty's amusement vanished, the wariness back and intensified. “Carter. Jimmy Carter.”
“Then Reagan. So now we both know who we are.”
“What the hell are you doing here?” Betty demanded, her nicely-permed hair flouncing prettily. “Why are they sending new people down right after we got here? Those stupid bastards should have –“
Jim cleared his throat loudly and Betty shut up with a guilty look around. “Long story short, they sent us as close to your arrival time as they could manage because the first wave disappeared.”
“Us? First wave? There's –“ Betty's voice caught. “Disappeared?”
Maybe to any adults watching from a distance they still looked like two kids strolling down the street, encumbered with school books, talking about the latest “music” from that new foreign singing group with the outlandish name The Beatles. But up close Jim could see the Betty in much more recent images, the Betty usually addressed as Doctor Knox. “Within a few months of the aimed arrival dates,” he explained, “every single one of you vanishes, usually with no record of what happened. Removing a few documents before old newspapers and records were digitized and data-based could get rid of whatever happened to you as long as it was low profile. But they found nothing you guys did to alter things, and only a few items saying that two of you were reported as runaways soon after your projected arrival times, and there's nothing on any of you after this October.”
“What about our bodies? The original ones?”
“The older bodies you left behind? Nobody came back, if that's what you're asking. The bodies are still there, but there's nobody home.”
“Slabs of meat,” Betty murmured.
“You don't have to get all poetic about it,” Jim said, stung by the image that also might now apply to his own much older self.
“I'm a geneticist, not a poet, Jim,” Betty snapped, sounding very much like Doctor Knox. “When are you from?”
“The year after we were sent?”
“It took a while to find people who might know you, who could find you as teens, and then to evaluate and train us.”
Betty detoured to a vacant bench at a bus stop and sat down, staring outward. “Why exactly are you here? To find out what went wrong? To try something different? To find out if the time patrol bagged the first group of us to keep us from altering history?”
Sitting down next to her, Jim shrugged. “All of the above. This is by far the longest trip into the past that has been attempted. Did it make you unstable? Did you actually arrive? Okay, you're here, and you don't seem unstable.”
“No more so than any other fifteen year-old girl.”
“But no one really believes in a time patrol. How could that work?”
“It couldn't.” Betty looked down at her legs stretched out in front of her. “What happened to the others? To me? I'm still trying to adjust to this. Look at my legs. I'd forgotten how good my legs looked when I was fifteen. At the time, I thought they were too short and too stocky. Which they were, compared to Barbie's legs.”
Jim felt his own midsection, flat and even. “Yeah. It's really strange. I keep expecting to be over ninety years old. I think I was in pretty good shape for that age, but compared to fifteen…”
“What does the process do when someone is sent back this many decades? Maybe it does create some kind of instability. Have they even discovered how it works in the time since I left?” Betty asked. “Even though it's only been two weeks for me.”
“Two weeks? Uh, no, they haven't figured it out yet. The mechanism causes something to be projected back to an earlier time, to an earlier age in the same body, but what that something is they don't know.”
Betty sighed. “Why not just call it a soul?”
“Too metaphysical. They're still vetoing ‘spirit' for the same reason. The people who trained me usually called it ‘self.'”
“That's nicely ambiguous. Science finally discovers that something besides the physical body makes us us and then doesn't want to deal with the implications.” Another sigh as Betty looked across the street without focusing on anything. “But we have to deal with the fact that time travel is only possible within the lifespan of any living human, so we can't send someone back to when all of this seriously began. If only we could get someone into Germany before they launched their big chemical manufacturing plants in the nineteenth century!”
Jim didn't see much sense in imagining that outcome, since it couldn't happen. “How are things going now for you? Have you attempted any progress on the mission yet?”
“Attempted?” Betty spun on him, glaring, her mood shifting with startling suddenness. “I'm a girl, Mr. Dictionary Jones! Guess who listens to girls in 1964?”
He could guess the answer by her tone. “Nobody?”
“Nobody! And they define ‘girl' as any female of any age!” Betty shot to her feet. “Let's keep walking. I can't just sit and talk about this.”
Jim hastened to keep up. “You're walking like Doctor Knox.”
Betty flinched and shortened her gait. “I hate this. I hate these clothes. I want to put on a t-shirt and a pair of blue jeans and a comfortable pair of sneakers, and I want to be able to move like my fifteen year-old self can move!” She jumped upward in mid-stride, then turned another glare on him. “We played basketball at school the other day. Girl's basketball. I took the first shot.” She mimicked a clean overhead toss at a basket. “Everybody gasped and the teacher told me I was unladylike, that only boys threw that way and if I wasn't careful I would damage my uterus.”
“Yes. I'd forgotten that the sort of physical activity we know is normal and healthy for girls was believed in 1964 to lead to athletic fields littered with expired uteruses.” Her anger faded as swiftly as it had come. “Anyway. After I got my bearings here I tried raising a few topics with my father, who is a physician. And a good one. I mentioned a few things about epigenetics, and he got this indulgent look and said when I went to college I'd learn about Lamarck and how wrong he was. Then my mother said maybe I'd want to get married instead of going to college and I said I could do both and everything went downhill from there. Of course, both of my marriages ended in divorces, so maybe mother had a point.”
“They don't know about epigenetics?”
“They barely know about genetics! I'd get further talking to Mendel, because he wouldn't have a lot of preconceptions about what he thought he knew.” Betty shook her head. “Except for preconceptions about ‘girls,' I suppose. It's complicated. Lamarck was wrong, but he was also right in a far more subtle way than people of his time could grasp. Humanity needed to figure out epigenetics decades earlier than we did if we are to halt the spread of effects on the human genome in time to make a difference. Right now, though, and for decades to come, it's assumed that either Darwin or Lamarck had to be right, rather than understanding that more than one means of adaptation exist, and that one of those means is directly affected by environmental conditions far less intense than radiation.”
She gave him a rueful look. “That's why this is going to be a long project, beginning with manually typing letters sent under other names than my own, male names, to nudge people in the right directions.”
“Except,” Jim pointed out, “the last record of Betty Knox the project could find in 2040 was a school paper at the end of September, 1964. As far as we could tell in 2040, you never got a chance to send any of those letters. Even if you became unstable as a result of the long trip into the past, there should be medical records of that, so the project thinks someone deliberately went after you.”
She stopped walking again to stare at him. “Are you a bodyguard? Is that it?”
“If I found you, and you weren't crazy, yeah.” Jim flexed one slim arm. “Not much there to work with, but I know a few things about unarmed combat. I don't remember ever crossing paths with you after we left school, but I served in the Marines for a while.”
“I don't think I ever talked to you when we were in school together. The first time, I mean. Dictionary Jones, a Marine?” Betty asked. “Where's your dictionary, anyway? You always carried that book around, and had it yesterday, so I guess you must have arrived since then.”
Jim scowled at the sidewalk. “I came in last night. It wasn't a dictionary. I didn't want to tell anyone what it really was.” He realized she was waiting for him to say more. “It was game rules. I was working on a role-playing game.”
“A game? You were a game geek before game geeks were cool?”
“I don't think game geeks have ever been cool,” Jim said. “Some of us made a lot of money and we impacted the culture a whole lot, but cool? Dictionary Jones never had a girlfriend, remember?”
“How many boyfriends do you think I had?”
They had reached a house he recognized as hers, not from ancient memories but from his briefings.
“We need to talk about whatever theories they developed in 2040 about what might have happened,” Betty said. “And I need to figure out how to contact the two other people I can find in this time to see if they're okay. I'll be honest with you. I have a lot of trouble believing that something bad has happened to everyone, and that something will happen to me. We do need to find out what caused –“
Jim turned to see a woman standing in the doorway of Betty's home.
“Why don't you and your friend come inside and have some cookies?” the woman called.
Doctor Betty Knox blushed liked any fifteen year old girl. “Damn! Mother must think you're a potential boyfriend for me. She thinks I need to study less and be more freaking feminine.”
“Do you talk like that in front of her?”
“Hell, no! I can't even say ‘hell, no' in front of mother. Not in 1964.” She gave a defeated shrug. “Come on. At least it'll explain why we're hanging around each other, Mister Bodyguard. But don't plan on getting lucky.”
Jim suddenly realized that ever since Betty Knox had mentioned her legs he had been aware of her body under those modest clothes. “Lucky?” he demanded, feeling guilty. “We're both fifteen!”
“Oh, yeah. Tight and virile young bodies with the hormones of teenagers and the experienced minds of the old and lecherous. They didn't warn me about how that would complicate things. Have you noticed trouble with focusing on one thing? How your thoughts bounce around?”
“Yes, now that you mention it.”
“Our physical brains, our bodies, are fifteen. Our selves are being affected by that.” She took a long, deep breath. “Maybe too much so. Maybe the danger lies within ourselves.”
Betty and he had spent a while strategizing in low voices over cookies and milk. It wasn't until Jim was leaving and caught the knowing expression on the face of Betty's mother that he realized how that must have looked, two teenagers with their heads close together for a long time.
One thing Betty had insisted upon was that he had to maintain his original life. “You can't go rogue from who you were at fifteen, Jim. This society couldn't handle that. Our parents couldn't handle it. That was the project's assessment before I came here and I've seen nothing to make me think different. You need to do your job for the project and live the life of Dictionary Jones at the same time.”
Now Jim walked up stairs he only dimly recalled, opening a back door whose image had completely faded from his memory, to see his mother standing in the kitchen making dinner. “Where were you?” she asked.
“I was visiting a friend.”
Times had changed. In 2040, parents would track their child's whereabouts constantly by GPS chip and freaked out at any deviation from planned, safe, organized and adult-supervised after-school activities. Funny how the restrictive society of 1964 also produced more freedom in other ways. “Is there anything I can help with?” Jim asked.
That earned him a startled look from his mother. “No. Thank you. Just go ahead and watch the TV until dinner.”
He ambled into the living room, trying to move more like a teenager, then spent almost a minute reflexively looking around for the remote before realizing there wouldn't be one. Jim walked to the hulking TV console, almost as big as the widescreen on one wall of his home in 2040 but with a screen barely twenty inches across, and after studying the knobs turned one until it clicked.
Aside from a humming sound, nothing happened. Jim waited, and waited, finally moving to peer inside the console through air vents in the side. The orange-reddish glow of vacuum tubes met his eyes. How long did it take vacuum tubes to warm up? His memories of that were dimmed by time and affected by what he had once accepted as typical.
Giving up, Jim went back to the couch and flopped down, grinning as he enjoyed the feel of being physically fifteen again. But then the grin vanished as his little sister Mary walked in.
She stopped and glared at him. “Is there something wrong with you?”
“Uh, no. I'm just glad to see you.” Mary had died abruptly in 2006 of an undiagnosed heart ailment.
“This morning at breakfast you looked at me like I was some kind of freak.”
“No! I was very glad to see you.” Already disoriented from his future self arriving in the early morning hours, it had been hard not to break down into tears when he saw Mary again. He had been told to be careful what he did, to avoid any unnecessary changes to the patterns of the past even though no one knew how hard it would be to actually change the past. But he would make sure that heart ailment was found in time.
She gave him a suspicious look, then went to the TV which had finally produced coarse black and white images. Mary flicked the channel changer, rapidly spinning past empty channels to only ones with signals. NBC, ABC, CBS. NBC, ABC, CBS. On the third go round of the same three channels, she stopped on one showing a dancing package of cigarettes.
Cigarette ads on TV. Somehow that seemed to epitomize the prevailing tendency toward self-inflicted poisoning. A line from Jim's training came back to him. Before leaded gasoline was banned in the United States, an estimated seven million tons of lead had been released into the air, soil and water from that source alone.
“There's nothing on,” Mary said with disgust.
That hadn't changed. How many times had Jim said the same thing after scrolling through hundreds of channels? He tried to remember when his family had bought their first color TV. One with transistors rather than vacuum tubes. It had been after he enlisted to avoid being drafted. What kind of idiot joins the Marines so he won't be drafted into the Army? Mary had said, her hair much longer then and her jacket adorned with a peace symbol.
“What are you looking at?” Mary demanded.
He realized that he had been watching her again, remembering all that had been, that once would be, and wondering what would happen now. There was only one way back from a trip into the past, and that was the old-fashioned way, living one day at a time. The Marines again? He had been lucky in ‘Nam, picking up only a few minor injuries and a lot of memories he had spent a long time trying to deal with. But it would take only a very tiny change in where he stood to put an enemy bullet into his heart rather than grazing his shoulder. He was no longer a kid to whom death was an alien thing that happened to others. He knew how easy it would be to die in ‘Nam if he risked it again.
And how could he stand seeing his old pals again at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, knowing which ones wouldn't be coming home? Could he even consider replaying that part of his past when a larger responsibility now rested on his shoulders? He had wondered about that before, but it had all been sort of abstract, not real. Now it was as real as the past which had become his only present.
“Somebody's deep in thought,” Jim's mother observed. “Dinner's ready. I made that frankfurter casserole you like.”
Jim sat down at the dinner table, grinning at the once-loved and now almost forgotten meal. But his smile faded as he thought about what was likely in that food. No. Not too much yet. Most of the stuff that leaches into the human food supply, or is deliberately introduced into it because it's thought harmless or even beneficial, comes later. Betty still has time to change things.
He had been ninety-one years old when the project contacted him. Unlike the newest generations, plagued by a host of ailments, there was nothing physical specifically wrong with Jim, just a very tired body, so that he faced each day knowing that it might be the last, and accepted that reality with weary resignation. He had already felt like a time traveler then, one who had jumped forward in time to a period when no one remembered the things which had been important when he had been young, and were now concerned with things he had never imagined as a young adult. But they had told him this was important, that he could make a difference, because almost eighty years ago he had gone to the same school with a girl who had become a highly respected geneticist and now needed help.
Jim looked at his mother again, fighting down a sense of disbelief. Alive. Healthy. Astounding things that he had taken for granted the first time he had been fifteen. She had died from cancer in 1984. Cancer later discovered to be triggered by some of the chemicals, plastics, and industrial byproducts which by the mid-twenty-first century were overwhelming humanity with its own toxins. Aggravating the assault on mankind were bacteria and viruses which had developed immunity to every countermeasure due to clumsy overuse of those countermeasures. By the time humanity figured out what its own creations and leavings were doing to it, it seemed to be too late to do anything about it.
Except that another discovery offered a way that might provide a head-start on solutions, and maybe a way to limit the damage which would be done. The first attempt had simply vanished in time, and now he had to find out why and help Betty change history in small ways that might over time add up to very big differences.
The next day, Jim stood in science class, staring at the silvery globules of mercury which the teacher had doled out to the students. This was one of the classes he shared with Betty, who sat at the other side of the room and was almost cringing away from her sample of mercury. The other kids were laughing and playing with the stuff, dipping pennies into it to see the copper acquire a silvery coating, and breaking it into little globules which would roll around and merge back into big globules. Tom Farand had stuck his finger into his mercury and was waving around a silver-coated digit.
“Make sure you wash your hands before you stick that finger in your mouth, Mr. Farand,” the science teacher instructed in a severe tone.
Betty shook her head like someone emerging from shock and her hand rocketed into the air. “Sir, isn't mercury an extremely toxic substance?”
“Toxic?” The science teacher nodded judiciously. “It can be poisonous if ingested, yes.”
“What about inhaling fumes? Or absorption through the skin? Couldn't even a tiny amount of mercury cause serious neurological problems?”
The other students were watching Betty now, some nudging each other and laughing, while she reddened slightly in embarrassment.
Jim raised his hand. “I've heard the same thing, sir. Mercury is incredibly neuropathic and ingesting even small quantities leads to sensory impairment.”
“Dictionary Jones and his big words,” someone whispered.
The teacher frowned. “I'm not aware of that, Mr. Jones. Or what you say, Miss Knox. If there are scientific studies which support what you say, and you want some extra credit, why don't you two produce a paper on the topic?”
By now most of the class had stopped laughing, and were looking down at their globules of mercury with worried expressions.
Betty swung by him as they left class. “Thank you. It was so nice not to be the sole voice of sanity. One small step at a time. We get people thinking about this a few years earlier, and let the results snowball. I hope.”
“Do those studies exist yet?” Jim asked.
“I don't know. That area wasn't supposed to be my priority. I did memorize some of the places and people who are working on things like that right now. But a big part of the problem is that existing means can't detect extremely low levels or the impact they're having. What's your specialty, Jim?”
Here it came. “I don't really have one. No advanced degrees at all. I did a lot of stuff, and have a decent general background in science and technology, but my primary qualification for being chosen for this was because I went to school here at the same time you did and I was still alive.”
“Oh.” But instead of getting arrogant or dismissive, as so many of the highly-degreed had reacted to such news, Betty smiled at him. “Some of the dumbest people I ever met had the most advanced degrees. See you after school.”
He watched her leave, smiling to himself, until a hand hit his shoulder hard enough to make him stumble. “When did you two fall in love, Dictionary?” Tom Farand asked, while several other boys laughed.
“We were talking about working together,” Jim said.
“Working? Nobody works with girls.”
The question seemed to stagger Farand for a moment. “Because they're girls!”
The sort of attitude that Betty had blown up about yesterday. Jim had vaguely remembered the ways women had been put down when he was young, but things had changed so much by 2040 that the reality of it had dimmed considerably. Now here it was, full strength, and he could only imagine how hard it been for Betty to suddenly be living with that again. The least he could do was stand up for her, but Jim's young hormones provided words before his older self could censor them. “Wow,” he said to Farand. “That is so dumb. The mercury must already be affecting your brain.”
Farand's face reddened. “Watch your mouth, Dictionary.” His right arm shot out to stiff-arm Jim's shoulder.
Jim's left arm came up and easily parried the blow in a move he had learned years from now, leaving Farand and the other nearby students gaping at him . “Sorry,” Jim said. “I shouldn't have put you down like that. But you shouldn't put down girls, either. And don't try to hit me again.” Jim turned and walked off toward his next class, realizing belatedly that he had just done something out of keeping with being fifteen.
As he left school that afternoon he saw Betty among a group of girls, most of them talking a mile-a-minute. Noticing him, Betty left the group, while the gaggle of girls pointed at Jim and emitted a gust of giggles. “God help me,” Betty whispered to Jim as they started walking. “They were talking about who the cutest Beatle was. I thought I was going to go insane.”
“I always liked Paul,” Jim commented, “though not in the same way the girls did.”
“Paul was great. I told them John was a jerk and they were all ‘no' and –“ Betty slapped her forehead. “Stop talking about it.”
“In a couple of years you can argue with them about who's the cutest Monkey.”
“Mickey,” Betty replied immediately, then slapped her forehead once more. “I haven't forgotten anything but my feelings are turning fifteen again. I have one of those portable record players and I spent a while last night listening to 45s on it. Why do I have a 45 of Lesley Gore singing ‘It's My Party'? Why did I listen to it?”
“You could get a copy of ‘You Don't Own Me,'” Jim suggested.
“Did that come out in '64? Talk about anachronisms! I need to find that record.” She bit her lip. “Are you starting to get a good appreciation for the challenges we're facing? Memories are one thing, reality is another.”
“Yeah. But because of that stupid civil defense drill we did today I did think of something else that might help.”
Betty gasped out a sad laugh. “Crouching under our desks as protection against nuclear weapons. How could anyone seriously believe that hiding under a spindly school desk would protect against a nuclear shock wave?”
“Duck and cover,” Jim recited. “Yeah. Ridiculous. But I was thinking how that changed, how people came to realize that nukes were more than just bigger bombs. People wrote books and made movies about nuclear weapons destroying everything and it changed how people thought about the weapons. Remember On the Beach?”
“Where everybody dies from radiation? That movie gave me nightmares.”
“That's the point!” Jim said. “Within a few years everybody is going to start getting nervous about radiation and mutants. I told you about my game. Well, I looked at what I'd done, and it's really a mess, because I didn't know how to design a game like that when I was fifteen. I can do it right now, though. I could redo Dungeons and Dragons or something, but I won't, because somebody else came up with that and I'm not going to steal their ideas even if they haven't had them yet.”
“Really?” Betty gave him a sidelong look. “Technically you can't steal something that someone else hasn't even created yet.”
“See, that's why I didn't become a lawyer,” Jim said. “I don't care about technicalities like that. It would be wrong. But, I can make a game about what's choking humanity to death in 2040.”
“Jim, you can't demonize technology. Some of the project's opponents accused us of wanting to do that, but that was never the intent. We need technology. It caused the problems but it also holds the solutions.“
“I know! I need to build a game where the enemies are produced not by paranormal evil, but by high-tech by-products. And you win by fighting, but part of the treasure is learning new stuff that you can use to help others and counteract the environmental toxins that make things dangerous for you, and if you're not careful your own weapons create more problems.”
Betty smiled widely at him. “That's brilliant. As well as ethical. You can guard me and help our mission. I can still focus primarily on advancing genetics research while both of us try to change attitudes about toxins and by-products. All right. This afternoon we check on Paul and Charlie, who will probably love your idea. I asked around about how to make long distance calls and I brought some money.”
Betty stopped at a pay phone booth, holding up a quarter. “We were all supposed to operate independently, and not even try to check on each other for about six months to allow us time to get settled in our young selves again. Paul and Charlie are two guys I know enough about to locate. I'll call them and see if they're still okay, and you can warn them”
“Aren't we going to need a lot more money than that?” Jim asked, eyeing the phone booth. When had those disappeared? How long after that had it been before pay phones themselves disappeared entirely?
She reached over and tapped his forehead with the coin. “A quarter is real money in 1964. See? It's actually made from silver. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of quarters, but it should be enough.”
Leaving the folding door to the phone booth open and lifting the handset, Betty rattled the cradle a few times, then waited. “Operator? I need to call someone in Stockton. Paul Davidson. He lives on Broward Street. Right.” She waited, rolling her eyes. “Stone age technology,” she mouthed at Jim.
He leaned close to whisper. “Won't the operator be able to listen in?”
“I'll be careful,” Betty whispered back, her free hand covering the lower part of the handset. “But we don't have any choice, Einstein. I can't find out his phone number without an operator and in 1964 some places still can't handle direct dialing of long-distance calls. What?” she said into the phone. “Yes. Please…put me through.”
Feeding a quarter into the phone, Betty waited. “Mrs. Davidson? I'm a pen pal of Paul's and I –“
Jim tensed at the way Betty's voice cut off.
“He is?” she finally said. “When? I'm so - No. If I do, I will. I'm so sorry. Did he seem okay before -? Thank you. Goodbye.” Betty hung up the phone, then took a deep breath and looked at Jim. “Paul disappeared a week and a half ago. No signs of problems. He just wasn't in bed one morning.”
“Try calling the other guy.”
But Charlie Bennet had vanished three days ago. He had left school but not made it home. All his desperate mother could tell Betty was that Charlie had been oddly attentive to her and happy in the days before he disappeared.
Jim looked both ways down the street, trying to appear casual as he searched for anyone watching them. “They'll be labeled runaways. Maybe an article in the local paper. A file at the local police department. Maybe an alert to different departments. Easy enough to make a few things like that go away before records were digitized.”
“What really happened to them?” Betty asked, wiping away tears.
“We know they never showed up again. Do the math.”
“Damn. Damn it to hell. Maybe there is a time patrol. A time patrol that works like the Gestapo.”
“I don't care if it's a damned killer cyborg. No one's getting you, Dr. Knox.”
“Call me Betty, you idiot.” She grasped his arm tightly. “Was anyone sent back at the same time as you to watch Paul and Charlie?”
“They didn't tell me,” Jim said. “With the first wave disappearing and all, there was a lot of concern about security with the second wave. There was also some talk I overheard about funds being really limited this time. I don't know how many there were, or who they were going to watch. And the aiming process must be more imprecise than we realized. I was supposed to get here within a day of your arrival, and I was two weeks off. There's no telling when any others arrived.”
Betty ran her free hand through her hair, keeping a firm grip on Jim with the other. “It's real. I kept hoping there was some overreaction, that nothing had really gone wrong. Maybe…maybe Paul and Charlie had some warning. Maybe they went underground to avoid some danger.”
“Betty, there's no trace in 2040 of any activity by them after this. Why wouldn't they have used the code words you guys were told to employ in public communications if anything went wrong?”
“I don't know. I'm glad you're here, Jim. What if they went crazy? Forgot who they were and fled their own homes because of some instability caused by a trip this far back?”
“That hasn't happened to you,” Jim pointed out.
One week had gone by, then another. Jim and Betty, lowering the pitch of their voices and using different pay phones, made calls to the police departments and hospitals around the areas where Paul and Charlie had lived, trying to find out any more information. But as the days passed with no signs of the boys, the police began responding with the word “runaway” and none of the hospitals reported having anyone matching the boys' descriptions.
Jim and Betty fell into a pattern. They walked to school each day, and then he walked her home in the afternoon, or to the library. One of the hardest things to adjust to had been the inability to have research data bases at their fingertips. Instead, Jim and Betty relearned the arts of looking up books in file catalogues and finding items in heavy encyclopedias. They also spent a good part of the weekends together. When not working at drafting her letters, they took breaks by working on his game rules.
Betty occasionally spoke openly of wanting Jim around in case she became mentally unstable, “though my teenage mood swings might make it hard to spot for a while.”
Despite Betty's protests, Jim also made a habit of sneaking out of his room every night. “I have to watch your house, and I have to watch for anyone else watching your house,” he explained.
“What if you're caught, Jim?” Betty asked.
“They don't have stalkers in 1964. They have love-struck teens. I'm varying the times I sneak away from home, and varying how long I stay out watching your place. That increases my chances of spotting anyone hanging around your home and limits the chances of my being caught.”
“I still feel guilty knowing you're doing that.” Betty was taking a break as she massaged a hand cramped from manual note-taking. “It's bad enough that you have to spend so much time with me during the days.”
“It's not a hardship,” Jim replied. “I kind of like it.”
She smiled. “Then why haven't you tried to kiss me?”
“Because I don't trust myself. To stop at just kissing, I mean. I can't believe how hormone-addled I am sometimes.”
“Tell me about it.” Betty sighed. “You're right. We know too much about that, about how good it would feel, and our older selves might not have enough control to keep us from going too far. Especially since you're probably the only boy in our school who knows how to get a girl's bra off. If we got caught, there'd be hell to pay and you'd never be allowed within a half-kilometer of me again.”
“So instead we're being the models of well-behaved youth, circa 1964.”
“That is so weird, isn't it?” She picked up her pen. “Back to work, Mr. Jones.”
“Why haven't I seen Bill around?” his mother asked at dinner.
“Bill?” One of Jim's closest friends when he was fifteen. They had talked at school in the last few weeks, but that was it. “I guess he's been busy.”
“He's been busy?” Mary said. “Maybe you've been busy spending every minute with Betty Knox. They're always together,” Jim's little sister continued dramatically. “Every minute of every day. Everybody's talking about it.”
His mother bent a smile toward Jim. “I'm glad you're spending time with her. She's a smart girl. And a nice girl.”
Only because we don't dare do anything, Jim thought. “We've got a lot in common,” he mumbled, feeling fifteen years old again in every way.
“Mom said she was smart,” Mary remarked. “How could you have anything in common with her?”
“Maybe I have reservoirs of intellectual capacity that you've failed to appreciate.” No sooner had Jim said that than he knew it had been a mistake. His fifteen year old self never would've spoken that way at home, and now his mother, father and Mary were watching him with surprise. “I read that in a book,” he added hastily.
“What book was that?” his father asked.
Austen? It had sounded like something one of her characters would have said. But did teenage boys in 1964 read Jane Austen? Probably not. “Hemingway. Something by him.”
“Pretty long-winded for Hemingway,” Jim's father commented. He gave Jim a wink. “Be careful with this Betty girl. You might end up married to her some day.”
“If you're lucky,” his mother added.
To his horror, Jim realized that he was blushing.
The library was almost deserted this night, only a few other patrons far off among the book stacks and the librarian half-dozing at her desk, Jim and Betty bent over reference books as they noted contact information and important data. Realizing that Betty's pen had fallen silent, Jim looked up to see her staring blankly at the book in front of her. Without any warning, she leaped to her feet and ran down the nearest aisle between bookshelves.
Jim stood up slowly, tense with worry, and followed at a casual pace hoping that no one else had noticed Betty's sudden flight. He found her at the end of the shelves, facing into the corner between a shelf and the wall, her entire body shuddering with sobs. “Betty?” he said softly.
She didn't answer for a moment, then Betty started speaking while she kept her face to the wall, her voice coming out rough and so low he could barely hear it. “Ten years from now, my best friend in college, Cindy Arens, will be diagnosed with breast cancer. She'll die in 1975. Sixteen years from now my older brother will be diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He'll spend seventeen years suffering before dying from pneumonia. I'm fifteen, Jim. I'm physically alive in ways I'd long forgotten. But all around me I see people I know are dead, and sometimes I know how and when they died. And I can't stop it in time, even if it's something our work could eventually accomplish, and sometimes it's too damned hard to even think about. Do you understand? Or is this a sign that I'm losing it, becoming unstable?”
Jim tried to keep his own voice level, but heard it quaver. “I understand. Sometimes I feel like I'm in one of those movies where almost everyone has died but still walks, like I'm surrounded by ghosts or zombies. They don't want to hurt me, because they don't know I'm different. But I'm alive, and I have memories of them being dead. Most of the time, it's wonderful being young again and seeing them alive. But then…I remember their graves.”
She turned around, her face streaked with tears, and lunged into his arms. He held her, and she held him, while Betty buried her face in his shoulder. “I can't help them, Jim.”
“I know.” He heard his own voice cracking. “The Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed this year. Next year the big build-up begins in Vietnam. Nobody but us knows what's going to happen. I knew guys. They're alive now, they're kids like me, and they're going to go there. And some of them are going to die there. And even though I know what's going to happen, I can't stop it.”
Betty pulled back a little to watch him, misery in her eyes. “I'm so sorry. Our levers are so small, Jim, and the momentum of history is so strong. It will take a long time to make things change even a little. Too long to save Cindy. Too long to save my brother or your friends. We can't alter events that are taking place over the next few years. No one would listen to us. The generals, the politicians, the scientists and the doctors today, they all think they know the answers. So two fifteen-year-old kids stand up and say it's a mistake, you're doing it wrong, and why should they care?”
He felt old tears of his own coming. “One of the worst things…back then…sitting in the dirt…holding a guy whose life was leaking out…feeling so helpless…nothing I could do. And it's still like that. All over again.”
Betty shook her head. “No. You survived. You could do that. And you did the right thing, didn't you? I haven't really known you that long, Jim, but I'm sure you did the right thing.”
Jim nodded. “Yeah. I stayed alive. And I kept the faith. I didn't let anyone down. But it didn't matter, did it?”
Betty clasped him tightly, her head close to him again so her voice was slightly muffled. “It meant you were alive to come back and help me, and help everyone. Maybe we're all that's left, Jim. Maybe all the others in the first wave and your wave are gone and there won't be a third wave because the project seems to be a failure, and it's up to us to get people thinking a little quicker about environmental toxins and their effect on the human genome, to get research pointed in the right directions. We have to believe that we can make some difference. I didn't know it would be this hard to live among our past, but the future of billions of people is in our hands. That matters, doesn't it?”
He stared at the books before him, not seeing their titles. “I can't grasp that, Betty. Billions of people? That's too hard to get a handle on. I discovered a long time ago that someone like me keeps trying because someone else, someone they care about, needs them, is depending on them.”
“I need you, Jim. Is that good enough?”
His arms tightened about her. “Yeah.”
She wasn't crazy, just enduring the same thing which had been tormenting him. Somehow, knowing that someone else understood that, felt that, made it possible to endure. They stood there, holding each other as if sharing their strength, until the lights blinked to indicate the library was about to close, then Jim walked Betty home before he went to his home, a place that existed here and also as a distant memory.
The third week since his arrival was drawing to a close. The strange sensation of once again living within a dimly-remembered past had faded a bit, but Jim still felt a growing uneasiness, aware that the last trace of members of the first wave had been in October, and they were well into that month now.
He and Betty had worked out a coping mechanism they called surfing the past. When around others, they tried to live in the moment, accepting and enjoying moments and people that had once been long gone. When alone together, they blocked out the present, working with each other to change the future. More than once Jim had wondered what it would have been like to be alone with his memories of the future.
“I said ‘thank God it's Friday' today and everybody looked at me like I said something amazing,” Betty commented as he walked her home. “I wonder if I just coined that phrase?”
“There you go changing history without thinking.” Jim's grin was cut off as he felt the itching between his shoulders that sometimes came when someone was watching him. “Excuse me.” He went to one knee, pretending to retie his shoelace, but angling his body as he knelt so the corner of his eye could see behind them.
A boy he didn't recognize was standing a little distance off, not-watching them in a way obvious to Jim.
Jim straightened up, walking with Betty, who eyed him. “What's the matter?”
“Don't look, but I think there's a boy our age watching us back there. Or watching you. I don't recognize him from school.”
“A boy our age.” Betty almost stumbled, catching herself. “That doesn't necessarily mean anything.”
Jim paused at a phone booth, using the reflection in a piece of glass to look behind them again. “I think he's still there, but a long ways back.”
“You can't tell if he's following us?”
“Not without making it clear I'm watching him.”
She looked frightened, but Betty's voice stayed steady. “We need to learn a lot more, Jim. If he is another time traveler, why did he come here? Why is he interfering with things, if he is? And what happened to Paul and Charlie and maybe all the others who came down with me?”
Jim nodded to her. “So I keep a closer watch out and a low profile. Not let on that I'm anything more than a typical kid who likes hanging out with you. And you keep a close watch out, too. Tomorrow we can walk around a bit more, and see if he shows up again. Maybe we'll be able to go someplace where you'll be able to get a good look at him.”
“All right.” They reached her home and Betty took a deep breath. “I am so glad you're here.” She leaned in and kissed him on the lips before he realized what she intended, then walked quickly to her front door.
Jim watched Betty's house a good part of the night, but saw no one. Saturday morning, yawning, he walked up to her front door and knocked.
Betty's mother answered, but instead of a welcoming smile she gave Jim a stiff look. “Betty can't come out today.”
The door closed in his face before Jim could say anything.
What the hell happened? Jim went back out to the street, then angled across some yards under cover, working his way around the back of Betty's house. Like any proper 1960s suburban home, Betty's house had a few trees and plenty of bushes along the fence line in the back yard, so Jim could stay concealed until he could see the ground-floor window of Betty's room. She was sitting there, looking out, and when he waved she put one finger to her lips to invoke silence before tossing him something.
Jim picked up a note wrapped around a pen. Mother saw me kiss you yesterday and was worried about me getting too serious with a boy. She tried to have The Talk with me. I made the mistake of trying to reassure her that I knew what I was doing and used the word condom. Mother almost spontaneously combusted. I'm grounded except for school while I consider the immorality of being knowledgeable about my physical health.
He nodded to her, tried to indicate wordlessly that he would keep an eye out, then waved a rueful goodbye before sneaking back out to the street. There was no use making things worse for Betty right now.
Jim had done this before, sneaking cautiously through night-shrouded terrain, from bush to tree, making no noise and alert to every movement and sound. At least this time he didn't have to worry about the VC or North Vietnamese regulars hunting him. Memories of the area around Khe Sanh flooded back as Jim moved into position and settled down to watch Betty's house, determined to remain through most of Saturday night.
Who was he watching for? Kids like him and Betty had minds and memories and knowledge from 2040, but they didn't look any different and none of them should be dumb enough to parade their anachronistic nature. The coincidence of the time travelers being targeted meant it had to be other time travelers at work. He had been told the time travel process was being worked on at multiple locations. It was hard and expensive, but the project wasn't the only outfit with access to the process. But who would kill kids and why?
The end days people? The ones who think everything happening in the mid-twenty-first century is God culling out the unfit before Armageddon? There's been some killings by groups who think like that.
But how would they get their hands on time travel equipment? And why would anyone with access to that stuff help some homicidal religious warriors? It's not just the time travel itself. Whoever this is, they know who was sent back and they know enough about where those people live to go after them.
Betty's right. We need to get our hands on this guy and get some answers.
Nothing had happened during his previous night shifts except for occasional routine neighborhood activity, but some instinct told him that something would occur tonight. It was almost an hour before anything out of the ordinary did take place, though.
Whoever the other kid was, he wasn't skilled at concealment. Jim heard him before he spotted the boy scuttling along in a fast, noisy, and obvious way apparently learned from watching bad action movies. The boy seemed to be the same size as the one Jim had seen on Friday. He wasn't alone this time, though. With him was another boy, one who bulked physically larger. Either he was a few years older, or he had a powerful build.
Jim watched from concealment between two bushes, ready to move if necessary but wanting to size up the opposition. The two other boys reached the back of Betty's house, less than ten feet from Jim, but seemed totally oblivious to his hidden presence.
Light glinted on something in the hand of the larger boy. It had been a very long time ago when he had seen such things, but those were memories that didn't fade. It was the play of the moon's radiance on the dull metal of a knife blade.
Murder? The other cases had left no clues to the fate of the missing kids, and there had been nothing in future data bases. Teenage runaways were one thing, depressingly common, and often resulting in little publicity, especially during this period. But these two didn't want the kind of fuss that the murders of children in their bedrooms would create. How could they erase that kind of thing from public and private records? If these boys had homicidal intent, they weren't planning on killing Betty in her room or anywhere nearby. As with Paul and Charlie, they doubtless intended taking her somewhere distant first, and that meant they needed her able to walk.
The two boys didn't move toward Betty's window, instead casting constant looks toward one of the neighbor's houses, where a lighted window spoke of someone still awake.
Jim waited, watching, as the two boys grew more and more nervous, then after perhaps an hour and a half had a quiet, heated argument in whispers that Jim couldn't quite make out, though their frequent glances at the neighbor's lighted window made it clear they were worried about being seen by someone in that house. Finally, the two bolted, moving with their clumsy attempts at sneakiness out onto the street and vanished from sight.
He spent another hour on sentry, but the two didn't return even though the neighbor finally turned off his light.
Jim moved out with extreme caution, just in case the other two were still watching, but he found no trace of them.
He was certain they would be back the next night, though. The vaunted time patrol had arrived, in the form of two kids with a knife.
“Hi, Mrs. Knox. Can I see Betty?”
Mrs. Knox gave him the fish eye, shaking her head. “I'm afraid not.”
Jim tried to project the right degree of awkwardness, innocence and politeness. “Is she okay? I'm really worried she might be sick or something.”
Relaxing a bit, Betty's mother shook her head again. “Betty's all right. She just needs a little time to reflect.”
“Oh.” Show disappointment. Show teenage heartbreak. “I just came by to make sure she was okay.”
Mrs. Knox's severity melted into a reluctant smile. “All right, Jimmy. Wait here and you can talk to Betty at the door for a minute.”
A few minutes later, Betty opened the door. “Hi, Jim.” She cast her eyes to one side, indicating that her mother was just out of sight and listening.
What kind of message, what kind of warning, could he pass to her without her mother understanding and asking questions without answers anyone would believe? “Uh, I, uh, wanted to tell you…you remember that bird I saw on Friday afternoon? The one I talked about and you wanted to see it, too? It turns out there's two of them. I looked them up, and they're…seagulls. A type called naz gulls.”
“Naz gulls,” Betty repeated carefully.
“Yeah. Two naz gulls,” Jim said, changing the pronunciation slightly closer to the original word this time. He couldn't remember if The Lord of the Rings had already been published in the US by 1964, but the odds that Betty's mother had read it seemed comfortably remote. “They're here. I knew you'd want to know.”
“Yes.” Betty had paled, but then steadied and looked out on the street warily. “Uh…keep an eye on them, okay? But don't scare them off. Remember, I'd like to study them more, and learn why they're here and everything. If you scare them off, there's no telling when they might come back.”
“All right,” Jim agreed reluctantly. “I'll keep an eye out for them. I hope you're okay. I, uh, I wouldn't want anything to ever happen to you. You're…the neatest girl I've ever met.” He had meant the last to be a cute teenage sentiment to explain his stated worries about Betty to her mother, but to his own surprise Jim realized the feelings in his voice were sincere.
Betty's eyes went from the street to him, her own age and experience clear once more, then she smiled with a fifteen year-old girl's lack of guile. “Thanks. I think you're pretty neat, too.”
She sounded like she really meant it.
Sunday night. Jim had moved into concealment in Betty's backyard as early as he dared, risking detection since it wasn't quite dark enough to shield him completely. But he made it, settling down in a position he could hold, barely moving, for hours if necessary.
All around him the sounds of the neighborhood gradually subsided, lights going off, shapes moving behind curtained windows, voices barely heard, cars passing on the street. In some of those very houses might be children who would grow up to design or manufacture the many devices and other advances which would revolutionize medicine, agriculture, research, and transportation among other things, producing countless benefits for mankind. They would also produce leavings which would annihilate the lower end of the food chain, aggravate climate change, and poison humans in a thousand different ways.
He heard people taking out trash to the curb. Clean up your mess. How many mothers are telling how many children that? Keep your work area neat. How many fathers said that today? All the girl scouts and boy scouts are being told ‘safety first.' But those mothers and fathers, those children, are going to dump unbelievable messes into the water they drink, the food they eat, and the air they breathe. Technology tells us we need to keep our machines clean or they'll break down. Science tells us that equations have to be balanced, that remainders don't just go away. It's like Betty says. Hi-tech produced the problems we faced in 2040, but only because people weren't paying attention to things they already knew were important. We need to make them think about those things in time to make a difference, and use the tech to find the solutions before they create the problems.
The last noises had faded, the last lights had gone out in the houses around him. Jim had stopped wearing his wristwatch when he realized the glowing numbers on the dial used radium, but he guessed it was a little after midnight.
He heard the sound of footsteps, the rustle of more than one body pushing through shrubbery too fast to really be quiet. The two boys appeared, walking quickly and hunched over to keep low profiles. They went to Betty's window and peered inside. Once again the larger one carried a knife.
Sitting still then was the hardest thing that Jim had ever done. Whoever these guys were, they had to be caught in the act, unmistakably guilty, after hopefully being led into saying who they were and why they were after people like Betty.
But that meant Jim had to sit, watching as the larger one used his knife to pry open Betty's window. As the large boy scrambled inside, Jim took advantage of the noise to shift his own position so that he had his feet under him, ready to move in an instant. They won't kill her in her room. They didn't and they won't. He kept repeating that to himself while his heart pounded with growing fear.
Betty appeared at the window, moving slowly as she came over the sill and dropped to the ground, the large boy right behind her with his knife out. The other boy grabbed her arm and led Betty away, but she dug in her heels only a few feet from Jim's hiding place. “Who are you?” she whispered.
“We're friends from 2039,” the big one mumbled in an unconvincing way.
“Friends? You had that knife at my throat when I woke up! You threatened to kill me if I didn't keep quiet and come with you! But I'm not going any farther until you tell me who you are.”
The smaller boy spoke quickly. “It was for your own protection. We are from 2039, just like you are, but we can't talk now. It's not safe. Keep moving, don't make any noise and you won't be hurt.”
Betty stared at the smaller boy, who was trying to look away. “Professor Oldham,” she said. “Professor Conrad Oldham. It's you, isn't it?”
Conrad Oldham straightened his fourteen-year-old body and tried to look down on her, which didn't succeed since Betty had a couple of inches of height on him at this age. “For once in your life, Doctor Knox, listen to someone else. If you come along quietly, we'll explain what's happening and -”
“You're not part of the project. You argued against the project.”
Jim saw the white flash of a reassuring smile on Conrad Oldham's face. “The situation changed. Everything will be fine once I have a chance to tell you about it. Haven't you missed the opportunity to speak with someone else who understands what it's like to be here? We can share all that if you come along.” Oldham said the last as if expecting that would dissolve all resistance from Betty.
But she shook her head. “What are you doing here?” Betty asked.
“It's critical that I give you important new information. Why else would the project have sent me back here?”
“Why would the project send someone I had no reason to trust?”
Her failure to cooperate must have perplexed Oldham, because he just repeated his earlier argument. “I'll explain when we're away from here.”
“Like you explained to Paul Davidson and Charlie Bennet?” Betty asked.
Oldham didn't respond, seeming lost for words, and the larger one brandished his knife, dropping the pretense of comradeship. “Do it now!” he insisted.
“No!” Oldham told the larger boy. “There'll be too much to remove from the records if they find –“ He stopped speaking.
“My body?” Betty demanded. “Why, Professor? And who is this assassin?”
“Your only chance -” Oldham began in a conciliatory tone.
“Why? We disagreed. We argued. But murder –“
This time Oldham interrupted, his voice growing heated. “You and those like you wouldn't listen. The answers are in scientific research and technological applications. If you tie the hands of science then the problems will only be worse, and your project sought not just to bind science but to label it the cause of all of our problems! Humanity can't afford that kind of solution!”
“You never listened!” Betty shot back with the same anger. “That was never true, but all you saw was what you wanted to see. How scientific is that, professor?”
“You can twist my words any way you want, but the facts are that you would doom humanity and I have to save it.”
The large boy made a noise of derision. “Humanity is doomed. The end is upon us all, and those who would deny the will of the Almighty must be stopped.”
Even in the dark Jim could see Betty's eyes widen. “You allied yourself with them?”
Oldham shrugged. “If Hitler invaded hell, I'd find something good to say about the devil. Churchill said that. I had access to the required equipment and that group had access to the required funding. It's sometimes necessary to find allies where you can.”
“Allies willing to kill, you mean. To do the dirty work for you.” Betty's voice broke. “You murdered them? You knew those men. How could you…?”
Oldham looked away once more. “I didn't kill anyone. Neither did Gordon here. How can you murder someone in 1964 when they lived until 2039? That's a logical impossibility.”
“Is that how you're rationalizing it?”
“They lived long, full lives,” Oldham insisted. “How can you tell me that someone who was a great-grandfather in 2039 died in 1964? It's absurd and obviously violates causality. Therefore, it didn't happen.”
“You son of a bitch. You cold-blooded –“
“Shut up.” Gordon raised the knife again. “We need to shut her up now, whether you want it or not,” he told Oldham.
Jim launched out of his hiding place, his legs propelling him forward in a leap that brought him to Gordon before either of the other two boys realized what was happening. Gordon had just begun to turn when Jim's right fist punched hard into his side over the kidneys. As the large boy staggered with pain, Jim caught his knife hand and twisted the weapon free, then swung the hand and arm behind Gordon and slammed him face first into the grass, bringing his own body down on him hard enough to stun the boy and drive the wind from his lungs.
Oldham was staring open-mouthed toward Jim, then one hand dove for his pocket. Before it could reach its destination, the heel of Betty's palm smashed into Oldham's nose. As he reeled backwards, both hands to his face, Betty kicked him in the groin. “I've wanted to do that to you for years,” she said as Oldham collapsed.
Jim had whipped off Gordon's belt and was using it to hogtie him, then jumped up and went to Oldham. “Don't move or I'll kill you,” he told Oldham, and something in his voice must have made it clear that he wasn't bluffing because the other laid still. Pulling out his handkerchief, Jim covered his hand with it before reaching into Oldham's pocket and pulling out a switchblade that he tossed to one side.
“Betty,” Oldham gasped. “Dr. Knox. Listen. I can help. You're the last, you know. Our sources inside the project gave us all the names, and we got a few more that weren't on the list but were obviously working with the others. It'll be too hard for you alone. But with my assistance perhaps you can still have a chance to succeed. Gordon did all the killing. I swear it. I didn't want that. Let me go and we can work together -“
“You actually think that I'd be dumb enough to trust you?” Betty asked. “You never did think much of women, did you, professor? And since it's apparently escaped your own keen powers of observation, I'll point out that I'm not alone.”
“What are we going to do with these guys?” Jim asked. “If we let them go, they'll just keep trying to get us. But we can't imprison them.” That left one ugly alternative, one that he shied from.
Betty looked at him, a humorless smile slowly spreading across her face. “You're right. We can't imprison them. And I won't do what these two would have done to us. But these two juvenile delinquents must be runaways. And the justice system in 1964 doesn't look kindly on criminal juvenile delinquent runaways.” She knelt, pinning the handle of Gordon's knife to the ground with a knee and then, wincing, drew her arm across the edge of the knife. Standing up, the shallow cut dripping blood that she smeared across one cheek, Betty took a deep breath.
Betty's scream, long and laden with terror, echoed through the night, bouncing off the walls of the suburban houses as lights began flaring behind windows and doors banging open throughout the neighborhood.
By the time the first men arrived, some bearing handguns or improvised weapons, Betty was clinging to Jim, quivering, with tears streaming down her face. “Those two got into my room!” she yelled, pointing at Oldham and Gordon. “They threatened me with that knife and said they were going to do…terrible things to me! They said they'd killed other kids, too! Oh, but Jim was worried about me and he came by to look at my window and saw them pulling me out and he attacked them even though they had knives and he was sooooo brave.”
Betty stopped her semi-hysterical account long enough to gaze at Jim with such feigned but fervent admiration and gratitude that he nearly broke into laughter, which might have caused someone to question her story. But then some of the men were pounding Jim on the back and calling him a real man, while others were grabbing Oldham, who seemed frozen with horror, and Gordon, who was shouting out that they were all damned until someone rocked his head back with a hard blow.
The police officers who showed up were big men who didn't seem to worry about inflicting bruises as they handcuffed Oldham and Gordon, and then bundled them into the back seat of the police car. “Runaways. Armed assault. Burglary. Kidnapping,” one of the officers said to Betty's father. “And, uh…” The officer glanced toward Betty and lowered his voice. “Attempted rape and murder. Don't worry. The judge will take care of these two. They'll be locked up for a long time.”
“Betty said they mentioned two other boys by name,” Mr. Knox said, “and boasted of having killed them. I had her write down the names and the cities where the boys lived.”
The police officer took the paper, then turned a very hard look on Oldham and Gordon. “Murders. If what they told your daughter is true, they'll never come out of prison, sir, juveniles or not.”
“The smaller one is yelling something about being from the future,” the other police officer commented. “He's a little young to be a homicidal maniac, but you know kids these days.”
“It's that Dr. Spock,” the first officer said.
“And their music. Have you heard that ‘Louie, Louie' song?” the second officer said as they climbed into their car.
Mr. Knox offered his hand to Jim as the police drove away. “Mrs. Knox and I were a little concerned about Betty getting too serious with you, but from this night forward you're okay with us, son. I can't imagine a better man for my daughter.”
“How was Christmas?” Jim asked as he sat down beside Betty on her porch steps.
“Better than I expected.” Betty held up a large magazine. “I wrote a story about what happened with Oldham and Gordon, and I just got a letter saying this magazine's editor bought it. Only, instead of changing the names to protect the innocent, I used all our real names.”
“What magazine –“ Jim stopped when he saw the cover. “Analog Science Fact and Science Fiction? You sold a story to John W. Campbell?”
“Yeah. That's good, isn't it?”
“And,” Betty continued, “I used our names, like I said. There will be thousands of copies printed of that story. It will be in the data bases. Back in 2040, any search of past documents will ping on that story for certain because it has both of our names, and then the project's researchers will see Oldham's and Gordon's names and characters, and know what took place.”
“You used the real events?” Jim asked, thumbing through the magazine quickly. “I mean, the time travel and everything?”
“Of course I did. It's part of getting our message out, and I had to be certain that in 2040 they'd understand what had occurred, what had actually happened to all those other poor people who came back when I did. And I wanted them to know that James Jones is a hero.”
“Betty, I didn't –“
“Did I tell you yet that I'm going to marry you someday, Dictionary Jones? And we'll write more books and stories that contain what we want to say in ways that people today can accept, and publish your game, and I'll nudge researchers to aim them in the right directions, and some day I'll officially be Doctor Knox again and we'll be conducting the research. We're going to do this thing.”
Jim grinned at her. “Yes, we are. I wonder how many people reading that story will realize it's true? Science fact, not fiction.”
“I had to use what really happened,” Betty said, pointing to the magazine. “You can't make this stuff up.”