Sunday, August 14, 2011

118/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "Mirror Mirror On the Wolf..." by Alice Russell

(Not the same as the recorded version, but still suits the story I wrote.)

"What? I was just saying that humans won't be around forever!" He said it half-jokingly. He was lounging in the corner of a booth in a dark restaurant--a gastro-pub as they used to say. He wore a Trilby hat, slanted back on his head, thick-rimmed glasses though he didn't need a prescription, a tweed vest over a battered t-shirt, black denim, straight-legged. There was a light fuzz of dark beard. He'd be brooding if there wasn't a twinkle in his eyes and a smirk about his mouth.

His new friends held court around him. They were similarly dressed--they were having a midcentury moment, a popular throwback to fifty or sixty years ago, when men were men, which was itself a throwback to a century and a quarter earlier, to Beau Brummel, the rejector of dandies, and the irony was that all that origin was lost in the knot of people in the booth because they were the new dandies. Of course he knew it. He was a student of history. He was flaunting it, playing with it, playing with them. He called himself Jed around them. Appropriately vague. As if someone had given him a Biblical name and he had pushed it aside, neutered it and neutered the idea behind it, a taming of customs.

I stood in the doorway next to the maitre'd's podium and waited for Jed to notice me. He would. I knew where he was, like he had an electromagnetic aura around him. We travelers could always feel the presence of each other.

There was laughter. Then he got quiet. I saw him flick his eyes up, then a quick smile at a friend. I moved in, slowly. I wasn't sure if he would try to run. He always had a trick up his sleeve. He was caught in the booth, trapped by the others; he'd have to climb over them, maybe smash the window to make a getaway now. He wouldn't do that. He prided himself on his civility. And we didn't like messes.

"Hello Jed," I said. I stopped by the table. I put a finger down on the white linen table cloth. Or maybe it wasn't linen these days--probably a poly-cotton blend with stain resistance--something that didn't take a lot of effort to launder. Jed tipped his hat and swallowed hard. The others got quiet and turned to look at me. I'm sure I looked like an interloper. I always wore jeans and a t-shirt with a simple black jacket--proletarian, egalitarian, utilitarian, reasonably gender and class neutral--appropriate for a whole swath of decades when I needed to be invisible, but not right for instances like this. It probably made me look like badly-dressed undercover cop, which wasn't far from the truth.

"This is Augusta," said Jed. "This is Pete, Mark, William, and Cybil." They nodded at me but I didn't take my eyes of Jed. "They're working on the campaign with me."

"I know," I said.

"Do we have your vote tomorrow?" asked Cybil politely from the corner opposite Jed.

"I don't vote," I said.

"That's a shame," said Mark.

"Better that, than voting for Senator Forster," said Cybil chuckling. She fidgeted with her fingers and it looked like a cigarette was missing between them.

"I'm sure you have the campaign locked up," I said.

"We do," said William. They were circling their wagons around Jed, their leader. Wherever he went, he wheedled his way in. He was an expert in penetrating cliques. People instinctively flocked to him. He was a natural shepherd. He was good, that's why we still had faith in him, but he had a habit of lingering and that can change the outcome of things.

"Jed, come with me please." I tried not to sound demanding. I had to extricate him without making a scene.

Jed took a drink from his glass, then replaced it carefully back down in its circle of condensation.

"They have artisanal beer here, Augusta," he said. "Why don't you join us? We were just having a philosophical discussion about this 2012 business." He grinned and winked at me.

"It's more than a month away and people are going ape-shit over it," said Mark laughing, "buying up bottled water, vitamins, diapers, and ammo, like hiding in your basement with a gun is going to stave off the end of the world."

"There's no such thing," said Cybil. "How many times in history have people freaked out about round dates and prognostications by bearded men? It's just people being gullible and idiotic."

"But as Jed was saying, we're not going to last forever," said Pete, clinking his glass in the table for emphasis.

"What I meant is that we're not going to be here when the Universe finally winks out and dies, when it expands too far to support life," said Jed. "We'll probably be gone long before then, but it won't be on December 21st. What do you think, Augusta?" He winked at me.

"Jed, you have an appointment." I put my hands behind my back--a non-confrontational gesture where I could still stand my ground.

"No, I don't think so," he said.

"Is there a problem here?" asked William.

"No," said Jed, smiling. "Augusta here is an old friend. She's just looking out for me. She works for my father."

He could spin a tale all right. I could see in their expressions, the muscles in their faces, that they were feeling more at ease with each word moving out of his lips. I decided to pick up his thread.

"That makes me sound like an employee," I chuckled and forced a bit of smile. I wasn't nearly as smooth as he was at this.

"Well, technically you are," he said. "But of course it's unseemly to have wealth these days. Can't be seen to have handlers--not unless you're Forster of course," big laughs around the table, "But you know me guys. I might be a rich kid, but I'm here in the trenches slogging it out with everyone else." Wow, that yarn had some jogging legs. There were knowing nods. One of them raised a glass to Jed then drank deeply.

"Am I that obvious?" I asked sheepishly. They were quiet. Suddenly there was a gulf. I was in a different class. A servant. I reminder of autocracy, whereas they thought they were fighting for the even-playing field. It was ironic then because they were the ones who put up the fence between us, by believing in Jed's story. It was highly amusing, but I was losing time. "We still need to go."

"Five minutes," said Jed, stroking the side of his beer glass. He was negotiating. Man was he stubborn.

"Now," I said gently. To the others I said, "but I'll have him back in a couple of hours. I know tomorrow is a big day. I'm sure you're all anticipating the returns." It was a lie. There was no coming back.

"Sure," said Jed quietly. He capitulated. It was too easy. I was suspicious. Or maybe he was just tired. He fished out his wallet and threw some wrinkled bills on the table. William stood up to let him out, and Jed slid across the leather seat. He adjusted his clothes when he stood, buttoning up his vest. "Duty calls," he said to the group. "I'll see you in a bit."

We walked side-by-side. I had my hands in my pockets, my right hand around a small era-appropriate taser. We walked out of the restaurant and into setting sunlight. The air was crisp and I could smell winter in the future.

"Well done," he said, as we walked down the sidewalk. I was surprised.

"Well done?"

"You're getting better at this. That's all I meant."

"Is that why you came so easily?"

"I'm trying not to push my luck. This is an interesting case, but I want to see more."

"You're a big risk."

"I know. I just feel for them, you know?" He looked over at me and rubbed his hands. He brought them to his mouth to exhale warm air on them. "Should have brought a coat."

"We've already cleaned out your room," I said.

"Yeah, figured that would happen today."

"There would be no way to extract you tomorrow. There would be questions from the police. You'd be sucked into the investigation. You're credentials and background story are superficial at best. Any little digging, and everything could collapse. It's too much to clean up."

"Of course. Still, this was an exciting time. I would have been right there in the room when he got shot. I might even have seen the face of the shooter. I've always wanted to know."

"You can't be a direct witness. It's too close to affecting events."

"Yes, I know." We walked for a block in silence. I watched people go about their lives. People driving in big cars, people bustling into shops and restaurants, chatting about the little events in their lives, the little daily accumulus that amounts to nothing and affects nothing in the end. Soon they would be talking about a big event, right near them, shockingly, how could this happen in their neighborhood magnitude, something that would affect the course of civilization, but not end it. Jed continued.

"I've always wanted to go back to 1963. Dallas," said Jed. I scoffed. "Silly, I know."

"Just because it's famous, doesn't mean it matters much."

"It mattered to the people involved," said Jed.

"I'm sure it was covered," I know it was. I was there. I couldn't tell Jed that though.

"It's all covered," said Jed. "Sometimes I wonder if all of it's just a facade, and everyone's a traveler. We're all just playing roles and keeping our secrets to ourselves. All of it would be made up and history is just Kabuki."

"That's an interesting theory," I said. We turned down an alley. The extraction point was near. "but physics doesn't support it."

"Well, we still don't know everything there is to know about the Universe--or we'd be out of jobs." He grinned.

At the end of the alley was a black car with tinted windows. The back door opened. An earlier version of me got out.

"That was fast," she said, nodding to me. I nodded back. She ushered Jed into the car.

"I hope you're getting paid overtime," he said as he sat down in the back. "You're not coming?"

I shook my head 'no' and leaned into the doorframe.

"Stop teasing people about the end of the world," I said quietly.

"It's coming," said Jed. "They sense it, even if they can't put their finger on the date."

"It's still centuries away from this time. Don't encourage them. They need to think about their immediate futures."

"That is a nice luxury to have," he said. He took off his hat, laid it in his lap, and ran his fingers through his hair. "But I'm just having a bit of fun."

"Do your job," I said.

"Just because you don't enjoy it, doesn't mean I can't."

I started to close the door but Jed put out his foot. I knew what was coming because I'd already seen it.

"Don't you ever wish you could see beyond the block?" asked Jed. "Don't you wish you were allowed to travel past it? To see the great shining post-human future? Don't you wish our descendants weren't so cruel to us?"

I did wish it. I didn't say anything, but I glanced over at the earlier me. She looked up at the sky. I remember it was graying lilac turning dark.

"Don't you wish we weren't segregated to the past?" he continued. "To live our lives in the shadows and not being able to create anything new? They have us piecing together human history for them, exploring every nook and cranny, but it's just to keep us busy. You know this."

The block was our barrier. We didn't exist after it. We could live through time normally up to it, but once we got there, we had to travel back or die. Our descendants called us children, unfit to participate in the new phase of civilization. They lived with us for a century before the block. From their moment of creation they kept us in check. There was no resisting their rule. They treated us with humaneness, but it wasn't kindness. If I had one wish it would be to unmake them, to unravel the future and make it free again.

"I know," said my earlier self. She got in the driver's side and closed the door. I closed Jed's door. I could feel his aura behind the glass, smiling at me, and making me a fool. I blinked, and the car was gone. I always thought there should be rush of air during insertions and extractions, but the process was so finessed at this point that you couldn't tell anything had happened at all.

"Are you ready?"

I turned around and there he was, just as he promised. He was wearing more innocuous clothes. He had no glasses, no hat, no mid-century affectations. He was clean-shaven and his hair was longer. He would have just spent a month in 1982 if I recall correctly. He was older than I'd ever seen him--even though we had the technology to live indefinitely, our ultimate gift to the descendants, we still aged. He was definitely at the end of his story. He had lasted longer than me, tolerated more of this purgatory.

"Sure Jed."

"There's no one following us anymore."

"I know."

"But are you ready? Are you really ready?"

"If this is our one chance, then yes. Yes I am."

"They'll probably kill us as soon as we get there."

"I think they'll want to ask us why. How did we do it."

Jed smiled and took the small, modified extractor from his pocket. I removed the taser from mine. I opened it's case and pulled out a microchip. We had it manufactured in Mexico in 1992. It was a bulky thing, but it was the only time period we could get away doing it undetected. I gave the chip to Jed and he popped it into a slot on the side of the extractor.

"That's it," said Jed. He took my cold hand in his, which was still warm from wherever he inserted from. "To the end of the world." He pressed the button on the extractor. It would just be a second or two.

"To the end of the world," I said. I felt a wave of relief. It was over.

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