(This story was written for a humor anthology set in the Apocalyptic Universe invented by Yard Dog Press and Selina Rosen. Unfortunately, after five revisions over a year, I still could not cut it down to the 5K maximum word count. The story started at 9K words. 6,700 was as good as it got. I never submitted it. So instead I give it to you. It is in the form of a pastiche. Enjoy!)
I wasn’t overly troubled when we found out our host was not yet home. The Psychologist, the Editor, the Doctor, the Journalist, and the Silent Man (though why in creation he was invited I will never know), and I were more than happy to start supper without him.
The roast was succulent, the smell of it infusing the room long before Mrs. Watchett brought in the platter. Dessert jiggled beneath the new fangled incandescent light bulbs our missing host had blabbered about the month before. I’d almost forgotten about him until one of the others decided to speculate on his absence. Half-jokingly, I suggested he was out ‘time traveling.’
At the raised eyebrows of Editor and Journalist, the Psychologist stepped in to try and explain ‘the ingenious paradox and trick’ we’d witnessed the week before.
In the midst of the discussion, with plenty of interruptions from the Doctor, I happened to notice the door from the corridor open. “You’re here at last!”
My smile faltered at our host’s bedraggled appearance – hair mussed, vest ripped, mud-spattered on his pants. His face was pale and drawn. There were also dark stains on his muted yellow shirt.
The Doctor shot to his feet. “Good God, man, are you wounded?” Everyone’s attention was now riveted on our host.
He waved a dirty hand in our direction. “No, I’m fine.”
“But your shirt!”
He looked down at himself, somewhat dazed. “Oh, that’s not blood. It’s barbecue sauce.”
The Journalist’s eyes shone a small notebook and pencil already in hand. “That’s more than just vinegar and pepper, sir. Is it a new invention?”
Our host ignored him. “Gentlemen, I’m going to go wash and make myself presentable. Then I’ll come down and explain things…”
We watched him shuffle off, still stunned by his current state.
When he finally did reappear, he looked more the proper southern gentleman. Yet a weight still seemed to hang about his person.
“So, tell us, where have you been?” I asked, my curiosity grown even more piqued than before.
“All in good time.” He stared at the others for a moment. “Why don’t we retire to the smoking room? I think we would all find it more comfortable there.”
Being well acquainted with the place, I took it upon myself to bring out the brandy and pass snifters all around. The Traveler cradled his but did not drink. An old battered book sat in his lap. From my location, I could see the title – ‘Time Platform – How I plan to save my sanity from country idjits or die trying.’
“You were ‘time traveling,’ weren’t you?” I didn’t realize the question was mine until I spoke it.
Our host gave me a pleased smile. “Yes, indeed, I was.”
“You don’t expect us to believe this tomfoolery, do you?” The Editor glanced at the rest to include us in the statement. The light from the incandescent bulbs glinted brightly off the Silent Man’s glasses from where he sat in a corner.
“I don’t care what you believe, as long as you allow me to tell my tale.” His gaze turned to steel. “Will you allow me to tell it, sir? Without interruption?”
The Editor looked on him for a long moment then nodded. “Agreed.”
The Traveler took a sip of his drink.
After the meeting I had conducted with some of you last week, I spent all my energies on finishing the full sized machine. Finally at ten o’clock this very morning, I went on my first trip.
Stocking the engine and making sure the Flux Capacitor was in place, I climbed into the saddle. I reached forward to put my right hand on the starting lever and my left on the stopping one. My pulse raced, my hammering heart trying to match the pattern of the engine.
Before I could succumb to doubts and what-ifs, I pressed the first lever forward and almost immediately after, the second.
My insides felt like they jumped forward. The room grew dark. Mrs. Wachett walked in and traversed the room to the garden door, looking for me. This should have taken her a minute or more to do, to my perception, she zoomed about the room and was gone in moments.
Filled with wonder, I pushed the lever to its extreme position. Every breath brought more and more speed until night and day passed faster than a black wing flapped before the eyes and then turned into a constant twilight grayness.
The walls disappeared as if snapped from existence. A pressure built against me as if I were being thrust forward.
I glanced down at the dials and saw the hands registering the machine’s speed indicate it was going faster and faster. My surroundings built up and fell away like ribbons in the wind, others blinking in and out of existence before I could even register they were ever there.
Curiosity grew inside me as the machine continued to hurl into futurity until it became a need which must be satisfied. I pushed the stopping lever forward even as I pulled back on the other.
To my shock and momentary horror, the machine bucked beneath me like a crazed horse and sent me flying. There was a loud clap of thunder, and I hit the ground. Dazed, I tried to get up and for the first time got a look at my new surroundings.
Lush vegetation filled my field of vision, broad-leafed plants and springy grass, made of a green so deep it seemed surreal.
“Here!” “No, here!” “Here.” “Here.” “No, no, here!”
I took a step back, trying to figure out which direction the voices were coming from. “Hello?”
“Over there.” “No, over there.” “Over there, over there!”
The voices echoed from every direction, but I couldn’t look everywhere at once. What would the man of the future look like? What amazing things would they be able to show me?
Three arrived in the small clearing at the same time. They stopped, eyes wide, ogling me. I studied them back. There looked to be two males and one female. Both males were husky and sported scraggly beards, though both looked not far from having achieved puberty. They wore light blue thick cloth pants that continued up over the chest and were held up by what appeared to be short suspenders. Strangely shaped hats covered their heads — they sat like bowls, directly on the cranium, and sported a bill, which would keep the sunlight out of the eyes.
The female was younger than the two males, a child really, and though she didn’t have a hat, her clothing was identical to the males except for being pink. All three wore clunky shoes and no stockings.
Curiosity shone in their faces, and they didn’t seem to be afraid of me, though I was a stranger.
All three stared, their eyes scrunching as if my speech were unfamiliar. Then one of the boys straightened up. A grin spread across his face, showing a couple of empty spaces where teeth would typically have been. “Howdy!”
The other two then grinned as well and echoed what I hoped was a greeting. I didn’t recognize the word.
“Would you happen to be able to speak English?” Communication was one of the many problems of time travel I’d not thought to consider until that very moment.
This time it was the girl who answered. “We talk American!”
American? I was an American, to be sure, but I spoke English. Perhaps something had been lost in translation.
I snapped around at the shout. Three more young natives had arrived and were currently touching and climbing into the time traveling machine. My heart gave a small lurch of panic as they scrambled over it, knowing it was my only means to get home. “No, please, don’t touch anything!”
I tried to wave them away, quickly making my way over to the machine.
I unscrewed the two short levers and placed them in my pocket. Without those, they wouldn’t be able to start the machine. I hoped the casing over the engine and the rest would protect the Flux Capacitor from any further curious probing.
“Can you take me to your parents? Your leader, perhaps?” I was forced to smack the hand of the boy who’d declared the lever a Shiny when I caught him trying to sneak a hand into my pocket. “Bad boy.”
The young man backed away, putting his smarting fingers in his mouth, looking like a pup disciplined for making a mess.
“He talks and looks funny.” One of the girls giggled, while the boys outright guffawed.
I stared at them in some shock, never having expected beings of the future to be rude. “Where do you live? Do you have a home?”
“Take him home!” Soon they were all bouncing up and down. “Take him home! Take him home!”
They started herding me in a particular direction, though all I could see was foliage all around. I glanced back toward the machine, determined to try and recall where it was so I could return to it when need be.
Before long, the foliage decreased and opened up onto a small valley. Below were large rectangular structures, glinting like metal in the sun, set in a gigantic circle about a vast domed building with a bell encased at the top. As they came closer, I noticed that porches were attached to many of the strange metal edifices, with rocking chairs sitting inside them. These must be futuristic homes.
Rusting sculptures sat in front of some of the houses mounted on what appeared to be large blocks. Dogs of all ages and sizes lay lazily on the porches or amidst the unique sculptures. Cows and a few bulls roamed the area without fear. A few even wore hats.
The smell of cooking meat suffused the air: meat and something sweeter, something which I could not identify. The children led me around the large dome to where an open-walled structure rested. The building was full of people, all busily tending fires set in small black grills, vegetables and meat cooking away, gobs of a reddish substance smeared over all of them.
“Who that?” This came from an old bent man who spotted us first.
“Who that who?” Several faces now turned in our direction. Like a ripple on the surface of a lake from a thrown stone, more and more of them swiveled to look our way. As if a homogeneous whole, they removed themselves from the building and surrounded me.
The males wore clothing like the children but in a much darker blue. Most had beards and mustaches that draped over their chests, almost like badges of honor. The women wore shifts with different prints, indecently exposing their ankles and knees, even their arms! All seemed healthy for the most part, except a few whose breath could have stunned a bull into immobility. I quickly made sure to stay as far away from these as possible.
All in all, there looked to be about two hundred souls living in the community.
“You a Holy One?” A pregnant woman leaned in close. Several others were suddenly also invading the immediate space around me as if only now thinking of this possible new aspect.
“No, no, I’m not. I am only a traveler.”
“Sure he ain’t. Don’t look right. Don’t smell right.” It was the old bent man. He kept lightly smacking some of the others with his stick to keep them from getting in his way. I was very tempted to do the same. Hands kept reaching out to touch my clothes, my hands, face, and hair.
“Give the feller some room!” The old man swung the stick a little harder. Everyone else slowly backed off, their faces still shining with childlike curiosity.
The elder came close and took a sniff. “Nope, not ripe.”
“Are you their leader?”
The old man kept sniffing. “Hm, something else though…” Suddenly a look of utter terror crossed his face. “The food! The food’s a BURNING!”
Screams filled the area and a massive stampede headed toward the open-sided building and the grills.
The children, which now numbered at least a dozen, ringed me in again and moved me along as they sang. “Food’s a burning; food’s a burning!”
Sturdy tables were lined up parallel to each other, and it was here the children took me. They asked no questions, their curiosity seemingly satisfied just watching me breathe. I couldn’t help but feel like one of those malformed oddities displayed at cheap carnivals for pennies.
I tried posing some inquiries, but the children either didn’t know the answers or what they told me made little to no sense. I was thinking of trying to go to the adults and ask my questions there when they all gave a loud whoop and poured out of the structure with platters and platters of food.
“Napkins?” I glanced hopefully at the man who sat beside me.
The latter gave me a confused look and tore into a set of ribs with his teeth. I quickly inched a little farther from him.
Not wanting to insult my hosts, regardless of their seeming lack of etiquette, I removed an ear of corn slathered in the red sauce, just like everything else on the platters. With the tip of a finger, I scooped a sample of the paste then took a taste. The concoction was tangy and sweet and not altogether unpleasant. I took a bite of the corn. Perfection.
Red covered teeth grinned in my direction as I took another bite. While we ate, several men left the area and after a few minutes came back pushing a huffing and puffing machine of some sort. A great whoop came from the diners at the sight of it.
Shallow cups were stacked next to the machine and a clear liquid spewed from the tubes into them. Flashes of long nights in college labs and experiments with fermentation flashed through my mind.
Intrigued by this show of technology, I stood, and having little choice, licked my fingers then wiped them on my shirt, before going to take a look at the mechanism.
As my gaze roamed over the large tank, the feet of copper tubing, valves, and more, one of those standing pushed one of the filled cups into my hand. “Drink up, drink up!”
Again, trying not to offend my hosts, I did as I was bid. Surely their alcoholic inventions could not compare with those of my youth. I took a swallow.
The last thing I remember was liquid fire ripping my throat and the pervading sensation that my head had left my body.
I woke up to bright sunlight, my head pounding as if anvils were being dropped on it from above, my mouth tasting of mothballs. With a groan, I sat up, wiping away at the spittle dribbling from the corner of my mouth.
Only too vividly did I now recollect why I had sworn moonshine from my life in that final year at Harvard.
I stood up and instantly wished I’d never moved. The valley spun and dipped but eventually settled back into its proper place.
It was time to go home. I’d had my fill of the future. I was ready for some true civilization. I stumbled my way back to where I left the time machine.
Except, it was gone.
Chilling panic vibrating through my bones, I searched for any signs of where it might have gone.
Twin tracks on the ground indicated it was pushed toward the northwest. Like a drowning man after a life preserver, I pressed through the foliage to track it.
After what seemed like hours though I only moved a few feet, I stubbed my toe on a set of bronze doors sitting even with the ground. The tracks ended right in front of them. I could only assume the machine had been taken inside, yet I could not find a way to open the doors. Their bronze surface was unmarred except for a strange symbol etched on its surface of a tri-foil around a circle.
I fell to my knees, holding my head in my hands, despair, and my headache bashing at me.
I glanced up searching for God or inspiration when I noticed the towering white building resting mere feet from the doors. Previously hidden by the foliage, the thin building rose higher and higher before me ending in a strange metal half sphere, giving the impression of an open flower.
Rushing to the building, I moved around it looking for an opening. I didn’t locate one but did find my attention drawn to echoing sounds of laughter and running water. Might the Ohio River still exist after all this time?
I drifted in that direction, hoping against hope those playing by the water might have some idea of what happened to the time machine.
“Dare ya!” “Double dare ya!” “Tri, uh, qua, uh, dare ya too!”
One of the girls was wading out into the river while the others watched. As I approached, the girl waved at the others then gave a sharp squeal and sank out of sight for a moment. She resurfaced sputtering water. “Owie! Cramp! Owie!”
She was drowning, yet much to my shock, none of her fellows made a move to help but laughed at her instead. Had humanity truly degraded so far? Rushing to the edge, I kicked off my shoes and removed my vest before throwing myself in the river after her.
I found her in quick order, and grabbing her, dragged her back.
We both crawled gasping onto the shore. As I tried to regain my breath, I took a closer look at the girl. Straw colored hair was plastered onto a common looking round face. She wore a dress like the women, and the wet material had been rendered almost invisible and clung alluringly to her maturing form. Heat rushed to fill my neck and face as well as other places, and I quickly turned away from the sight.
“Thank you much! I am Weena May.”
My surprise at her gratitude, since I was coming to think of these people as containing few if any civilized emotions, changed to mortification as she suddenly rubbed against me like a cat.
“Ah, yes, glad to be of service.” Gently but firmly, I pushed her away. “Since I have helped you, will you help me?”
“Yes, yes, Weena May help!” She stared at me with obvious adoration. “Do anything you want!”
I turned away again, clearing my throat, hoping the day’s heat would dry her dress quickly.
“Do you know how to open the big, bronze doors?” I led her to the tower and the doors where the trail of the time machine ended.
“No, no, no. Leave alone. Holy Ones say no, no, no. Danger.” She backed away from the place. “Weena May hungry. Come eat.”
“I need to get in this door,” I insisted.
“No, no, no. Hungry. Eat. Now?” She stared at me, imploringly.
Perhaps some of the older folk would have more information. “All right. Let’s go back and eat.”
With a shrill giggle of pleasure, Weena May grabbed my hand, and we sped back to the valley. Leftovers from the previous night’s feast were set on platters in the covered area, people walking in and out taking whatever caught their fancy. I stared at the food with distaste, especially with the flies buzzing about. Tubs of sauce were set by the platters next to large spoons. Many of those there ladled on more of the reddish substance to the already covered fare.
Again I caught no sign of napkins and was once more relegated to licking my fingers and wiping off anything else left on my ruined shirt.
“Like barbecue? Good, yes?” Weena May gave me a sauce covered smile.
“Ah, yes. It’s lovely…” Soon all I could taste was the tangy sauce. It didn’t matter what I ate; it all had the same flavor.
When I could stand no more, I tried talking to some of the others. Most smiled at me indulgently and attempted to answer questions until I asked about the doors or the Holy Ones. “Bad place. Not for you. Bad place!” Weena May echoed these sentiments with them every single time.
In disgust, I made my way back to the doors, searching the nearby area for fallen tree limbs I might use to try to pry the doors open.
My efforts to open the doors were wasted. Broken tree limbs lay scattered around the area, blisters and cuts covered my hands, but the doors remained intact. Weena May watched my efforts in silence, her knees drawn up to her chest. As the sun lowered on the horizon, I gave up my efforts and allowed her to lead me back to the valley.
More food was cooked, but luckily no sign of the demon moonshine machine was seen. Yet I noted a vein of excitement rising about the people, one word coming up over and over through the din – revival.
A bell rang. All those around me jumped to their feet in glee. It was the bell atop the massive dome that took up the zone in front of the cooking area.
Weena May grabbed my arm and dragged me along as all the citizens of the valley, including the dogs, rushed around the dome. Large wooden doors were spread wide, welcoming us all into the interior.
Benches were set in long rows before a raised stage and a pulpit, making me believe it must be a church of some kind. I stared about in confusion, sitting down beside Weena May as the bell ringing stopped and blaring music poured down over us seemingly out of nowhere. I covered my ears, the metallic thrumming beating through my brain. All the citizens were on their feet, swaying lightly from side to side. Though it began only as a murmur at first, two words were said over and over and slowly grew in intensity. “Holy One, Holy One, Holy One.”
I jumped as a flash of light and smoke blasted from the stage. Everyone around me started yelling with glee, especially as a figure slid across the stage on his knees, wearing an orange and yellow jeweled suit that appeared to almost glow in the light. He even bore a pair of spectacles that seemed to shimmer, the actual lenses dark as night.
“Hello, Louisville!” The figure flashed a grin with a curled lip out to the audience and bobbed his head up and down while holding out both hands with the fingers extended except for the middle two, which were curled in, gold rings flashing on his fingers.
As the man stood up amidst enthusiastic cheering from those there, I realized there was something wrong with him. Yes, his hair was too long and slicked back with grease, yes, his clothes were so bright they hurt the eyes, but there was more. His skin was pale, too pale. His paleness somehow screamed of wrongness, of something dead. Yet there he stood, swaying and moving his hips around to the pounding music, as mobile as any of the rest of them.
“Holy One, Holy One, Holy One!”
“Yes, my brothers and sisters of soul, I am here! And the test results are in, children. We know who’s been naughty, and who’s been nice, even as the Big Guy rolls the dice! DNA for the win!”
Though the Holy One’s words were clear, if one ignored his thick ungenteel Georgia accent, they made little sense to me. And if I couldn’t understand his words, what about the others? None of them seemed bothered by this in the least.
“When I call your name, please come up on stage.” From inside the folds of the bright suit, the Holy One removed a folded piece of blue paper. “Doodle Bug, Martha Lee, and Neena Sue!”
I pressed forward, making my way closer to the stage, my gaze riveted on the Holy One. Those in the room cheered and trumpets blasted from the walls as the three chosen children rushed their way up to the stage.
“Welcome to geekdom and more, kids!” The Holy One took a white sheet from another pocket and peeling away a square from it, pasted one on each of the children’s chests. Squinting as I got close, I saw that each had writing on it – Hi! My name is – and then the child’s name.
“All right folks! Now for our second group of winners this evening! The greatly coveted Dinner Menu position! Are you all ready to find out who won? Are you?”
The crowd and the walls roared.
“I can’t hear you!”
The crowd roared again.
“Then let’s get on with it, shall we?” From yet another pocket, the Holy One withdrew a red note. “Billy Bob, Ned, Drucilla Ann, Joe Bob, and last but not least, Bugger! Come on down!”
The more I watched the Holy One, the more convinced I became there was something very wrong with him. The man didn’t seem to be breathing.
The winners screamed like banshees and rushed to the stage knocking their fellows around in their hurry. While the children picked earlier appeared relatively normal and in good health, this new group looked like candidates for town idiot – complete with recessed foreheads, drool, missing teeth, vacant stares.
As before, the Holy One went from one to the other, placing paper on their chests. Unlike the others, these said only ‘Dinner Menu’ and nothing else.
“Let’s give a hand to the winners now.” The Holy One clapped, and everyone else followed. “That’s what I’m talking about! Booyah!”
Trumpets flared once more from the walls followed by a high piercing whistle.
“Oh! Does everyone know what time it is?” The Holy One stared out expectantly at the audience.
“That’s right! It’s Communion Time! Where we partake of the Holy Drink in preparation to heeding His Commands!”
The backdrop curtain on stage parted and a huge red and white container, rolled out into view. A large mug dangled invitingly from a large spigot.
“Now everyone line up from that end. There’s plenty for all so no shoving or pushing!”
Giggling and laughing with anticipation, the people headed off to the left to do as they were told. I watched the natives take their turns at the spigot. Foam formed in the mug each time the Holy One let the liquid flow. It was of a brownish color. Soft encouragements of ‘chug, chug, chug’ rang out each time one of them went to drink. And invariably, when the drinker was done, a great belch would escape from them to echo in the tall room. They seemed in earnest as to who could make the biggest and loudest belch.
Civilization was truly gone.
The giggling and laughter increased as more and more of them received their turn. Many hopped from foot to foot as if no longer able to stay still. A few shook as if gripped by an outside force. My nose wrinkled as the burps filled the air with a sickly sweet smell. As soon as the last one drank, a big cheer went up and more fanfare rang from the walls. The red and white container disappeared back from whence it came.
Strangers then appeared from behind the curtain, as pasty white as the Holy One, but dressed in subdued colors. As one, they began herding the winners of both contests off the stage and toward the open doors.
The natives pushed the benches toward the walls, a feeling of rising expectation filling the room.
“All right my children! You have done well. Now let’s follow the Lord’s commandments and do our duty. You have burped and been filled with the holy glory which is Coca Cola, now you must do your part and reproduce at will! Be yea plentiful!”
And as if a switch were thrown on one of Edison’s new incandescent light bulbs, the natives fell on each other like ravening dogs.
I felt my knees go weak and slid down the wall as clothes flew everywhere and flesh pounded against flesh. The Holy One laughed like a loon and came off the stage head bobbing and his hands raised high in the same strange configuration as before. “Breed and multiply, baby. Breed and multiply! Thank you, thank you very much!”
I ducked down and hiding behind the shoved benches, struggled to follow the Holy One out of the hall. I had the feeling it was him and his fellows who took my machine. And at the moment I wanted nothing more than to escape this insanity of a future.
I’d almost made it to the open doors when someone grabbed my arm. My heart jumped into my throat then eased back down as I saw it was only Weena May. That is until I realized she was as undressed as all the rest.
“You, me, you, me!” She bounced up and down her budding attributes making my Adam’s apple bob as I swallowed hard, truly trying not to stare.
“I – I musn’t. I can’t!” I pushed her away harder than I meant to and she landed on the floor, tears springing to her eyes. A hand landed on her leg and pulled her back into the massive throng of wavering skin.
I stumbled out into the darkness, my heart heavy. Shaking my head, I made sure not to look back, instead scanning before me for some sign of the Holy One. Luck was with me. Far ahead, I saw the moonlight shine off something orange. The strangely dressed man was headed in the direction of the mysterious bronze doors.
By the time I reached the tower and the doors in the ground, there was no one there. The doors, however, were still open. And from a lone light suffused to the wall, I could see the time machine, sitting alone and forlorn inside at the end of a long steep ramp.
Though the back of my neck prickled upon looking at the deserted place, I didn’t hesitate. No sooner did I go inside, though, that the doors clanged shut behind me.
I rushed toward the machine. I straddled the seat and was reaching for the knobs in my pocket, when I was seized from behind. “Let go of me!”
Two of the pale men dragged me off the machine though I struggled against them. My kicks and jabs had no effect on them whatsoever. Their hands were cold, their mouths rancid. Corpses walked the earth.
“Now, now, there’s no reason to be violent. We’re all intelligent beings here, aren’t we?” The Holy One stood before me and gave me what I assumed he considered a friendly smile. The stench coming off the dead man made my stomach turn.
“Let him go, boys. Our guest here will behave, won’t you?”
I straightened my clothes when I was released. I was still a gentleman. “As you wish, sir.”
“Oh, but I do.” The Holy One put his arm through mine as if we were old friends. “Come this way.”
I tried my best not to cringe at the contact. I gave a swift glance behind me as I was led away from my only means of escape. “What do you want with me?”
“Oh, not much, really.”
We turned a corner and I gasped. A massive room stretched out before us, wide corridors heading off in different directions. Large machines hummed softly, lights blinking over them in dizzying patterns, managing who knew what marvels. Pipes and colored wiring covered the ceiling and wound off in different directions. Open carriages inside clear tubes rushed by with incredible speed to destinations unknown. For a moment, I forgot I’d been unwillingly brought here, my imagination soaring. This, this was the type of future I’d hoped to find.
“This is but a drop in the bucket, my friend. Our tunnels and manufacturing centers run throughout the entire planet. A natural utopia topside and a technological paradise inside. A balanced ecological system. Perfection.”
I felt a shiver travel up my spine. “But you’re not…”
“Alive? Human? Oh, but we are! We’re just more evolved — the crème of the crop.” He pointed them down the corridor on the right. “Did you have much of the local fare?”
“Some,” I admitted. “Is that a problem?”
“No, no problem. It just means we’ll need to wait for it to flush out of your system. While the sauce is quite useful for keeping the stock immune to the Yuppie 25 virus, you won’t be needing it. Evolution is in your future. You see, that machine of yours is utterly fascinating. We want to learn all about it. We even have a betting pool going to see whose theories come closest to what it actually does.”
I shivered again, not liking the cold dead stare from behind the dark spectacles of the Holy One. “What, what is it you intend to do with the children and the others? Though I tried to slow our pace, knowing the farther I got away from my machine the more difficulty I would have returning to it, the Holy One kept tugging me forward.
“The children are tested every few years and those showing exceptional aptitude are chosen.” The Holy One did a little skip. “This year the results yielded were phenomenal. Three children above the minimum range! Three. We’re all atwitter!” He sent me a sly look. “Now they will become our children. They’ll be fed nutritious meals without that awful barbecue sauce. They’ll be educated, groomed, taught to appreciate the finer things, and then, when they reach their twenty-first birthday, we will share our secret of immortality with them and push them to the next level.”
“And the others?”
“Well, let’s just say they’re not adding anything to the gene pool and will not be missed once they are served.”
Fear left me cold. All I could think of was how the papers on their chests had read ‘Dinner Menu’.
“Wooooooooo! Ned, go woooooo!”
One of the adult winners of the evening came around a corner, showing his pipe and taters. With a giddy smile on his face, he ran straight for us. “Hooooollllyyyy Ooooonnnneeeeee!”
“Stop, you!” One of the pale ones appeared from the same corner, heaving a meat cleaver in one hand.
Ned grabbed the Holy One and spun him in a circle giggling. Before the other two with them could grab hold, Ned rushed off again, leaving behind only the light scent of olive oil and paprika. They started after him.
As the Holy One reached for the wall to steady himself, I saw my chance and bolted.
At the main room, I angled left. My heart rate jumped as I saw the most glorious sight ever. Above the opening to the ramp which would lead to my freedom was a glowing sign with the word ‘exit’ in large red letters. It was a remarkable invention indeed!
“Forget him! Catch the other one, the other one!”
I put on a burst of speed at hearing the Holy One’s words. I already had the levers out of my pocket as I leaped to straddle the time machine. Losing no time at all, I shoved the lever forward after screwing it on.
The familiar thrumming of the machine’s engine coursed beneath me and the world began to change. I slumped forward in relief, only then daring to glance behind me. The great machines could still be seen in the distance, though there was no longer any sign of the others.
I kept the lever pushed forward for a long time. Cautiously, I pushed the breaking lever and slowed my journey eventually coming to a stop.
Not taking any time to really look about, I got off the machine and began pushing it back to what I hoped would be close to its original location.
The ground shook beneath me, but I still refused to look, determined only to achieve my goal. As soon as I felt I was where I should be, I hopped back on the machine and pulled the lever backward. Only then did I look up. I almost lost my grip on the lever at what I saw.
It was a giant apparatus, stomping around on three legs, the large green eye at its front peering down at me.
I felt the time machine’s effect kick in just as a red beam of light flashed from the eye in my direction. Reflexively I covered my face with my free arm, but I need not have bothered. I was unharmed.
I didn’t move the stopping lever again until the dials on the time machine told me I was home.
The room was quiet for several minutes as the Traveler’s tale came to an end. A jittered laugh from the Journalist finally broke the silence. I sat in my chair not daring to trust my legs to hold me up if I tried to stand.
“Well, I dare say,” intoned the Psychologist, “quite a fancy tale you’ve spun for us this evening.”
“It is nothing but the truth!” The Traveler’s hands shook. He touched his face. “Though here, in this place, it does make it harder to believe, and I’m the one who lived it!” He clutched at the book in his lap.
“Did you bring back any proof?” the Doctor asked.
The Traveler stared at him for a moment and then shook his head. “Aside from the stains from the sauce on my clothes, I have nothing. There was no time!”
A knowing look passed between the Editor and the Journalist. I could tell those two believed not a word.
“Why don’t we leave you to rest for now, my friend,” I suggested. “Things will look clearer in the morning, I am sure.”
“Yes, yes, as you say. Go, leave me.” He waved us all out, still clutching the book. “It was so much worse than he foretold. He must have failed…”
Somewhat hesitantly, we took our leave as he continued to mumble to himself.
The next morning found me back at the house at a rather early hour, which was totally unusual for me, but I’d barely been able to sleep a wink since hearing his tale the night before.
I found the Traveler pacing, looking as disturbed as I felt.
“Ah, you’ve come!” He rushed forward and shook my hand in greeting. “Now that I’m home, I’ve been able to do nothing but think of what occurred to me, of what I saw, of the doom looming over mankind in his future.”
I couldn’t admit to him that what kept me up most of the night was trying to picture the orgy at the revival – all that exposed flesh weaving and waving.
“I must go back, back to the future! I must see if I can find exactly when things began to go wrong.”
He waved the mysterious battered book at me. “Will you wait for me? I will come back to this very day if not this very hour once my purpose is served.”
“I, I, yes, of course.” What else could I have said?
“I will see you very soon.” And with that, he was gone.
I fretted for a moment, still daunted by what he wished to attempt if indeed anything he’d told us was true. I decided I would try and talk him out of this fool’s errand.
As I opened the door, I caught a glimpse of the machine and him sitting atop it, yet as I watched, both grew rapidly indistinct and in moments were gone.
Though I waited for him, the truth of all he’d told ringing in my heart, he did not return. It’s been three years from the time when he departed on that voyage, yet nary a word has been heard from him since.
But I have not been idle. No, indeed. For on that very first day, before Mrs. Watchett could secure the laundry, I retrieved the only sample of a means for humanity’s possible salvation – this strange red substance called barbecue sauce.
One way or another, humanity would be saved.