Out of Time
C.B. Lewis © 2020
All Rights Reserved
The house was unnaturally quiet.
It looked the same as usual: portraits of a family—mother and baby, father and toddler—on the walls, a scatter of Lego and jigsaw puzzles on the floor, a forgotten coat slung over the bannister at the top of the stairs.
The man walked onwards towards the staircase.
It was too quiet.
All he had to do was call out and break the silence, but he couldn’t.
Run and hide.
That was what his dad had told him. He had done what he was told.
The front door was cracked open, a thin slice of pale morning light cutting across the patterned tiles on the hall floor. It stretched on towards the lab, which was impossible. The sun was too high for it to stretch so far.
Something wasn’t right.
The stairs creaked underfoot as he crept down. The tiles in the hall were cold. His clothes were soaked. He didn’t remember why. They were wet, and he was cold, and it was all too quiet.
He saw—did he?—the body. A sheet. A shoe on a foot from under it. He saw it. A glimpse. He walked closer, and the sheet was still there. He reached out and grabbed the sheet to see the face of the one who did it.
There was nothing there. No one. The sheet fell from his numb fingers, vanishing before it hit the floor, and he walked onwards.
The door was open, no longer secret. They had cleaned the bloodstains, but he’d heard them talking quietly when they thought he couldn’t hear, and the handprints were back, smeared on the wall. Whose? He didn’t know.
Light shone up from the basement. The walls were white where they weren’t red. It wasn’t silent down there. The electric crackle of power hummed around him as he made his way down. It should all have been bigger. When he was there the first time, it all seemed so much bigger. He remembered the crackle, too, and knew what it meant.
Their secret, something no one had ever known.
He crossed the floor of the laboratory, ignoring the computers and the information all over them. The sound was coming from the next room, and he knew what he was going to see.
The temporal gate connected, blazing with light. The man standing before it, barely more than a silhouette.
“We’re running out of time.”
The voice was familiar, but it was wrong too, not the voice he remembered. Too many years without. Too many years of his memories being worn away. He couldn’t remember it now, not exactly, not the intonation, not the lilt or the accent.
He tried to speak, but his throat was closing up. He reached out towards his father, trying to catch him before he did what he always did. His fingers passed through his father’s shoulder as if it was nothing more than a shadow; then his father stepped through the gate. The world blazed white, dazzling him.
“No!” He ran towards the gate only to collide with a solid wall. Wall on all sides. Enclosed. Trapped. He was somewhere safe. Safe and closed and dark and alone until Dad came for him. The door was sealed and there was no way out, and in the dark he screamed—
Ben Sanders jolted, sitting bolt upright, panting. Iron bands squeezed his chest. He twisted frantically towards the glowing nightlight on the stool beside his bed. Staring at it, he counted down from thirty until his heartbeat evened out, and he could breathe again. He always kept the lighting low throughout the studio in case the nightlight failed. A shaft of white cracked through the ajar bathroom door. Not dark. Never dark.
His sheets clung to him, soaked with sweat. He pushed them aside and got out of the bed on unsteady legs. It took more effort than he liked to make it to the bathroom. He sank to the floor to sit by the toilet. The porcelain was cold as he propped his elbow on the seat, his fingers sinking into his sweat-matted hair.
Every night, it was getting worse. He knew why. How could he not? With every day that went by, he took another step closer to the day that would ruin his life. Time, time, time. That was what it came down to.
His stomach clenched, and he vomited, acid burning in his throat.
Any day now.
He got up and filled a glass of water at the sink. His reflection seemed more like someone half-dead, pale, with deep shadows beneath his eyes. He needed to rest, but not now. Not with his heart still pounding and the faint echo of his father’s voice lingering in his ears.
There was still so much to do.
“And this is all I will say of the abomination.” Enoch pressed one hand to his chest and bowed his head. “Farewell, and God be with ye.”
There were several seconds of silence.
Enoch raised his head, grinning. “It were all right, then?”
“Was,” Mack Robertson corrected for the fifteenth time in as many days. He glanced up from his folio, returning Enoch’s grin. “And yeah. Brilliant. I’ve never heard anyone get so angry with a spork before.”
Enoch snorted. “Neither fork, nor spoon, and twice as useless.” He scrambled off his couch and hurried over to Mack’s side. “They liked it?”
Janos Nagy returned from the sink and handed Enoch a cup of water. “They always like it.” Despite being some thirty years older than both Mack and Enoch, he took as much pleasure in the streams as either of them.
“Not all of them.” Enoch sat on the arm of Mack’s chair, trying to read some of the comments.
“I’ll get them all in a file for you,” Mack said. “The live ones as well.”
Enoch squeezed his shoulder gratefully. Though he’d been given the best tutors money could hire, he still did poorly with his letters. They became worse when there were a lot of them moving too fast for him to keep up.
Only a few years earlier, he had scarce been able to read at all. He’d had some schooling as a child, but his letters were so poor they thought him thickheaded. He cared naught when he worked the land, but then his life had been turned about when he’d walked through a shining gateway into another time.
Once, he had been a man of the 1750s, working hard to earn a scrap and doing what he had to. Now, thanks to the gateway, he had a grand home in one of the towering buildings of the Temporal Research Institute, dyslexia to confuse his letters, and something called a live-stream where thousands of people about the world would listen to what he had to say about strange things from modern life.
“I would that they would let me do another stream from those…” He knocked his knuckles on the chair, trying to recall the word. “The soup-markets?”
“Supermarket,” Janos said, sitting on the empty couch. He was a solemn man, but his mouth twitched. “You know why they say no.”
Enoch frowned at him, shaking his head. “The chicken was monstrous! Did you not see the size on it? I swear I might fit my whole head up its arse!”
“Oh, we know.” Mack’s eyes were dancing. “Everyone in a three-mile radius heard you yelling about it.” He closed the screens. “Anyway, we can’t go again. We’re banned. Officially.”
“Banned?” Enoch glanced between the two men.
“Banished,” Mack said gravely. “Forbidden.”
“For the chicken?”
Janos leaned forward, propping his forearms on his knees. One arm was false, the other real, but both seemed to work as well as the other. “They say your fans have been causing trouble.” His smile was there for true. “Some of them have been putting chickens on their heads.”
Enoch was both flattered and confused. “Why?”
Mack sniggered. “Because you said it. People listen.”
It greatly puzzled Enoch. It was true he was the first man from history to walk in modern times, and people thought him a strange marvel. It was strange to be in a world where people wanted to know his thoughts. They listened to him, and on their account, he found himself well paid and admired.
Sometimes, scholars came to speak to him, but they wanted to know about dull things, like crops and farming traditions. Waving a ten-pound chicken over his head and crying rage about it in a vast shop was much more fun.
It amazed him to learn people would pay money for him to talk and so much money too! He had more than fifty thousand a year, only for talking. No labour, no harvest, no hunting. For only his words, they thought him worth as much as his former master.
“About a chicken’s arse?”
Janos bit down on a smirk, and Mack laughed. “People like stupid shit.” Mack twisted his chair and elbowed Enoch on the hip. “They’re calling it ‘Noching’ when they go and find something you’ve done and copy it for a video.”
Sometimes, Mack made it easy to play the fool with him. “This one,” Enoch said, keeping his face solemn as the grave, “should be called Noch’s Cocks.”
To his delight, Janos chuckled.
Enoch stared at Mack instead, wide-eyed and puzzled. “Is something amiss?”
Mack’s face twisted up. He wanted to laugh, but Enoch knew Mack was never certain when Enoch was speaking in jest or seriousness. “I…I’m not sure it would be a good idea,” he finally said, his voice tight.
Jesu, it was too easy. “Why not?” Enoch widened his eyes. “The words sound akin to one another, and a cock is only a male chicken.”
Janos had his fist pressed to his mouth, muffling laughter. He scarce seemed to notice Mack glowering at him.
“Noooo,” Mack eventually said when it was clear Janos would be no help to him. “No. It—there’s another meaning…”
Enoch fought a smile. “Aye, and they would not be putting the chickens on their head, I think.”
“Ha!” Janos exclaimed, clapping his hands together. “Again! Dieter owes me another twenty.”
“Owes…” Mack narrowed his dark eyes to slits. “Shit, Enoch! Not again! I thought—” He groaned, dropping his head back against the couch. “One of these days, you’re not going to catch me out.”
“Shame on you,” Enoch sighed. “I know cocks well, upon my head or otherwise.” Janos made a choked sound. Some found him a hard man to amuse, but Enoch had never found it so. Enoch pantomimed putting a chicken against the front of his trews. “The security people would like it even less, I think.”
Both men burst out laughing, and Mack elbowed him in the thigh. “You’re a dick.”
“Cock,” Enoch corrected. “Best we dunt give them the idea, eh?”
“I’ll say! The chicken-hats are causing enough problems.”
Janos raised a finger. “Ah, but he was a farmhand. There are many stories of things lonely farmhands do…”
Enoch had to fight a laugh. So many of the people in the TRI went carefully about him, as if he might break apart if they jested about him. Janos was never like that. He had teased Enoch since the first months after he came through the gate. “I was but a virtuous labourer. I never saw a chicken, and no man can say otherwise.”
Mack rubbed at his brow with his knuckles. “Well, this conversation has taken a weird turn.”
“You began it,” Enoch said cheerfully.
“No!” Mack waved a finger at him. “I’m not taking the blame for you bringing up cocks!”
Enoch pressed his hand to his chest. “I have few enough skills, but bringing up cocks is one of them.”
Janos, it seemed, took his meaning where Mack did not. “No one from the world outside would believe the garbage you speak,” he said as he rose from the couch. “All this show of chaste little farmhand bullshit…”
Enoch smiled up at him. Janos was a man who favoured men and was married to one. Enoch had never told Janos of his own tastes, but sometimes, when a man was himself before friends, like called out to like. “Best no one tells them, then.”
“One day,” Mack said, “you’re going to say something in the streams, and everyone’s going to know what a gutter-minded troll you are.”
“I live for the day,” Janos said as he walked towards the door. “I’ll laugh at the expressions on their faces.” He saluted them both. “You know where I can be found if you need anything.”
Enoch waved him out, then scratched at his cheek with a fingertip. “You say these people have made videos?” he said to Mack. “Would you be able to gather me some of them? I would see how well they did.”
“I’ll make a compilation,” Mack agreed, getting up. “There were a few messages from Diaval too.”
Enoch couldn’t keep from smiling. Diaval was one of the people who had watched his videos from the first day and always made time to speak his thoughts on them. “He’s been quiet of late.”
“I noticed,” said Mack. “Last couple of videos didn’t even get a peep out of him.”
“I should tell him he was missed.”
Mack screwed up his face. “You shouldn’t encourage your groupies.”
“I don’t encourage,” Enoch protested.
“Mm-hm. Sending private messages and saying you missed him can be considered encouraging.”
Enoch snorted. “You’re blethering again. He only likes my videos.”
“Encouraging,” Mack said, amused. He checked the time. “Now, though, I should get back to my department.” He gave Enoch his folio bud. “I’ll send over all the comments and videos as soon as I’m done this afternoon.”
Enoch watched him go.
Mack was always happy to help out with the streams. He said it was because he liked working with media, but Enoch knew Mack found it more interesting than his own work in the historical department of the TRI. There were others who could help, but Mack was useful and always pleased to come.
It was easier with Mack being close to the same age as him. They had offered older, wiser people, but Enoch said he liked to see how someone of his own age and manner lived. Mack let him see such things.
Sometimes, Enoch was tempted to see how far his requests could go.
The TRI wanted to keep him happy. He knew they blamed themselves for his life going awry.
A man called Ben Sanders, once a TRI worker, was the reason Enoch was living out his days in a future more than three hundred years beyond his own. The TRI had been responsible for the man, so they felt they were responsible for Enoch.
It wasn’t a bad life.
The TRI had offered to make him a home and a life outside the TRI, but he’d chosen to stay. There were plenty of reasons, not least because his letters were bad, and he scarce knew enough of the world to live alone. Having Mack’s company was another good reason.
Anyway, he had enough to keep him well busy.
He opened the folio bud and pulled up a screen to see the messages from Diaval. No matter how often he used it, the shining screen in front of his face felt like some kind of magic.
The text hung in the middle of the screen, and he touched the tiny triangle below it. At once, a melodic voice spoke the words. Enoch had never learned who the owner of the voice was, but it saved him struggling to read the letters.
Sporks? Really? Definitely not as interesting as your chicken.
Enoch made a face at the screen. “They forbade me another chicken.” The text appeared on the screen, and he waited.
I’m not surprised. I thought security was going to catch you.
Enoch pulled his feet up on the seat and propped his arms on his knees, trying to squash a grin. “I am quick as a rabbit.” He rested his chin on his arms. “Might I tell you something?”
Enoch gazed at the letters. “They keep telling me not to speak with you again. Or any of those who speak of my stream.” He made a disgusted sound, then paused to admire the blur of letters that spelled it. “M says I’m…” He tried to remember the phrase. “Encouraging my groupies.”
To protect the TRI, he could not use the full names of their staff members when talking to people online. Some people, they’d told him, didn’t enjoy the attention as much as he did.
Well, there are some weirdos out there.
Enoch snickered. “Aye. And you among them.”
You know what I mean.
Enoch smiled crookedly. In the twelve and six months since he’d begun the streams, a lot of the TRI people had said not to trust strangers on the end of a line. Sometimes, they’d said, the person was not who they claimed. It was easy enough to stop their fretting when he reminded them of Ben Sanders. They’d known him, and Ben Sanders still managed to do more damage to them than nameless folk on the end of a line.
It was on account of where Enoch had come from, he knew. They thought him from a simple time, when folk were innocent and foolish and could not understand deception. They yet saw him so—a soft-headed farmer’s lad from times gone by. It was simpler to allow them to believe such things.
Is M your tech man?
“He likes the daft things I do as much as you,” Enoch confirmed. “Someone in the market had a camera on him and all. Folk like to show everyone what they saw.”
I saw that. I think they called it two crazy guys and a chicken.
Enoch couldn’t help laughing. “If I am to be remembered for anything, I pray it’s for the chicken.” Across the room, the main door chimed. Enoch frowned. “I must away. Be well.”
Enoch closed the link then wandered across to open the door.
Sabine Hausmann smiled. A small lady compared to most others in the TRI, scarce a handspan taller than him, fair, and blue-eyed, she was the master of the TRI. “Another successful stream, I see.”
“It’s all well.” He pulled the door wider. “What will you?”
She crossed the threshold and waited until he closed the door. “I’ve received a message from Mr. O’Donohue. He asked you and Danny to head to the taskforce headquarters at noon tomorrow.”
Enoch blinked at her. “Aye? Did he say why?”
“Only that you might want to be there. I wanted to tell you in person and to see if you wanted me to arrange a pod.”
“Aye. I think I must go.” He scratched his chin. “They would only ask me if it were important…”
Sabine agreed. “Lysander wouldn’t say what’s going on, but it’s been weeks since you were last updated, so maybe they have news?”
If they had news, the world would turn again.
The task force was hunting for Ben Sanders, their rogue agent, led by Lysander O’Donohue, the man who had been master of the TRI before Sabine. They’d been seeking Sanders since his escape nearly three years earlier, and Enoch had a small part in it. They all knew Ben was to blame for Enoch’s place in the modern world, and they all thought it right and proper Enoch should have a part in catching him.
They’d once said that if Ben were found, they might find a way to return Enoch whence he came.
The matter was he didn’t want to return. His friends might think him mad, but he liked this new world for the monstrous chickens and the sporks and all the strange things. He had too many reasons to want to stay.
Enoch returned to his couch, sinking to sit. “Do you think they have found him?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” Sabine said. “It could just be some new development.”
“Tomorrow.” Enoch drew his feet onto the couch and propped his arms on his knees. “Aye. Let them know I’ll come. I’d like to know what news there is.”