by M. Shaw
Previously: During an interview for the Cycling Magazine, I dared to ask world champion racer Vance Headstrong how it was that he did not age visibly during the 26 consecutive years in which he won the Tour de France. Notoriously touchy on the subject, he flew into a rage. But just as he was preparing to eject me from his house, we were attacked by a gang of machine-men who indiscriminately burned everything in sight.
Vance revealed that he was actually the inventor of the tachyon bike, a machine that looks just like a bicycle but has gears that rotate faster than light, allowing it to travel through time. Our assailants, he hastily explained, were the henchmen of the evil Dr. Eddington, a rival inventor who wanted to steal the tachyon bike for the furtherance of his quest for world domination.
Forced to flee? into the future, we ended up racing to save humankind from a pandemic unleashed by a much older Dr. Eddington. While searching his laboratory for the cure, we accidentally activated a machine that caused us to become telepathically linked, resulting in extreme confusion. However, the link eventually allowed Vance to find and release the cure, when Dr. Eddington revealed its location to me after I was captured. Vance defeated him in a deadly sword fight, but Dr. Eddington was able to escape, taunting us with the fact that he would be invincible as long as he possessed a certain device left on Earth by the Pirate Queen of Space in the 16th century.
After traveling to the past, we spent three years learning to control our new-found telepathic connection while living as carpenters in Constantinople. We finally tracked down the Pirate Queen in Ming Dynasty China and went forth to steal the device and keep it from coming into Eddington’s possession. Vance cleverly tricked her entire bodyguard corps into believing they were guests of honor at the imperial court, intending to attack the Pirate Queen by surprise and force her to relinquish the device. However, she fought back with unexpected tenacity…
It was here that I began to worry in earnest. At the moment when they drew swords, the Pirate Queen had somehow contrived to paralyze me from head to toe, disallowing my interference in the fight. She and Vance circled the room, eyes locked; an awkward action since, like all rooms in the Pirate Queen’s palace, it was triangular with a depressed floor, representative of the three-plus-one orders of reality on which her cult based its technology. Vance held a defensive posture, looking determined as ever. The Pirate Queen switched between strange, exotic stances. Her face was as motionless as a ballroom mask, except for the black-lipped ventral mouth under her chin, which seemed to be giggling.
Vance, I thought, directing it at him, how much do you know about kung fu sword? I think that’s what she’s using.
Admittedly, nothing, he thought back, though I’m hoping she knows equally little about Spanish saber, especially since the school I follow doesn’t exist yet. What are you just standing there for anyway?
As I explained it to him, it struck me that my present condition wasn’t exactly paralysis. It was more like being immersed in an incredibly thick medium, so unyielding as to make it almost impossible to move. When I tried very hard it seemed like I moved a bit—but so slowly as to be imperceptible.
Whatever it is, I’m sure she’s causing it. I’ll be released when you beat her, I think.
These things take much effort, he thought, and as he did I felt the harsh warmth in my temples that we had learned indicated mental agitation.
Just then they came together. A whirl of blades, moves so quick my untrained eye still couldn’t follow them, and the combatants retreated. Vance’s right thigh was bleeding badly.
She’s fast, he thought.
I was trying to go for the tachyon bike, parked against the wall a few yards to my left. My movement was so slow that I probably wouldn’t reach it before the fight was over, but I was sure that if I only could then I would save us both. Atom by atom, inch by inch…
Faster than she should be, he continued. I’m at peak physical form—I’m Vance-bloody-Headstrong, and she swats off my ripostes like they aren’t there. Human muscles shouldn’t be capable of this.
She’s not human, I reminded him.
Just the same…
As the Pirate Queen’s back passed in front of me, I caught a dull glint of metal from the area of her dorsal mouth. It was the most disturbing of her three mouths, located at the base of her neck, toothless, with a throat that diverged two ways to circumvent her spine. What we heard from her bodyguards earlier had made it sound like the mouth led to some sort of storage pouch located inside her body, from which she could retrieve objects using the hairy, spoon-shaped, six-inch-long tongue that protruded directly from the skin beneath the lower lip. The glint had come from the tongue.
I contacted Vance again. She’s holding something in her prehensile tongue.
I see it, M, now let me concentrate! he thought. Another, more intense flash of heat assaulted my temples.
I felt the stirrings of another emotion from Vance, but I didn’t have time to contemplate it. What happened next was perplexing. To begin with, I was released from my paralysis, rushed for the bike and mounted it. Simultaneously, the Pirate Queen became a blur of motion, fell upon Vance and left him bleeding. As I sprinted toward them, cranking the pedals as fast as my stiffened muscles would allow, he somehow managed to vault onto the bike so that we were riding the opposite of the way we normally did, with me in the saddle and him seated atop the handlebars. Vance started screaming and thinking instructions at me as to the bike’s proper operation as soon as I was on, but in my panic I didn’t manage to understand any of it. I would, of course, learn to properly operate the bike eventually, but that was much later on. This time I just pedaled and prayed.
I might as well say this now: despite what I have said before, I’m sure that some of you are reading this in the hope that I will divulge the principles or workings of the tachyon bike, especially after I have already reneged on my promise not to reveal the details of our brief and emotionally fraught love affair in Constantinople. Let me be clear that I did this solely because I felt it would be important to the reader’s understanding of the events surrounding it. I doubt that this will be the case in regards to the bike.
Even if I did, there would not be much I could say. The only person who can describe its design in perfect detail will be Vance, if and when he chooses to present himself. That, I believe, is something for which we all dearly hope.
When I came to, I was looking at something like a penguin. I was immediately terrified—I think I screamed–shrilly because the creature towered above me. Granted, I was sitting down, sprawled across a chair-like contrivance of tree roots, but it was still obvious that this was a far larger penguin than any species I was used to, being as it was slightly shorter than an average human woman and far more menacing (since the woman would not have had such a long and spear-like beak).
“Awk,” said the penguin by way of reflex.
As my vision came into focus, I found Vance standing off to the right, some distance behind the penguin.
Watch out! I thought.
“I’m aware of it,” he said. “Rest assured, there’s no reason to worry. The creature is my friend.”
I managed to stand up, doing it so clumsily that I’m sure I made it look as easy as a human fly act. What I perceived while seated had not been an illusion; the penguin, though in truth its physical features made it look more like a cross between a penguin and a cormorant, stood around five feet tall, coming about to my shoulder.
“Awrk,” it said, laying a wing across my shoulder. I gathered this was a gesture of reassurance.
“This must be a lot to take in since you’ve never been here before,” said Vance. “All will be explained directly. The first thing you must understand is that they are completely benevolent. All else will follow from that.” He thought to me, Remember the Byzantine alchemist. If you could handle him, you can handle this.
I nodded, but when I thought of the alchemist, all I could remember was what had happened to the poor man who overheard our conversation, and how long it took me to wash the stains out of my clothes. I did my best to bear up anyway, because Vance seemed confident enough. Anybody who has ever idolized someone will, I’m sure, understand my compulsion for such mimicry.
“Start explaining then,” I said. “Until I hear evidence to the contrary, I remain convinced that the only good birds are chicken and turkey.”
The penguin’s head slumped. Its wing dropped from my shoulder.
Don’t insult them! thought Vance. They can’t talk, but they can understand our speech.
You know I was talking about Eddington’s hummingbirds, I thought back. One could hardly blame me–even after three years I still wasn’t rid of the scars those tiny simulacra left on my back.
I know that. She doesn’t.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
The penguin nodded. In all my time with them I would never be sure whether their lack of speech made their adaptation of certain human non-verbal gestures more or less disconcerting.
What’s its name? I thought to Vance.
I don’t think they have names, he thought. All I can say on that score is that posterity knows them as the New Zealand Giant Penguin. I’ve never learned what they call themselves, if they have a name for their species at all.
As I moved further into consciousness, the details of my surroundings began to come to me. I was warm and covered with sweat, and the light was low–dawn or dusk, I couldn’t yet tell. We were surrounded by trees, but there was too much sky for it to be a forest. I could hear a muffled roar of water far off—sea water, by the smell.
“Where are we?” I asked at last.
The penguin began to waddle off.
“In the South Pacific, about 35 million years before the dawn of human civilization,” said Vance. “The individual you just met—no, don’t worry, we’re not supposed to follow her–is a member of what was Earth’s dominant species before humans. They’re extremely intelligent and infinitely capable, but don’t go letting that fool you into thinking they’re like us. They’re not.” He helped me walk a few steps, his arm around my shoulder. I felt, well, drunk. I wasn’t sure why.
“I’m terribly sorry to have to give this to you all in summary, by the way,” he continued. “I wish there was more time to give you the details, but with your excuses, I don’t plan on staying here long.”
I braced myself against an oddly-shaped tree much like the one whose roots had supported me, and dry-heaved. Doing so forced me to look down at my own body. Physically, I was fine. I only then realized that Vance, too, appeared unharmed.
“How much do you remember, by the way?”
I told him. He scoffed, making me cringe inwardly. His esteem still meant the world to me, as it always will.
“Well, you did a botch job on the bike,” he said. “Your cadence at that gear ratio returned an invalid query. It looks like you’re still recovering from the after-effects. I tried to tell you…”
“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I really am.”
Vance was incapable of a tender expression, but I believe that was what he intended. “I’m sure you are. Anyway, the bike is equipped with a failsafe that causes it to return here in the event of catastrophic hardware malfunction. So this is where we’ll be until we can get it fixed.”
We progressed slowly through the brush, him allowing somewhat grudgingly for my clumsy movement. He led intently in one direction and I followed with faith that he knew where we were going. The air was saturated with biting insects, compelling me to roll down my sleeves despite the heat.
“That statement opens up so many questions that I’m not sure where to begin,” I said.
“Then start anywhere you like,” he shouted back at me, bushwhacking farther ahead. ‘”I may answer the others in the process.”
I shrugged. “All right. Why here? And why do you say return here?”
“Simple. The tachyon bike was built here, and the only people who can fix it are here.”
“Yes, our friends the penguins. I told you, don’t underestimate them. Though they live primitively, their means of production are almost limitless, without requiring manufacturing or industry of any sort. They’re telekinetic, I think, but it must go beyond that. And before you ask, no, I’ve never seen them work. I’ve almost caught them in the act three or four times but they’re very secretive and very tricky. You won’t see them working on the bike, you’ll just see the finished bike when they’re ready to give it to us.”
The brushy habitat yielded abruptly to sandy beach. By the time we emerged the sun had gone very low in the sky–dusk, then.
Incredible as it may sound to you, reading this, I was able to accept Vance’s explanations readily enough. Telekinetic penguins were far from the most fantastical thing I had seen, or would see in my travels. I was beginning to take it for granted that I couldn’t trust anything I thought I knew previously, especially in these shifting temporal surroundings.
“You know,” he said, “my first time machine was a catastrophe. It’s still on this island somewhere. I got stuck. It wouldn’t return home. If it hadn’t been for the penguins…” He shook his head. “I didn’t understand what they were at first, spoke to them as a child would a dog. Told them about my original bicycle design for the time machine. I couldn’t make it because the necessary components would be impossible to fabricate with modern technology. One day, there it was.
“By that time I understood them enough to be less than surprised. Look.” He swept his arms gracefully outward, displaying them as a salesman would some showpiece. “They even fixed me. I had breaks all over. Getting onto the bike was the most painful thing I’ve yet experienced.” He gazed at his palms as if seeing them for the first time. “The Pirate Queen hit me with the flat of her blade. If she’d used the edge, I would be dead.”
It is possible for a person of highly unique experience to be completely alone even when surrounded by people focused exclusively on him. It was how I had long known that Vance felt each time he crossed the finish line at the end of the Tour, and how I could see that he felt that evening on the beach. Regardless of my presence, it was only him, alone with the riddle of the Pirate Queen’s mercy.
“Vance,” I said, hopeful of changing the mood, “why are we here, on the beach?”
He shook his head. “Oh, no reason. I just wanted to look at the ocean. Perspective, you know.”
I wanted to kiss him then. It was a compulsion that would never fully leave me, no matter how clear he made it that he was not interested. There were times when it made me resent him to the frenzied degree that the human heart reserves for objects of affection, especially in the days before I finally returned home.
There was a tent on the island, left over from Vance’s original expedition in the failed time machine. Inside was canned food, still quite edible. Not much time had passed in this era since his last visit. It wasn’t until I tasted the food that I realized how famished I was. That was the second best meal I ever ate (the best took place in a hermitage in the Himalayas, but that was later) and to this day I will never impugn chicken and stars. When one is hungry enough, all food is delicious.
After dinner I found it surprisingly easy to sleep. Vance did not. When I woke the next morning he was pacing in a circle around the tent, and told me he had been doing so for most of the night.
“Something’s bothering you, isn’t it?” I asked.
He nodded. “The Pirate Queen.”
“It would bother me too. Try not to let it get to you, though. Nobody wins them all.”
“It’s not that,” he said, looking off blankly into the forest. “Remember when her bodyguards were trying to decide which stories they should tell the Emperor about their exploits? Did those stories seem strangely benevolent to you?”
“More Robin Hood than Romulans,” I agreed. “Well, of course they’d try to paint themselves in a good light.”
Vance rubbed his chin. “I would come to the same conclusion myself, but for two things. One is that there was no cruelty in those stories. Cruel people always rejoice in their cruel behavior. Even when they whitewash their deeds, they do it by explaining that the people to whom they were cruel somehow deserved it.”
“Go on,” I said, still unconvinced.
“Secondly, they never talked about anything they’d done on Earth, even though they’d allegedly been here for over a hundred years at the time. If you want to impress someone with your deeds, it always works best if you talk about things within that person’s frame of reference. For example, people always admire me more as a cancer survivor than a cyclist, because more people can relate to cancer. People who have traveled widely, like our pirate friends, would know this. If they don’t want to talk about their exploits on Earth, even to a dignitary of that planet, it must mean that they aren’t particularly proud of them.”
“I see your point, though as a journalist I have to say it sounds a bit like tabloid logic,” I said. “Anyway, where are you going with this?”
“It goes back to that object she was holding in her tongue. Did it look familiar to you?”
“I only saw it very briefly.”
“And I only saw it reflected in the mirrors on the walls, but think of Dr. Eddington.”
“I’d rather not,” I said, scratching at the calluses on my back.
“I think it was the same device he wore as an amulet during our sword fight,” said Vance, plowing right over my discomfort. “That’s the device which he claims makes him invincible. It looked like a mere trinket at first, but now I’d be willing to bet that the core houses an energy cell of some kind. And I don’t think he understands what it is. If he did, he would know that it can affect time, such as the Pirate Queen did by slowing it down to a crawl around you and speeding it up around herself. He probably thinks it makes him invincible because he uses it to control certain bodily processes: healing of wounds, filtering poisons of his system, and so on. Which means–”
My heart caught in my throat. “Which means that if he stops going after the tachyon bike and realizes that he already owns a time machine… oh, Christ.”
“Not only a time machine, but something clearly ahead of my own work by leaps and bounds. And here’s what else,” he said with growing agitation. “Eddington and the Pirate Queen are both evil to a point that goes beyond humanity, that makes them more like caricatures, Saturday morning cartoon villains. I think the device is what’s doing that too. I think the Pirate Queen picked it up somewhere along the way and it turned her astray from her benevolent outlaw M.O. I think if we can destroy that device, we can save everyone. Eddington, the Pirate Queen, the Earth, the galaxy.”
“That’s an awful lot of speculation,” I said. “Are you sure you don’t just want her evil to be someone else’s fault?”
Vance glared at me quizzically. “The Pirate Queen? What are you talking about?”
I screwed up my courage, supposing it was now or never. “I felt that little spring in your emotions during your fight. Lust.” My fists clenched so tightly that my fingernails dug into my palms. The small physical pain helped spur me. “You’ve said what you think, now here’s what I think. I think you want her, in some perverse way, and I think you want her to be good in her heart. To make that lust okay.”
I felt a sharp flash of heat in my temples but very briefly from Vance. He looked me in the eye for a moment, then looked away. “That’s ridiculous,” he said, and that was that.
“It is not ridiculous, and I don’t want it to cloud your judgment when our lives are on the line.”
He said nothing.
It was merely the way that Vance dealt with any problem he couldn’t solve. In reference, for instance, to those six terrible hours when our minds became so entangled that neither of us could tell which body we inhabited, his method of coping would be to simply never think of it again. In this case, I myself was the problem, and so he had to shut me out despite the importance of our working together.
Mind, it would not have been this way if Vance were not a compulsive problem solver. Because of his enormous mental and physical capacities, he was a person who needed problems to motivate him. He had to be diagnosed with cancer to single-handedly devise the revolutionary treatment methods that saved him, just as he believed that he had to win the Tour in order to really show those cancers who was boss. For this reason, the prospect of an unsolvable problem unnerved him. It was his tragic flaw, his unique hubris, that things of that kind were below his attention.
Understanding this, and knowing that it made reconciliation presently impossible, I stalked off into the forest.
I’m still not sure why I went looking for the penguins. Perhaps I thought they would take my side. If so then, as with most assumptions one tends to make about intelligent species, I was anthropomorphizing them in my imagination. They saved our lives in the dark world of Eddington’s dominion, but it was surely out of a super-temporal sense of order, not loyalty to one party or the other.
For a long time I found nothing, lending credence to Vance’s earlier assertion that I would not see them until they wanted to be seen. It still sounded extremely bizarre. Secretive as they might be, there had to be a rookery somewhere—although, it struck me, the rookery might not even be on this island. Wherever this island was.
There was that too: even if I had known how to use a star chart and sextant, the stars and continents would all be different in this time anyway. There was no way for me to know where on Earth I found myself. What a foreign place this was.
I finally met one on some beach, shaking off sea water as if just come from a swim (and by this time I was thoroughly lost) I greeted it benignly, spoke a few phrases of which it demonstrated perfect comprehension, and then stood wondering what it was I should say. I could explain the story, talk about what was bothering me, but would it mean anything to the creature? With the residual adrenaline from our argument finally gone, I suddenly felt very foolish.
But it came to me that there was one thing I ought to try.
I directed all my mental energy at the penguin. If you can understand what I’m thinking, jump up and down.
The bird croaked an undifferentiated monosyllable and cocked its head inquisitively.
What are you talking about? It was Vance. I looked around and saw him coming out of the forest behind me.
“Have you been following me then?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “You’re less than a mile from the campsite. I heard you thinking on my way back from the bathroom.”
“So, should I jump up and down?” he said with a boyish smirk.
“No. Never mind.”
I never told Vance this, but from that point onwards I was increasingly hesitant to communicate telepathically around the penguins. They were every bit as ingenious as he claimed, and if they couldn’t understand telepathic communication then it seemed they at least had some idea what was going on. Given time and practice, I am sure they would have begun picking up our private thoughts. It may even be that they did, without my knowing it. When one was around, I always tried to urge Vance to communicate verbally.
“Hey, come on,” he said. I saw that the penguin was walking away, and this time he seemed to think we were supposed to follow. It took us back into the forest, in a direction neither of us had come from.
Are you still up in arms? Vance thought as we went.
“Not as much as I expected myself to be by now,” I said. “Even after everything that’s happened, this is too strange. In some ways, I have a hard time believing this place is real.” The truth was simply that I couldn’t stay mad at him, but I knew how he would respond to that.
“If it helps, you can remember that from our temporal perspective, it’s not,” he said, complying with my choice of parlance. “It was real tens of millions of years ago, much like dinosaurs or sea scorpions.”
I kept my voice in a hush so that our guide wouldn’t hear us. “Yes, well dinosaurs and sea scorpions didn’t build time machines by telekinesis, did they? I mean, look: if they’re so superior, why did they die out?”
“Things happen in 35 million years. Even in our time, humans have only been around for 200,000 years.” I have a theory though. This part, I couldn’t stop him from thinking to me. They may be Earth’s most intelligent species in this time, but when I said they were the ‘dominant’ species, that may have been a misnomer. Aggressiveness is a necessary precursor of dominance behavior, one that every highly successful species from amoeba on up possesses, and one that these penguins characteristically lack. Though they are certainly able, it may be that they will die out simply because they don’t care, don’t breed aggressively or expand their territory, don’t try to adapt to a changing environment.
That was the gist of what he thought, but I scarcely remembered it in light of what happened next. The penguin led us through the forest to the spot where its flock mates had sequestered the bike. There were ten or twelve of them there waiting for us, and when we arrived we found they had done more to the bike than repair it: they had altered the frame. Now, in the spot where the seat stays and chain stays would have held the rear wheel in place, there was instead a second set of tubes, seat, handlebars and pedals, with the rear wheel behind those.
“A tandem!” I exclaimed.
“No! No, no, no! Change it back!”
The shift in Vance’s attitude was so sudden that I wasn’t sure he hadn’t changed places with a different person while I was looking at the bike. He beat the heel of his fist against a nearby tree, twice, three times. The hand came away bloody and then hung at his side, trembling.
“I can’t ride that! That, that little pansy bike! Look at that thing! Look at it!”
I suppose I should have been insulted.
The penguins stared at us, unmoving. My spine chilled as I recalled Vance’s admonition not to insult them. If it sounds odd for me to have been frightened of penguins, remember that they were nearly my height and had much longer, pointier bills than their modern descendents. The scimitar-wielding bandits we encountered on our way to China had not been such a different spectacle.
Come on, stop this, I thought to him. What will they think of what you’re doing?
Just like that, his shouts changed to sobs. He vigorously rubbed his scalp with his uninjured hand, paced around, leaned against a tree facing away from the bike.
“But I was one away,” he cried.
I knew immediately what he meant. I was scarcely the first interviewer to ask him about it. Vance claimed to owe his ambitious cycling career to a conviction that he should win the Tour de France 27 times: thrice for each form of cancer he’d been diagnosed with. The alteration of his bike meant that he had participated in the Tour for the last time. He would eventually come to accept the penguins’ work, but something went out of him that day that he never got back. It was a signal to him that even he, an invincible and infallible man if ever there was one, could be defeated purely by luck of circumstance. I believe it was this, in the years to come, that would truly force him to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders.
But there was more to it than that. One of the qualities that Vance attached to the penguins–not, as I would learn, without reason–was precognition. That ability, he felt, had surely borne upon this scenario. He could get another racing bike, but the alteration of this one signified that there would be a need for such a change. If that were the case, it was likely he would never ride in the Tour again on this bike or any other.
Vance was predisposed to trust them implicitly, not only because they had saved him from his own failure. But because of the limitations on his communication with the birds, he was forever left to wonder what they knew.
In the moonlight, the remains of Vance’s original time machine looked especially ominous. Vegetation had begun to grow in the base, giving it a memorial appearance that could not help but increase my sense of foreboding the longer I looked at it. I wondered, given our recent topics of discussion if this would be my own fate: an empty, depleted object laid to rest inexplicably at a time and place unsuited to it.
Writing this, I realize how little good it does for me to say that the time machine looked like a cross between a submarine, a carousel, a helicopter, a brain, and an insect’s segmented eye. Likewise, I realize how little good it does to describe it as a domed chamber the size of a two-car garage, whose functional units appeared to be a series of several hundred small, cell-like chambers each containing an independent energy source, all now depleted, held in place by an incomprehensibly complex skeleton of aerodynamically-molded composite metal tubing. I can only hope that these two rather inconclusive images add up to more than the sum of themselves together.
“Well, you wanted to see it. Here it is,” said Vance. He brushed the dust off his shorts as he stood. I think he must have viewed the time machine as a failure, and he did not like to be reminded of his failures. That was why he was impatient, being there.
“What will we do from here?” I asked. Perhaps it was an odd segue, but I could hardly help that it was on my mind.
“We have to act quickly,” he said. “That the Pirate Queen was holding the device in her dorsal tongue betrays that she must have extracted it from her body cavity via the mouth. If she’s keeping it inside her body, then the only way to get it would be to kill her, and we can’t kill her as long as she has the device. So you see our dilemma. And I’d rather not kill her in any case.” He shot me a glance, looking for objections. Seeing I was resigned, he continued. “Our only recourse is to acquire the object ourselves through other means. If it originated on Earth, this will only be a matter of going back far enough. If she brought it here from off-planet, things will get more complicated. In that case we’ll have to find a time in which interstellar travel is possible and work from there.” He kicked at the dirt, an awkward gesture with his smooth-soled road bike shoes. “Time travel is so much less bloody complicated when you only have to go in one direction. One year at a time in regular intervals, those were the days.”
He was talking about the Tour again. That was why we hadn’t left yet: he was still holding out in hopes of convincing the penguins to return the tachyon bike to its previous state.
Knowing this made me look at Vance in a new way. He had won his first Tour the year I was born, and I had grown up adoring him. Then, magically, as I got older he did not. It was as if time itself had slowed down around him to wait for me. We had now reached a point where he was only a few years my senior, and at last, rather than an idol I began to see him as a peer. Things he did began to seem not just human but immature, sometimes even childish. A little boy stomping around the house, hoping that if he sulked long enough his parents would acquiesce and buy him the toy he wanted.
I started to grow agitated when I noticed eyes and beaks appearing in the treeline surrounding the clearing where the time machine sat.
“But who knows,” he said, “maybe one day I’ll get back into the swing of things yet. You can have the exclusive, M. ‘Savior of Earth gets back to doing what’s really important.’ Great story.”
The night lit up. The clearing and what I now saw were its dozens, maybe hundreds of inhabitants–more of the penguins in one place than I ever had or ever would see—were illuminated in the nearly ultraviolet glow of the time machine, somehow, activating.
Vance’s thoughts and my own crisscrossed in a garbled composition of interjections. Nearby as we were standing, the rapidity of the time machine’s movements blew us off our feet.
When we got up, a single figure was emerging from the chamber. Backlit as it was, I managed to pick out the close-cropped blonde hair, round chin, stick-up-the-arse upright posture.
“Eddington!” cried Vance. His hand sought his sword by reflex, but it was not at his hip.
“Why, Vance Headstrong! M. Shaw! What an unexpected surprise,” Dr. Eddington said jovially, as if greeting a pair of dinner guests. “I have some idea, but perhaps you can tell me what this–” he looked around at the dome of the machine– “mysterious contrivance is. I was fiddling around with the cosmos when I found what looked like some sort of beacon, some kind of waypoint. I went for it and here I am.” He took something out of his robe. I was hardly surprised to see the small, metallic amulet that we had surmised was the device he had somehow acquired from the Pirate Queen. “Speaking of fiddling with the cosmos, I’ve made some fascinating discoveries recently. Let me show you.”
It wasn’t clear to me whether the device itself expanded to form a wormhole-like gap in space, or whether this effect was simply a projection from within its metal body. What came out of the hole was of more importance.
The battle began immediately. The penguins tried to harm the creature with some strange energy beams projected from a spot between their eyes, but though the beams instantly incinerated trees in their paths, they barely singed the creature’s flesh. It had legs, thick appendages clearly meant to bear a great deal of weight in whatever its native environment might be, but on Earth it floated off the ground with ease, like one of our astronauts walking on the moon. It assaulted them with a mass of long, thin, flagella-like appendages that sprouted from its elephantine body and retracted back into it like a hundred striking snakes. It was hard to look at what it did to the poor penguins. From what I saw, it wasn’t exactly like eating them; more like putting them through a jet engine, shredding them into fleshy bits inside a turbine of whirling blades.
We ran, of course. There was nothing we could have done. Eddington had found us at our most defenseless through terrible serendipity, and brought something with him against which we would have been powerless in any case. We both knew that our only option was escape. Yet again, escape. I sometimes felt it was all we ever did: try to escape into better circumstances, never finding them, just as I had run from my disillusionment at the campsite earlier that day. But then what is time travel to begin with, if not some form of escape or other?
One thought passed between us, from Vance to me and back. This changes everything.
We ran into one penguin between the clearing and the spot where the tachyon bike was parked. It was headed toward the fray until Vance grabbed it by the wing.
“No you don’t! You’re coming with us,” he said.
The penguin squawked as only a very large bird in acute pain can.
“You’re hurting it,” I said, covering my ears as tightly as I could manage.
“Then it had better come with us. It’s not going to be any use against whatever it is that Eddington’s summoned anyway.”
The forest had grown very hot, and though we were much farther from the clearing it was still bright.
The penguin considered for a moment and followed us.
This was how we got on the bike: Vance sat in the front seat so that he could control the gears. I sat in the back. The penguin sat on the rear handlebars, braced against Vance’s back with my head pressing against its belly. It was easy at first, but would eventually begin to make my neck chronically sore.
“I have to control the cadence,” Vance called to me over his shoulder. “So don’t you dare pedal faster than me.”
“I couldn’t if I wanted to,” I said.
“You’d be surprised. Two people can really get a tandem rolling, even if the damned thing does weigh 40 pounds. Here we go!”
The air was different, in a way that was hard to describe. People are so unused to noticing the texture of air. We were in a place where the soil was a rich red, and we were surrounded by shortish plants that looked like palm trees but weren’t. Vance, the penguin, and I.
“Why?” he repeated.
The penguin remained silent, looking ambivalently into the distance.
“What are you so mad at it for?” I asked.
Because it knew, he thought. The way they assembled in the clearing before he came through… hell, that must have been half the rookery, and more were on the way by the look of it. They knew what was coming, otherwise why would they have come like that?
“You can’t really expect it to explain all that to you?” I said.
“But that’s not all,” said Vance. “I didn’t mean to come here. She did something to the bike, something to change its course. I want to know how, and I want to know why.”
“Where are we, by the way?”
“If I understood the way the bike was moving, we must be at least 400 million years in our past.”
What if I was wrong, M.? he thought.
“What do you mean?”
About the reason they went extinct. What if Eddington destroyed them? What if they really were meant to be Earth’s dominant species, and humans were only able to arise because he wiped them out?
“I don’t see what that has to do with—“
Eddington was able to get there using the time machine as a waypoint. And I built the time machine. They knew, M. They knew he was coming, and they knew the time machine was my doing, and they helped me anyway. Why would they do that?
There was the heart of it. I knew it then, and it would only prove truer and truer as our journey went on. The only thing that exemplifies Vance’s personality more than the amount of time he spent trying to understand what had just happened was the amount of time he spent, and continues to spend, trying to rectify it.
I believe the significance was simple. Vance was a figure so much larger than life that no matter how improbable his adventures got he always seemed out of place, a character who should have been gallivanting across the pages of some old romance with the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Horatio Hornblower. But regardless of this, even he could never be the hero he wanted to be. Nobody can, I think.
Without warning, the penguin began to wander in what at first appeared to be a random direction. When I looked at where it was headed, however, I saw that another group of several figures, human to all appearances, was advancing across the landscape tangent to our location.
“Vance, look at that,” I said, pointing.
“I know. Let’s go.”
“You said this was 400 million years ago. That should be—“
“Will we be all right?”
“I’m Vance-bloody-Headstrong. I can handle it if anyone can.”
Don’t make trouble, he thought to me. If only he had known how much I would give to take trouble away from him, I wonder if the contempt in that thought might have evaporated a little. I always felt a bit selfish about Vance, and I was already becoming monstrously jealous of the bond he seemed to share with that penguin, as I would be jealous of the Pirate Queen later on. Perhaps what I did because of that jealously did make trouble for him, and so I can understand some of the things he did. But it should never be said that I did less than I could when it came down to what mattered most.
As I watched him walk toward the small caravan on the horizon, I saw the same strength, the same brazen confidence and cleverness I’d fallen in love with so long ago. Even if he couldn’t live up to his own expectations, he couldn’t help but live up to mine. We–not I but all of us–are willing to forgive our heroes a very great deal. Despite everything, what could I ever be but a kid watching his hero, wanting to be like him in every way?
Next time: Our first attempt to capture the elusive device will lead us back to our own present, where my family will fail to recognize me with my appearance and modes of speech changed so drastically since the advent of my telepathy. I will convince Vance to bring me with him as he attempts to leave Earth, playing on his mystical reverence for the penguins by pointing out that they must have had some reason for adding a second seat to the bike. The penguin will avail itself in battle beyond what either of us expect, and we will encounter a familiar face; but not who you’re thinking.
Thanks, as always, to my editor Janis for agreeing to work with the pieces I send from the hospital, and to my transcriptionst Dave, whose patient labor does what my withered hands no longer can. Thanks equally to the patience of my readers with the incomplete nature of my narrative. One day, I hope, we will meet Vance Headstrong again and he will give us the whole story at last. There are days when I still catch momentary mental glimpses of him and his companions passing by in the current of space and time. Oh, those are the best days…
M. Shaw–most familiar in popular culture as portrayed by Toshiro Mifune in a Hiroshi Inagaki film–is widely considered to have been the greatest fencer in the history of feudal Japan. Little is known about M. after it went missing in the early 1600’s, following the death of its nemesis in a duel. Its remains were found in a cave, surrounded by chicken bones. Web links: mshaw.wordpress.com; twitter.com/murdershaw
Noel Tanti likes to think of himself as a Jack-of-All/Master-of-None. He has painted, sculpted, written, acted, directed, danced and ran 15 miles, with various degrees of success. He showed most promise as a midwife for cats. His ambition is to become the greatest person you’ve never heard of.