A couple of women walked past him, their coats cut to accommodate the bustles they wore. Wendell tipped his top hat to them. They glanced at him, then went back to talking, like he hadn’t really registered. It was like they didn’t see the man with the mustache and sideburns that were hardly noticeable. Dr. Wendell Howe was hardly noticeable. He wasn’t bad looking, just unremarkable, rather nondescript. The sort of man you wouldn’t remember. But that was as it should be.
Wendell scanned his surroundings making sure he was now alone, then reached into his frock coat pocket and pulled out a small black book--a pocket edition of the New Testament. He clicked his tongue twice and pointed the Bible at the statue of Wellington. “Open door.”
Part of the granite base swung open. The statue above was only an illusion in empty space, created with holographic projectors. In reality the statue’s granite base was a black metal box. The Institute had picked a clever disguise. Statues of Wellington were as common as pigeons in Victorian London.
Wendell slipped the book back in his pocket and picked up his luggage. He stepped through the door onto the landing, then up into the cubicle. The door closed behind him and the ceiling began to glow, lighting the tiny room that held only a bucket seat. The metal walls stood bare, save for a few narrow storage cupboards. The only visible control was a large red button on the arm of the chair. Wendell dropped his luggage in the corner, then sat down in the chair and strapped himself in. He reached over and slapped the button. A chimpanzee could operate this thing and find it an insult to his intelligence.
The room hummed and vibrated for a few minutes, then stopped. Wendell was home. Funny, he felt like what he left was really home. Sighing, he undid his strap and got out of the seat. He grabbed his luggage and opened the door. No longer in Victorian London, he found himself now in a huge room with a high vaulted ceiling. All around lay dozens of platforms a few feet high. Most sat empty but some sported black boxes atop them, like his machine.
On one platform a man in Elizabethan costume, with a ruffled collar, stepped into one of the black boxes. A moment later it began to dematerialize, starting at the top, as though an invisible curtain was being lowered over it.
This was the Time Travel Port, the only one anywhere, for all time machines were owned and operated by the Institute of Time Travel. Wendell belonged to that elite group known as Licensed Time Travelers.
People bustled about dressed in 27th century clothes, the skullcaps and one-piece jumpsuits which looked like something from a bad 20th century Science Fiction movie. Wendell often wondered if this was some sick practical joke pulled off by the fashion designers. Unfortunately nobody got the joke. Was it any wonder he didn’t even own any modern suits? He didn’t feel right any more wearing anything but Victorian clothes.
Wendell stepped off the landing, out the door and onto the platform. As he walked down the stairs to the main floor, two men in tan suits and brown sashes came up and waited for him at the base. These were only Security Guards, but still not to be messed with.
“Would you come with us to the debriefing room, Dr. Howe?”
They made it sound like a request, but Wendell knew it was an order. He didn’t answer but gave a slight nod. Wendell trudged to the huge hall’s exit, the Guards flanking him. This was the part he really hated-- debriefings. Interrogations were more like it. He was just a historical researcher. It was humiliating to be treated like a criminal.
They walked down the long grey hallway, their footsteps echoing. Wendell often wondered if they had put in special tile that exaggerated the echo. It would be like the Institute. The two Security Guards moved ahead of him, then stopped on either side of a metal door, like robots. They said nothing. They didn’t need to. Wendell stiffened his British upper lip. “Door open,” he commanded, trying to make his voice show the power he wished he felt.
The door slid open, revealing a fifteen foot room, dark save for one bare light globe hanging in the center. How could a light be that bright and yet leave dark corners in such a small room? He felt sure it was no accident. All carefully planned to make a person feel all the more intimidated. Wendell’s stomach quivered. All right, their ploy worked.
Under the light were two metal chairs. Beyond them in either back corner, draped in shadows, sat tall stools. On each of them perched a man watching Wendell. They never spoke, never smiled, never flinched. A third man stood beside the chairs. They wore grey suits with black sashes, marking them as Enforcers.
Wendell felt bile burn his throat. He was terrified of Enforcers. All Temporal Anthropologists were terrified of Enforcers. He had heard rumors that the Enforcers had programmed licensed time travelers to fear them. Wendell didn’t know if that was true. He didn’t know if half the bogeyman stories about Enforcers were true. He was afraid to find out they just might be.
“Please come in, Dr. Howe,” the standing man said. “Set your bags down and have a seat.” Again it was worded as a request, but spoke as an order.
Wendell stepped into the room. The door slid shut behind him, trapping him inside. He felt like he wanted to gnaw off his leg. He placed the bags on the floor and stepped forward, as wary as a stray cat faced with dobermans. He sat down in the chair, never taking his eye off the Enforcer.
“Please remove your jacket and tie, Dr. Howe.”
Without a word, Wendell slid off the jacket, feeling like he was stripping. He tossed it on the floor. Normally he didn’t toss clothes on the floor, but this was his one small rebellious act. He removed the tie protecting his neck and dropped it on the tiles with his jacket. The Enforcer picked them up, ignoring the subtle protest, and sat the items on top of Wendell’s carpet bag.
“Please unbutton your collar so I have access to your neck, Dr. Howe.”
Wendell fumbled with the buttons, fighting to show no emotion at all. His heart was pounding, but he wasn’t going to let them know that. Wendell could see the flat oval device in the Enforcer’s hand--the hated Compliance Disk. Wendell felt a tick twitch his eye.
“Thank you, Dr. Howe.” The Enforcer circled behind him, like a tiger about to severe a spinal cord. “If you would please bow your head.”
Wendell obeyed, looking down at the tile floor. He felt the Enforcer’s cold hand pull his collar back exposing the back of his neck. Wendell closed his eyes and clenched his teeth, knowing what was coming next.
The cold metal disk was slapped on the back of Wendell’s neck, the prongs sinking into his skin like cobra fangs. An involuntary hiss escaped as he fought back a yelp of pain. Fire shot up his spine and into his brain. Then it stopped, the hurt replaced with something even worse--smothering anxiety.
“Please sit up, Dr. Howe.”
Wendell sprung up involuntarily. He had no choice but to sit up. He would now do exactly as he was told. His body no longer belonged to him. It belonged to the Enforcer.
“Relax, Dr. Howe.”
Wendell felt his muscles relax. His mind wasn’t relaxing, though. He was helpless, completely helpless. Dear God, why Compliance Disks? They were only used on dangerous convicted criminals--and time travelers. It was a federal offense to use a compliance disk on anyone without a court order. The only reason the Enforcers got away with this was because Licensed Time Travelers “volunteered”. They all had to sign a release form allowing this transgression, or they would have their license revoked.
“And now Dr. Howe, you will tell us everything you did after you entered the time machine.”
The Enforcer did not have to make Wendell swear to tell the truth. He had no choice but to tell the truth. That was the whole point of the compliance disk: To make sure no one tried to pull a fast one and try to change history. Whether it had been a carefully orchestrated plot, or an accident the perpetrator was now trying to cover up, all would now be revealed.
“I sat down in the chair and pushed the button,” Wendell began. Nothing was to be left out, no matter how minor or how embarrassing. Wendell was vulnerable and naked under the cold, emotionless gaze of the Enforcers. If only they didn’t treat him like a bug under a microscope. If only they treated him like he was a person. If only they would give him a sympathetic smile, an apology, a pat on the shoulder--anything! Maybe a little compassion would have made this all a little more tolerable.
The gardens around the Institute of Time Travel building did their best to make the black stark structure and the high protective fence beyond look a little less intimidating. The poor flowers failed miserably and drooped as if they felt as oppressed as Wendell.
He marched down the driveway, carrying his luggage to the main gate. The guard nodded at him and opened the metal barrier. Wendell walked through, and heard the gate clang shut behind him. Why did he always feel like he had just been released from prison?
Wendell took a ragged breathe and collected himself. Then he went to the one place every Temporal Anthropologist went to lick his wounds--the nearest bar. Just across the street sat “The Time Stream Pub” an establishment that exploited it’s closeness to the Institute and made a living off the tourist trade. It exploited the Temporal Anthropologists, too. In return, it gave them a haven, a refuge. Wendell felt that glimmer of warmth one feels in a strange crowd when you glimpse a friend, and started across the street.
The inside of the pub was done in a historical hodgepodge, each booth done in a different time period. Amid the reproductions were actual artifacts under glass that some Temporal Anthropologist had brought back for Frank, the owner. On the walls were signed portraits of T.A.s. Wendell’s was in the Victorian section under the larger photo of Sir Albert Leach. Sir Albert had been Wendell’s hero and mentor, so he didn’t mind being subordinate. If anything he felt privileged.
All around the room sat people in 27th century outfits, gawking at the bizarre surroundings. Someone saw Wendell and pointed him out to his friends. Wendell felt every eye on him. This was after all why the tourists came here, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of those crazy Temporal Anthropologists dressed in period clothes. Normally it didn’t bother him, but after he had gone through a debriefing he wasn’t in the mood for it.
Wendell walked up to the bar, where a large man wiped the counter. Frank, the owner, wasn’t overweight, just tall and barrel-chested. Even if he had been skin and bones, he would still been a large man. Frank always wore an apron, black trousers and white shirt, looking like a pub owner from another age. He gave Wendell a welcoming smile. “Good afternoon, Dr. Howe. Coming or going? Never mind, I know that look. Just got out of debriefing, eh? The Back Room is open.”
“Thank you, Frank.”
“Anytime. Tea right?’
“I’ll have Martha heat up a pot for you and bring it back. You want something stronger, let us know.”
“Just tea.” Wendell forced a smile at Frank and went around the bar to a door that read: “STAFF ONLY.” The monitor overhead swiveled around, read his DNA, and the door slid open. Wendell went on through and started down the hall. He expected to hear the door close, but instead heard a commotion behind him. He turned to see Frank holding back a woman wearing a pink body suit and way too much glimmer makeup.
“Let me go, you big gorilla!” She twisted, trying to get free.
“No, you can’t go in.”
“But I need a Victorian!”
“But he doesn’t need you, especially now!” Frank looked over at Wendell. “Sorry, Dr. Howe. I’ll boot her out!”
Wendell watched the huge man handle the woman like a toddler. Another Temporal Anthropologist Groupie, some weird clique that tried to see how many “time periods” they could score. He was nothing to them but a pawn for their warped game. The Groupies didn’t see T.A.s as a human, just another “check“ on their Score Card. Yes, they actually carried score cards. Few Temporal Anthropologists wanted anything to do with these people.
A little better were the ones they called the “Romantics”. These were women who had read too many Historic Romances and who wanted a man “from the past.” They had fallen in love with a character out of a Victorian novel, and wanted Wendell to be their “Sherlock Holmes” or “Heathcliff”. He remembered the look of disappointment when they came to realize he was just Wendell Howe, and was only Victorian by choice, not by birth.
The “Groupies” and “Romantics” just reinforced the isolation Wendell felt, never allowed to be part of the nineteenth century and no longer fit in the twenty-seventh. Man without a century, but then all Temporal Anthropologists were like that.
Frank dragged the annoying woman out and the door slid shut. Wendell went down the hall past the kitchen, the break room, and the storage rooms to the door at the far end, the Time Travelers Room. He never saw Temporal Biologists in here. No doubt the Temporal Botanist gravitated to a greenhouse and the Temporal Zoologists went somewhere they could be around animals. Debriefings were probably easier for them, since they interacted with people in the past as little as possible, and thus didn’t need to be interrogated as thoroughly.
Once again a monitor swiveled it’s eye around and scanned Wendell. Just one more precaution Frank had put in. The door slid open. The small room felt cozy, decorated with historic replicas. The table and chairs looked like they had come from a nineteen century saloon. Against the walls a Roman style couch and a twentieth century sofa invited one to sit or recline. On the walls hung prints of paintings from various time periods.
Another person already occupied the room, sitting at the table staring at his beer. He looked pretty average, except he was dressed like a cowboy in a beat up Stetson and faded bandana, and wearing three days growth. The man looked up, registering surprise and then grinned. “I’ll tell ya, this dang place is going to the dogs. They’ll let any old yahoo in here!”
Wendell smiled, feeling a little relieved. “Hello, Henry.” He could think of only one other person he would have preferred to find here. Seems he and Dr. Matilda Warwick were always ships that passed in the night.
“Well, park your butt, fancy-pants!”
“I’m not sure if I want to sit with my social inferiors.”
Henry threw back his head and laughed at that. Dr. Henry Darrel, also a Temporal Anthropologist was studying the working man of 19th century America. Henry specialized in the same period as Wendell, so they occasionally had the opportunity to work together in the field. Since their personas were from different countries and different social classes, that didn’t happen very often. Despite their outward differences, the uncouth American cowboy and stodgy English gentleman had a lot in common.
Wendell placed his luggage next to Henry’s carpet bag. He pulled out a chair and sat down. “I say, been here long, Henry?”
“Nah. Still on my first beer.”
“You be careful, old boy. More than one Temporal Anthropologist has become an alcoholic.”
“Not with Uncle Frank watching us. ‘Sides I’ve learned how to nurse one beer all night, if I have to.”
Wendell nodded. That is a skill Henry would have had to learn. A gentleman scholar might get by with being a teetotaler in the Victorian age, but a working class man would stand out.
A knock came at the door. “It’s Martha, with the tea. Can I come in?”
The entire staff respected the privacy of the Temporal Anthropologists. They didn’t want to walk in on and embarrass someone who had broken down. Some T.A.s took debriefings harder than others.
“Please, do come in,” Wendell called back.
The door slid open and a woman dressed as a Elizabethan serving wench came in with a tray holding a tea service. “I got a pot of hot water for you, Dr. Howe. Frank said you like to make your own.”
“Thank you, Martha.”
She sat the tray on the table. “If you boys get hungry or need anything just use the intercom by the door.”
“We get our T.A. discount, right?” Henry gave her a teasing grin.
“Of course, Dr. Darrel. Frank’ll put it on your tab. Got a great looking pot roast in the kitchen.”
“Perhaps in a bit, Martha.” Henry nodded at her. “After the butterflies in my stomach quit fluttering.”
Martha gave a forced smile, but her eyes looked sympathetic. “All right, fellas. Just give us a shout.”
Henry watched Martha leave, then turned back to Wendell, watching him measure loose tea into the pot. “Maybe if I’d quit feeling sorry for myself, I would notice how bad you look. Good Lord, man, you look like you’ve been put through the wringer. Enforcers?”
Wendell nodded. “Hard session this time.”
Henry screwed up his face. “What put a cocklebur in their butt?”
Wendell fought back a chuckle. He liked Henry. He even liked his earthiness. Henry could say what stuffy Wendell could never say, but wished he could. “Haven’t the foggiest, old boy.”
“Did you go and buy the last piece of toffee in the candy store, thus depriving some little kid who became so bitter and angry, that he grew up to become Jack the Ripper?”
“The Enforcers haven’t gotten that bad--yet.” Wendell pulled out his pocket watch and started timing the tea. “I suppose they are only doing their jobs. If it wasn’t for them the Time Purists would never allow us to go back into the past at all, I daresay. They are just making sure that history isn’t changed.”
“You’re far too nice a person, Wendell. You’re far too forgiving. I think they’re all a bunch of Sonsabitches.”
“Puppies I could deal with,” Wendell said with a straight face. “If only they were a little warm and fuzzy.”
Henry chuckled at that. “Yeah, that’s for dang sure. So, what the hell did you do to get those skunks all riled up, anyway?”
“I was on a train when a young lady sat across from me. She started talking to me, telling me all about how she was upset with her fiancée.”
Henry leaned forward. “You got into a conversation with a native in the Field? You can’t do that! You could influence them.”
“I did nothing of the kind. I couldn’t just ignore her or leave, because I would have been rude, and thus been remembered. It’s impossible to be invisible if you’re rude.”
“Yup, that’s true ‘nuff.”
“I just sat there and nodded. Said as little as I could. I said nothing to dissuade or persuade her.”
“What was she talking about?”
“She was upset because her fiancée had moved to South Africa to work in a bank a couple years before, to get enough money so they could start a family. He was suppose to return, but instead wanted her to come join him. She didn’t want to live in South Africa, even if it was a great opportunity for him.”
“What did you say?”
“I said nothing! I told her to do what she felt was right. That was all.”
“Did she give you a name?” Henry pulled out his own pocket watch.
“I think it was Mabel Suffield.”
“Did she mention her fiancée’s name?”
“Arthur--Arthur something.” Wendell was beginning to feel irritated. “Why is it important? Neither was famous.”
“Tollgate--no wait, Tolkien. Yes, Arthur Tolkien.”
“What year were you in?”
Henry set his watch on the table. “Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat,” he cued his pocket computer. “Virtual screen. Genealogical record of Mabel Suffield and Arthur Tolkien of South Africa, married circa 1891.”
A holographic screen popped up, showing a family tree chart. “Says here they had two sons, John, born 1892 and Hilary, born 1894.”
“I never heard of a John or Hilary Tolkien.”
Henry frowned at the screen. “Ronald Reuel? Odd middle name. Why does that ring a bell? Computer, any information on John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.”
A photo of an elderly man with a pipe came up, followed by tons of data. Henry’s jaw dropped. “Good God, Wendell! J.R.R. Tolkien! Do you know who J.R.R. Tolkien was?”
Wendell jumped to his feet, getting closer to read the screen. “Of course I know who J.R.R. Tolkien was! I also know who Shakespeare and Chaucer were. I’m British, remember?”
“Wendell, if you hadn’t talked that Mabel into marrying Arthur, Lord of the Rings would never have been written.”
“I didn’t talk her into anything,” Wendell snapped, irritated.
Henry shook his head. “Sometimes, Wendell, all a woman needs is someone to talk to, to just listen while they make up their own mind.”
“She could have just as easily talked to her cat. I said nothing to influence her.”
“What about your body language?”
“I showed no emotion whatsoever. I did nothing wrong.”
Henry chuckled. “Yeah, I’m not sure how you would get out of that one. How far did the Enforcers get?”
“They made me recount every word. They decided I said nothing to influence her, and they made sure neither she or her fiancée were famous. Fortunately I don’t think Enforcers read much.”
“Yup, they’d have a cat fit all right.”
“I did nothing wrong, Henry. The woman trapped me and poured out her tale of woe to me. Have no idea why she picked me.”
“You just have that benevolent uncle look about you. I suppose you’re right. You did nothing wrong except be polite. Besides it’s not like you prevented the masterpiece from being written. Just one word of advice, Wendell.”
“Don’t make a hobbit of it.”
Wendell raised his eyebrow at Henry as only a Brit can.