My most recent novel The Copper Room is just out, and since it is sort of a time travel story, it's time for another 'sort of a time travel story'.
This tale is a bit different. Think of it as a homework assignment. Some years back, when I was exchanging email with a Name agent I hoped to work with, he suggested a few books I might look at to improve my writing. As an exercise, I took one of the most interesting stories of the lot and attempted to write my story in that style, mixing a 1930’s style with a 1950’s plot.
Now, some of you will recognize the main character in a heartbeat, but the point of the exercise wasn’t using him in a new setting, but rather using some of the techniques, such as no internal dialog, and strictly limited sensory information. However, I wrote it, so it came out as science fiction, and in some sense, a time travel story. At least in the sense of a visitor out of time.
A tall blonde man in a rumpled black suit and tie woke up and staggered on his feet, striking his head against the hard glass window. He put out his thick-fingered right hand to steady himself and closed his eyes against the sudden vertigo.
When his yellow-gray eyes opened back up, he steadied himself with a wide stance and stared out at the landscape beyond the huge glass expanse.
“This isn’t San Francisco.” He shook his head and reached absently into his coat pocket.
Three tall spires, taller than any of the skyscrapers he had seen in New York after the war, rose like dagger’s blades, not from streets, but from a lush forest covering rounded hills. One was gold. One was silver. The closest was cobalt blue.
His pocket was empty. After a quick check, he determined that all of his pockets were empty.
“I’ve been robbed.” His voice sounded no anger. It was just one more unexplained fact.
He touched the frame of the window. It felt like metal. Just outside, it appeared that the building he was in was red, not like copper, but with a duller texture. The window had to be several hundred feet above the trees below. He nodded. He was in a red tower, just like the others.
Footsteps echoed from across the large room. Two people were hurrying his direction, coming into the light.
The man looked forty, wearing a dark beard, about five-eight, trim. His face was deep tan, with a bone structure that was puzzling. At first glance, he looked European, perhaps Greek, but his first assessment didn’t hold. The clothes were tailored robes, with subdued brown patterns.
The man in the black suit paid more attention to the girl. Other than her red hair and pale blue eyes, she held a family resemblance to the man. She appeared half his age, dressed like no woman he had ever seen. The outer blue robe, in spite of being as transparent as a thin silk scarf, was textured in elegant patterns that flagged her as a child of wealth. But the undergarment was as brief and revealing as what he had seen on the Bowery stage.
He kept his eyes on her pleasant open smile, and nodded to the man.
“Are you the Visitor?” she asked as they approached. A lilt in her voice gave her an accent he couldn’t place.
“Possibly, Miss. I seem to be lost.”
The man beside her held up a hand, palm forward. “Explanations will come,” he said firmly, stopping her.
“We welcome you to the Ninth City, Visitor.” He bowed his head. “I am Griditch. This is Alanda.”
“I am Samuel.” He mimicked the bow. “If you have any of those explanations, I’m ready for ‘em. I’ve never heard of the Ninth City. I’ve never seen a place like this.” Sam gestured at the towers visible out the window. He reached his hand to his pocket and then dropped it to his side when he remembered it was empty.
Alanda looked at Griditch. He nodded. “That is to be expected, Samuel. None of the Hundred Cities existed in your century.”
Sam frowned. “My century? I don’t understand.”
The girl couldn’t contain herself. “Time-travel, of course! You’ve been brought from the deep past here to help us.”
“Alanda!” Griditch frowned. He turned to Sam. “I apologize for her youthful enthusiasm. We had agreed,” he looked back at her, “to let me ease you into full comprehension.”
Sam waved his hand to dismiss his host’s distress. He reached for his pocket again, and frowned when it was still empty.
“Just a minute!” His jaw worked as he looked back out the window at the impossibly tall, colorful towers. “I’d think the both of you are crazy as loons. Except for those.”
He pointed at Griditch. “Tell me what this ‘time-travel’ is. I was working late at the office and suddenly I was here. What happened to me?”
Alanda interrupted, “Surely, you understand time-travel?”
Sam shook his head, with no expression other than a mild anger.
The man gestured down the long hallway. “Why don’t we move to more comfortable surroundings while I try to explain?” The hall led into the interior of the building, away from the windows.
By the time they had reached an expansive atrium, with a waterfall passing from many floors above and vanishing into a misty portal in the floor, Sam was ready to call a halt to Griditch’s explanations.
“Well, I can’t say’s how I understand one word in ten, but I get the idea. You kidnapped me from my time and brought me here.”
Alanda nodded cheerfully, “Right! Time and place.” She draped herself across a mossy-green bench and curled little bare feet up under her robe. “The translator tells me that your ‘San Francisco’ was a city on the western coast of ‘North America’. All that land is under the lava flows now.
Sam gestured at her, “Oh, let her talk. I can at least understand what she’s saying.” He frowned at his fingers. When Griditch sat as well, he plopped down on the closest bench. It was too low to the ground. It forced him to slouch against the backrest. But the cushion was very comfortable.
“I wish you had managed to kidnap my tobacco pouch along with me. I’m dying for a cigarette.”
His greeters exchanged horrified looks.
Sam shook his head. “That’s a figure of speech. I want a cigarette. Being without won’t kill me. I’ll just be very irritable. Do you think you could get me some tobacco? And papers and matches, too.”
Griditch hummed and said, “I’ll ask.” The three of them sat quietly for several seconds, before Sam turned to Alanda.
She smiled like a timid schoolgirl, totally innocent of how her dress made her look. He had to smile back.
“Why am I here, Angel? When I was with the AEF during the Great War, a Limey corporal told me the legend of King Arthur—how he was supposed to come back after centuries to help his people, but I’m no great warrior. I don’t even remember dying. Why’d you choose me?”
She looked puzzled. “I don’t know this ‘King’ person. But Flick chose you. I’m sure there’s a good reason.”
Griditch cleared his throat. “I have bad news.”
Alanda nodded, “Yes. There are no cigarettes.”
Sam looked from one to the other. “Are you people mind-readers?”
She smiled, “Oh, no. Not really. But we do communicate with Flick. When Griditch asked Flick if cigarettes were available, Flick searched the literary archives. Various tobacco products were mentioned for two hundred years after your time. There were references to a plague, which wiped out the plant. Synthetic nicotine was used for five hundred years after that, before its use was abandoned.
“We have none now, and the chemistry of the drug has been lost. It would be difficult duplicate. It certainly couldn’t be done quickly.”
Sam sighed. “Well, someone had better get me a pencil or something to hold in my hand. I’ve been reaching into this pocket every couple of minutes like clockwork.”
Alanda nodded seriously.
Sam leaned forward in his seat. “But back to my question. Why me? I think you guys made a mistake.”
Griditch said, “Alanda, let me. I’ve been studying the problem much longer than you have.”
Sam turned to him, “Yes, Professor?”
The man made a magic pass through the air with his hands and a glowing rock appeared right before him. It was like a ghost. Sam could see right through it. He took in a sharp breath and reached for his pocket.
“This is an asteroid approximately ten of your miles in diameter. It has been detected coming our direction. Flick has determined that in less than ten days, it will strike the earth and destroy all life.
“We need you to stop it.”
Sam stood up. “Me? You want me to stop some kind of super meteor? Are you crazy?”
Alanda and Griditch were staring at him, startled at his reaction. The man nodded. “Well, yes, you! Flick knows that men of your century built great rockets that could travel into space. You also know how to create nuclear explosions that could destroy or deflect the asteroid. You are the right choice.”
Sam sat back down, but it was more of a collapse.
Alanda asked, “Surely this isn’t too hard for a man of your time?”
He could only laugh. “Sister, you must’ve dialed the wrong century. I’m from 1934 A.D. and no one in the whole world could do what you just said.”
She frowned in silence for just a moment. Then, carefully, she said, “No. Flick is confident. You are from the ‘Twentieth Century’. The archives are clear. In your day, men traveled to the Moon and created explosives so great that they destroyed whole cities. That is the technology we need to avert this catastrophe.”
Sam reached toward the ghostly rock, and his hand passed right though the image. He gestured at it.
“You’re wrong, Miss Alanda. In my day, rockets were for the Fourth of July and the biggest explosions I saw in the trenches wouldn’t destroy this room. Surely, you have fancier science than we had. I’ve never seen anything like this...image. And those towers I saw out the window. If you can build things like that, you know more than I ever could.”
“But Flick says that....”
Sam held up his hand. “I think I’d better talk to this Mr. Flick myself. We could spend all day, what with you quoting him and me swearing up and down that I’m right.” He stood up. “We aren’t getting anywhere.”
Griditch stood as well. “There is a misunderstanding.”
Sam cocked his head to listen.
“Flick isn’t a person. Flick is a computer. Flick is the controller for the Hundred Cities.”
Sam could only frown. “A computer?”
Griditch smiled. “Yes, another invention of your century, only vastly more sophisticated, of course.”
He shook his head. “No. Never heard of it.” He turned abruptly and pointed his thick index finger at Griditch. “And I’m about up to here with these fairy tales! You’re taking orders from someone. I’m through talking with flunkies. You bring me the main man, or I’m done talking.”
With that, he stalked away, past the waterfall, towards another long hallway. Behind him, Alanda hopped to her feet and took a step after him. Griditch put out his hand and took her arm, shaking his head.