Traveler (Short Fiction)

Richard strapped himself into the machine and tried to feel it move. Unnoticeable. A pity. A “Just A Reminder” video materialized in front of him. A bland font in the lower right corner of the image identified the computerized voice as “Dan”. Hawk-eyed, owl-eared, he leaned towards it, even though he had heard and seen it hundreds of times.

            “Traveler. You must observe customs. You must do as the Romans do while you are in Rome.” Exactly. If he acted like them, he would be fine. Anything he bought into their time from his was a contaminant, not an improvement.

            “You are there to study and record the culture, not to change it. Observe. Record. Catalog. Scan. Let me repeat. You scan all documents. You photograph. You record video.

“You do not take.”

The rules.  No talking with the natives, no display of any future tech, knowledge, procedures, or dialect. No romances (no babies from people from the future). It went on and on. A dust mite’s footprint. Every tryst, conversation, accident, glance, nod, purchase, detour, whatever contact there was, changed the past. No matter how small the contact. Every little thing anyone did changed the past, shifted the present, bulldozed the possible future. A footprint of light meant letting the lives they were archiving “happen” as if they weren’t there, and hadn’t ever been there.

Travelers had to be ardent historians, but not fanatics. No forcing your way into Versailles to hear Louis XIV say it with his own lips. You couldn’t care that much. You couldn’t care enough to try to change ANYTHING.

“We are mere observers, mere recorders. And one day, we will let the world know what we have seen, what we can prove. The future will change – it has to. But, the past will remain the same – it has to, as well.” The beloved Mister X, the prolific inventor, always heard, never seen.

You had to care so much about the past that you couldn’t bear to change anything.

            “You are being watched. We are measuring the effect of your arrival. If you do any real damage, you are done. Article 1, final chapter. Zero tolerance. We will cancel your expedition, before you take your first step.”

Extraction was simply that, a plan to go back in time and intercept a traveler before he/she stepped off the path – did whatever damage it was that got flagged. And, they never traveled again.

“The purpose of time travel is not to change the past. It is to improve the future.”

Richard knew there were constant discussions about the inevitable. And he knew the only solution was prevention. He had woken one night, speechless, when he realized they were training people to extract, to deal with the inevitable…and he wasn’t one of them.

Ping. An elevator reaching its floor. 9:00 A.M. December 1, 19207. Illinois.

Richard stood as the door slid open. People in some unnamed department spent every working hour researching the past, looking for ghost spaces travelers could “land”, where they wouldn’t be seen and nothing significant would be disturbed. He stepped out into a dusty, cobweb-filled factory floor. 9:00 A few abandoned rotting tables. Dust-drifts covered the floor. Brick walls still intact. Graying wood beams.

His brief was tucked under his arm. It shouldn’t be. He reached for the door panel.

A man stepped from behind a pillar ten, twelve feet in front of him, his alabaster face expressionless, unremarkable eyes hard and direct. He was dressed like Richard, in the drab working clothes of the time – scuffed boots, worn leather holdall.

“Trespasser. You are in violation of Inference Codes 1-7.” Dan! There were only seven interference codes. “You have been sentenced by the Violations Committee.” Now he could hear his heartbeat. The Human Resources Violations Committee sentenced him. It was something he did…on this trip…something he hadn’t done…yet.

He had to go back, before he did it, so he wouldn’t do it. He slammed his palm into the door panel.

The man, Dan, raised a faintly glowing hand – a robot – and pointed a flashing toy gun at him.

All he could do was scream.

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