This is extremely old; in fact, it is my first NaNoWriMo YWP novel. But I was reorganizing my archives and thought perhaps it might prove interesting.
Miss Drew motions for the class to settle down, not an easy task on a warm summer afternoon in Chicago. All the children are more interested in the world waiting for them outside than in what she has to say. A fly buzzes lazily about the room. It is time to go over the reports written during vacation. Her eyes scan the classroom, looking for signs of eagerness to be first. There is rarely any enthusiasm, even on the part of the teacher, but today is different. Alex Holden, a small, nervy blond boy in the third row, is practically leaping out of his seat in excitement. The teacher smiles and motions him to the front of the class. Alex clears his throat nervously and begins…
Hi, my name is Alex. My assignment was to interview a grownup about what life was like when they were a kid. The grownup I chose is Jake Bonaparte, a man I deliver the paper to. Mr. Bonaparte was mysterious from the day he moved in. He doesn’t look a day over thirty, but he talks about Napoleon as if he actually met him, which is totally cracked. I decided to ask what was going on.
I went up to the door the next time I delivered the paper, explained about my assignment. Mr. Bonaparte opened the door and invited me in. I wiped my feet on the mat and stepped cautiously inside. It didn’t look like a madman’s house. We went into the lounge, which was also perfectly normal. Mr. Bonaparte gestured to a chair.
‘Sit down. Now, what did you want to know?’
‘I got this weird assignment in school. I have to interview a grownup about what life was like when they were a kid.’
My grownup laughed. ‘I’m afraid you picked a rather confusing subject. I had the craziest time you can imagine when I was your age.’
This was intriguing. I was hooked. ‘Tell me.’
‘Won’t your mother get worried?’
‘Only if this takes more than a week. She’s on vacation.’
‘Good-oh. Get comfortable; this is a fairly long story. Oh, and don’t worry about writing it down. I’ll turn the Dictaphone on.’
‘Recording machine. Well, the interesting part started when I was thirteen. My parents were the madcap, don’t-give-two-pins-whether-the-kids-are-all-right-alone-and-the-power-bill-is-paid-or-not sorts. Kids…oh, yes – I have an older sister. She was already at high school (being sixteen) when my mother left on a trip to Spain one morning with an inundation of forgetments. “Daddy might be home tonight, or maybe not… I can’t remember. Grandma might be coming this week, or it might be next week…Did Carla’s friend come overnight yesterday, or is she not coming until tomorrow? Anyway, I’m sure you and Carla will be able to cope with anything that comes up. Goodbye, darling!” My father was not home for another week, Grandma never showed up, and neither did Carla’s friend, so we were on our own. As a matter of fact, that is just vaguely illegal, even in Istanbul in 1997.
‘The person who had owned the house before us was a slightly crazy scientist. As a result, the attic was full of slightly crazy inventions that my parents couldn’t be bothered clearing out.
‘When my mother had been gone for about a day, Carla and I started in to explore the attic. The first thing we found was a very large, very heavy rectangular…thing wrapped in a tarpaulin. We got it down the stairs all right and unwrapped it. It was a box, rather like a gigantic sea chest, but with ordinary doors, like bedroom doors, on the top and bottom of it (Like bedroom doors except that one was yellow and the other purple), with a queer sort of control-type panel on the side. Carla eventually worked out that it was lying on its side, so we hoisted the thing up and opened one of the doors.
‘Inside, there was a small package, marked, TO WHOMSOEVER IT MAY CONCERN. I ripped the packet open and discovered two neat wooden signs reading ’in’ and ‘out’, a small white ceramic square with a blue rubber button on it, threaded onto a leather cord, and a crackly envelope, yellowed with age and slightly musty. Carla carefully opened the envelope and inspected the bundle of papers it contained. She sat staring at the envelope, gasping slightly, for some minutes, and suddenly snapped, “Get back! That thing could be dangerous.”
‘I, naturally, thought she was being silly. “What? Don’t worry about me. What is it, anyway?”
She thrust the papers into my hands. “Only a time machine, Jake. No, nothing to worry about at all.”
‘I peered at the pile of paper, sifting through until I found a piece I could understand. The rest I conscientiously stacked until Carla had time to read them. She was the techno-freak, not me. Carla grabbed the top sheet of paper from her pile and studied it. I finally found a bit that was not circuit diagrams, but in a nearly indecipherable angular script, and started to read aloud.
‘”‘To whoever finds this letter: The vehicle you have presumably also found is the quintessence of Igor Patten’s time machine. To operate: remove the notices from the parcel and screw securely to the entrance and exit doors. Yellow is entry; purple is exit. Please be very careful to get this right! To start your travels, turn on the ON switch at the top right-hand corner of the control panel. Touch the representation of the area you wish to visit on the screen. The area will then zoom in. Continue refining your destination until it is as precise as you desire. Next, turn the four dials under the screen until the window under each displays the year, month, date, and time you wish to visit. Open the door you have marked IN and press the large orange lever on the control panel to its nethermost extremity. This turns on the power. Next, turn the green dial all the way to the left. The machine is now primed.
‘”‘To leave, enter the machine through the door you left open. Close the door and wait until the clock on the wall of the machine reaches zero, at which juncture you will have reached your destination. This machine travels at a rate of one year per second. If you wish to watch time passing you, you may do so from the window in the wall opposite the control panel. This is not recommended, however, as the view is terribly dull. Watching out the window will not disrupt the space-time continuum at all, so do not worry.’ Wow! What are we waiting for, Carla? Let’s go!”
‘“I don’t know. It seems awfully risky. Besides, where would we – I mean when would we go?”
‘“Jake, I meant to what era in the history of the world would we go? And where?”
‘“I got a report due on Napoleon Bonaparte. Hey, I could go interview him for my report! Please, please, Carla. I might get the best grade in the class.”
‘I could see she beginning to be convinced. “Well, I guess it would be alright. 1815 suit you? Battle of Waterloo. But we start from Liverpool. I’ve always wanted to go there. By the way, does that letter mention what this button on a necklace is for?”
‘“Uh, lemme see…’To hide the vehicle, press the cerulean’ –does that mean blue? – ‘button once. The vehicle will immediately go out to the timeways, from whence it is invisible to all times, but can come back at another press of the button.’”
‘“Cool! So we don’t have to worry about camouflaging it when we arrive.”
‘“All right! What will we need to take with us? Anything?”
‘“A history book would be nice. Could you please go find the 1800-1825 volume of History Of The World? It’s on my bookcase, in a blue cover with Napoleon on the spine. You’ll want a coat, of course, but that should be all, depending on how long we stay.”
‘“I went and got the necessary items, and came back to the lounge. Carla had screwed the labels on the doors and selected Liverpool on the map. She was just finishing with the time dials when I staggered in with her ultra-heavy history book.
‘“So, who’s going first?”
‘She barely looked up. “You are. Right, door open, orange lever down, green dial all the way left. Done! See ya!”
‘ I stepped into the machine and closed the door. A blinding flash of light came from the window – presumably a result of passing into the timeways – and then a series of scenes from history in such rapid succession that I scarcely saw one before another was replacing it. After a couple minutes of this, the whole capsule shuddered; there was another flash, and then silence.
‘I stepped out of the time machine into a long-grassed field edged with dark pines. I could dimly see blackberries on a hedge through the veils of mist, so I assumed that it was autumn. The sun had not yet risen, and it was deathly cold. A fizzing sound behind me made me turn hastily around, just in time to see the last hazy shimmer of the machine I had arrived in. Presumably, Carla was calling it so she could come join me.
‘I fished in the pocket of my coat for a packet of toffees, and before I finished the first one, the capsule was back, Carla and all. I was glad of that, because I had a couple questions for her.
‘“Hey, why aren’t we in town? I thought we were going to Liverpool, not some farm.”
‘“As far as I can gather from the papers, there is an automatic feature that takes you to the town outskirts as they are in the time you leave from. It shouldn’t be more than a mile or so. It’s still very early, so we should get to town before it gets busy.”
‘“Carla was right, and we reached Liverpool before the sun had burnt off the mist. If anything, the mist was thicker in town, and it smelled bad as well. Carla looked disapproving and murmured something about coal smoke, then disappeared into the crowd to ‘find out something’ leaving me with strict instructions to stay put. To my surprise, the streets were all full of people rushing to and fro. I looked around, noticing things like a small girl sweeping a yard, and a particularly thick mob around what I assumed was the tavern, judging from the comments emanating from therein and the smell.
‘A thickset man in a red coat detached himself from the crowd and staggered over to me. He had been in that tavern for rather longer than was probably good for him, if the gusts of beery breath in my face were any guide. The drunk clapped one hand to my shoulder, perhaps as much for support as anything else. The prickly stubble on his unshaven face scratched against my ear as an unwelcome accompaniment to his slurred request. “Got a few shillin’s on yer, lad? I’m well thirsty, but ‘at bloke won’ give me no beer ‘less I pay ‘im. ‘Ave pity on an undeservin’ pauper, woncha?”
‘Suddenly his hand was jerked off me, and a stern voice ordered, “Go away and hang yourself! I’ll have you up before the magistrate if you go molesting citizens like this.”
‘I glanced up and saw a tall, lanky soldier frowning at me. I hastily explained. “I’m not actually a citizen as such, but thanks for your help.”
‘The soldier’s frown deepened. “You’ve come to town to join the army, then? I assumed you worked in town, but I’ve got my orders. I have to enlist all the loiterers and vagabonds I can, but leave honest hardworking townsfolk be if they aren’t interested. I’d take it as a personal favor if you’d very kindly come with me.”
‘Joining the army being the last thing I wanted, I took this opportunity to make a dash for it. This proved not to be a good idea after all, as soldier could run rather faster than I could. He half-marched, half-dragged me along to a dingy little office, where a thin man with horn-rimmed spectacles sat at a desk. The soldier pulled me up to a standing position before the desk, and before I knew it, I was signed up and in the British army, going to fight Napoleon. I was pushed into a small room, where I fell, hitting my head, and I don’t remember anything else between then and waking up on a ship.
‘I soon began to wish I hadn’t woken, because the sea was rather choppy, and I don’t travel very well even on a calm day. Carla was sitting next to me, rather too obviously enjoying herself for my liking. She glanced over at me.
‘“Awake, are you? I hope you’re pleased with yourself. Going about getting stuck in armies so I have to cut my hair short to get in and come find you. Just don’t make it a habit.”
‘When the boat finally landed, we had to be off and marching at once after changing into uniforms. On arriving at the front, I was handed a musket and shown how to use it. That seemed to be all the training required.
‘Sitting in a shallow trench, absentmindedly watching the enemy, I noticed a man among the soldiers. He was wearing a cocked hat and seemed to be in charge. I figured it would be a good idea to dispose of the leader, so I picked up my gun and shot him. I didn’t see him fall, because a hand caught me from behind and whirled me around to face its owner. It was Carla, and she looked furious.
‘ “You absolute thick-skulled IDIOT! What the dickens do you think you’re doing?”
‘“What is your surname, pea-brain?”
‘“Do you know who you just shot? No? That was Napoleon Bonaparte, i.e. your ancestor. You are history, my friend.”
‘“Gee. What am I going to do? I can’t go back in time and warn… oh.” As I realized, I could, in fact, warn Napoleon to stay away from the front. It was fool-proof – go to yesterday, masquerade as a… something, and get to Napoleon’s tent. I discovered later that nothing is foolproof to a sufficiently talented fool.
‘This was made crystal-clear when I tried to get past the sentry with my somewhat limited French.
‘“Uh, je voudrais le general?” (I would like the general)
‘“Non. Il est occupe.” (No. He is busy.)
‘“Sil vous plait, monsieur. C’est urgente. Regardez, voila dix francs pour vous.” (Please, sir. It’s urgent. Look here is ten francs for you.
‘ “Un pot-de-vin, ha? Allons donc, rendre vingt francs, et c’est tout bon.” (A bribe, eh? Come now, make twenty francs and it’s all good.)
‘He marched me to Napoleon’s tent, and I was left alone.
‘“Monsignor Bonaparte? Je entrer dans, sil vous plait?” (Mr. Bonaparte? May I come in, please?)
‘“Qui va la? Allez, va. Je suis occupe.” (Who is it? Go away. I am busy.)
‘I entered the tent anyway. Napoleon was sitting at his desk, writing on a piece of parchment. He was a shortish, dark man, fairly average-looking, really. He wouldn’t have stood out particularly in a crowd. I suddenly remembered why I’d come.
‘ “Monsieur, ne aller pas en le portail demain, parce que un soldat devoir tuer vous.” (Sir, do not go to the front tomorrow, because a soldier will shoot you.)
‘“Pas possible. Dehors, dehors!” (Not possible. Out, out!)
‘I ran. Carla was waiting for me in a stand of trees nearby. I panted out my story – how Napoleon refused to listen to me. Carla looked grim.
‘“What do we do now?”
‘“Could we go ask someone else?”
‘“Worth a try. We can’t afford to go to our own time, or anywhere after, because we can’t tell how Napoleon’s death would affect the world. Maybe not at all, maybe tremendously. We would have to go even further back. I think someone who made accurate predictions about the future would be our best bet. We want to try for someone who speaks English…” She accidentally pressed the button to call the time machine, which materialized right in front of me.
‘I peered through the glass of the window. “Hey, did you put a packet in the machine?” Carla didn’t seem to hear me, so I opened the door and took it out. Wrapped up in the neat brown paper parcel was a sheet of paper that I opened. It was another letter from Igor Patten, and just as hard to read as the first.
‘”‘I hope these instructions will be of use to you. I called the machine in from the timeways to deliver this, hopefully not at an awkward moment. I don’t know who you are, but at the rate the text in my history books is changing, you must have found the time machine and are, I suppose, doing something rather odd. Killing Napoleon Bonaparte is not something I would do myself, but presumably you have your reasons. If you need to talk to someone who does not speak English, dematerialize the time machine, leaving the door open.
‘”‘I would rather not go into how this works right now, as it takes pages to explain and I suspect you do not have much time. Come visit for an explanation when you have finished sorting out this mess you have gotten yourselves into. I believe you know the address; the time is July 1950 up until the date of your moving into the house. Your friend, Prof. Igor Patten.’ Cool! Hey, Carla, who should we ask? It can be anyone now, not just someone who speaks English.”
‘“True. I think we should go find the prophet Isaiah. He made the most accurate predictions. I’d better go first, this time.” She stood up, brushing leaves off her jeans, and headed for the Where panel.
‘After a while, Carla stepped into the machine. It vanished without a sound, and I waited about ten minutes, as Carla had instructed, before recalling it to make the journey myself.
‘I barely noticed the scenery when I arrived. Carla was waiting for me, and as soon as I had disembarked, she sent the machine back into the timeways, being very careful to leave the door open. The first person we met was a little girl climbing a tree. Carla stopped to ask the way to Isaiah’s house. The girl regarded us solemnly for a minute or so, and then said, “Are you Gauls? You’re awfully pale, and such clothes! The prophet? He lives on the next street north but one, in the seventh house on the right.”
‘Carla thanked her, and we set off. We arrived at the house with no mishap, and Carla knocked on the door. A fairly old man opened it. “What do you want?”
‘Carla was obviously being as polite as possible. “We wish to consult the prophet Isaiah, if it’s at all convenient.”
‘The door opened wider. “I am Isaiah. What is it? I see by your clothes and hear by your accent that you have come a long way to speak to me. Come in.”
‘We entered. The room was small and dark, and the smoke from a fire filled it. Isaiah led the way to a ladder at one side. “We had better go onto the roof. It is cooler there, and less smoky.” When we were out on the roof, he turned to Carla. “Your cause must be desperate indeed to send such young children to see me.”
‘“Yes. We have a machine that travels through time…” Carla outlined the whole story, finishing, “So you see, sir, we came to you because we heard that God sometimes reveals such things to you.”
‘Isaiah shrugged. “I suppose so. I am sorry that I cannot help you, but if you have a machine that lets you travel in time, perhaps you could go to King Solomon, who was the wisest man ever to live. He lived around three hundred years ago.”
‘“Thank you, sir. You have been most kind.” When we were out on the street again, Carla turned to me. “See? I told you he’d be able to help. Now, let’s go find Solomon.”
‘Well, find Solomon we did. The exact time was a little tricky to come across, but manageable. Pretty soon, we were heading towards the palace. The guard outside tried to stop us, but Carla told him we were here to see the king on private business, and he could jolly well mind his own, and he let us in. King Solomon was most solicitous and had Carla repeat the whole story about twice.
‘“Now, I think I may be able to help. Do you have any record of this Napoleon?”
‘“Yes, sire, but how will that help?”
‘“Never mind. Please read the account of the man’s children, and continue until I ask you to stop.”
‘“Yes, sire. ‘Bonaparte’s son, Francois Charles Joseph, was born on May 20th, 1811. Napoleon invaded Russia the next year, failing miserably. He abdicated and was exiled to Elba in 1814, returning to fight the Battle of Waterloo, where he died in 1815.’”
‘“Stop. In your date system, the smaller the number of the year, the earlier the year is. Is that correct?”
‘“Yes, sire, but…”
‘“The son of this Napoleon, your ancestor, is born before your brother accidentally kills this Napoleon. You need take no action. The history will change, but that is of no consequence to you.”
‘“Oh! Then everything’s all right after all.”
‘A guard came up behind us. “You have had your audience. Now please leave. Others are waiting.”
‘We headed back into the town and called the time machine. There was only one more stop to make – our visit to Professor Patten. It was easy to get the right time and place, because we knew where he lived (in the house that was now ours) and when (1950 on, but we chose the year before we moved in). When I stepped out of the machine into the bright sunshine of the summer we had chosen, the professor was waiting on the lawn for me. Carla had gone to the door and asked if this was a convenient time, and the professor had said of course it was, one didn’t often get to meet visitors from the future via the far past.
‘Seated comfortably in the living room (which had so many carvings and hangings and bits and pieces in it that I scarcely recognized it) we told The Professor our story. He had insisted that if we must call him by such a ‘dry and lifelessly scholastic term’, we should at least pronounce it with capital letters.
‘The Professor explained that he had been living in Istanbul for many years when something a trader said made him try to invent the time machine. “You see,” said The Professor, “He said he wanted to meet his great-great-grandfather, but couldn’t. I didn’t make much of it at the time, but when I got home, I realized I’d quite like to go on and explore through time myself. It is so limiting, only being able to see time in one direction, and that one day at a time.”
‘We had a very long discussion in which we told The Professor that we hadn’t actually meant to kill Napoleon, or rather I hadn’t, and he told us all about the time machine and how it worked. In the end, we agreed that leaving it behind in the house was a good thing after all, what with us going journeys and all.
‘We left The Professor and headed for home, with the machine set for two days before Mother and Daddy were due home. The odd timing was due to the fact that we had no wish to wait around for them to come home, but we still had to clean the house.’ Mr. Bonaparte smiled. ‘You must think I’m absolutely mad, going on like that.’
‘No, I think it’s great! I have to go now. I want to write this up.’
He handed me the Dictaphone tape. ‘Here. And good luck with that report.’
The entire class sits transfixed. Alex is the first to speak. He says uncomfortably, “Well, that’s it.” The teacher breaks the stillness his voice did not by clapping her hands and calling Elsa Snider to give her report.
After class, Miss Drew calls Alex aside. “That was a marvelous story, dear, but things like that are better left for creative writing.”
Alex stares up at her, the hurt that her words have caused radiating out of his eyes. “It’s true. It’s all true. You can come meet him yourself if you don’t believe me.”
Miss Drew ruffles his hair, a thoughtful look on her face. “Can you ride pillion? I didn’t bring my car today, just a motorbike.”
Ten minutes later, a red motorcycle pulls up outside a neat townhouse on a quiet street. Three people stand in a front yard, hastily pulling a tarpaulin over a large box with two doors – one yellow, one purple. There are two men; one old, one young, and a woman, who is just a little older than the second man is. Alex leaps off the motorcycle, pulling a borrowed helmet from his fair hair. The younger man, who we have met before, calls to the others that they don’t need to veil the time machine – Alex already knows. Miss Drew approaches, slowly, gingerly. Mr. Bonaparte is already introducing Alex to his sister Carla and to The Professor (carefully capitalized). The Professor suggests a trip to Ancient Egypt. A stand-up row is on the horizon, when Miss Drew cuts short the conflict. She has a history lesson to teach tomorrow about the Han Dynasty of China. Could they please go there instead? Jake and Carla agree. The Professor is pacified by a promise of a trip to Egypt when they get back. Miss Drew fetches her notebook from her bag, and we are ready to start. Sadly, I cannot follow our heroes (and heroines) to Ancient China, so this must be