art by Jonathan Westbrook
The Time Travel Device
by James Van Pelt
I'd assembled my time travel device out of circuits, microchips, and clever wiring; but the gods or magic or fate controlled it. Perhaps an inventor who loves to read puts too much of himself into his creations. Or perhaps a literatus who engineers cannot separate his own blended DNA.
When I activated it the first time, a blink, a shudder, and a screech wrenched me from my control chair, and I found myself standing in a dark room. Had I gone forward or back? Light leaked through a barred window, revealing a ragged, bedridden man, his eyes sunk deep in his head, gasping in what surely must have been his ending breaths. Beside him sat a second man, dressed in a soiled jacket, writing by candlelight at a small table.
I raised my hand to speak, afraid to break the staggered breathing of the dying man, but I could see them through my hand. I had become smoke, a wraith, and I knew my device had hurled me through time, but only as a spirit. I would, to them, be a mute and invisible observer. I suspected as much when I designed the device. Time travel existed, but I could not interact with the past or the future. The universe preserved its sanctity.
The writer turned from his journal, leaned over the dying man. "You are at Washington College Hospital. Do you know where you are?"
He did not respond. Sweat glistened on his broad forehead, pasting dark hair against his face. The room smelled of death, like still things that had grown moist and gone bad: the death of sheets and mattresses and blankets, death-soaked with mortality's oozing miasma. Old breaths that went in rotted, lingered in the lungs' failing chambers, then fled to repoison the room without.
The dying man's jaw dropped open. He sipped in the dark room's darkness, then said, "Dr. Moran." He paused, and I thought he had faded away, then he whispered, "Lord, help my poor soul."
For minutes, they remained still. The candle burned even and did not waver. The doctor put his hand above the dead man's mouth. "Goodnight, Mr. Poe," he said, before he extinguished the candle.