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The Style of Time Travel

Jessie Atkin writes fiction, poetry, essays, and plays. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The YA Review Network, Writers Resist, Flock Lit, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative writing from American University. She can be found online at jessieatkin.com

No one ever wants to look like a peasant. No matter how many times I insist the ensemble is simpler, less expensive, and honestly, less conspicuous on the other end, no one ever wants to look like a peasant. They don't get into this job to go around as peasants, or Russian serfs, urban poor in the twentieth century, the shudra in India, or Aztec macehualtin. Every agent insists on knighthood, a noble line, merchant class at least. Who would talk to them, they think, if they were so lowly and homely? They shouldn't be talking to anyone is what I remind them, but they are the agents with the education and I'm only the costume designer with the experience. I've been in this job longer than many of these, essentially babies, will live.
But it usually seems that no one wants to hear that it takes more time to construct a Victorian corset than a half dozen poor folk costumes in full. Never mind that the accessories necessary for noble outfits include hats, gloves, and a dozen other frills that can be, and frequently are, lost. It's not an option to ever send an agent without because, aside from being absurdly discernable (which they aren't supposed to be), they are likely to kill themselves trying to acquire the missing item at the time stop they've been assigned. Did you know the average woman's hat in the Victorian era included enough arsenic in its dyed flowers to kill twenty people? Yes, well, neither do most new agents.
If a peasant's tunic comes back burnt, we can use it again, no questions asked. But a singe on a hoop skirt or ink on a quilted doublet and the hours of work to fix the garment so it would be usable a second time is not worth the effort, when that time could be better spent creating another brand-new ludicrous outfit so that no one has to look poor in the past. But who's worried about cash flow on the new highly fashionable (no pun intended) world of Time Crime? It's the new hot trend, the new NASA. Children don't grow up wanting to be astronauts, they want to be chrono agents.
And where does all the money go? To the technology, of course, the machines, and the agents themselves. It's a dangerous job, after all, they deserve their combat pay, don't they? No one seems to remember how quickly early agents were exterminated because they stood out in the past like a bunch of sore thumbs and were shot, bludgeoned, burned, or beheaded, often as devils, sorcerers, demons, spirits, and the like. An agent is not supposed to talk, but they will be seen (this is reality, we have time travel, not invisibility). So, if they stand out, well, it's case closed, and not in a good way.
Consider when someone is assigned to take down a lecherous preacher during the Second Great Awakening and they have lost their sunbonnet. I don't usually have any extras laying around or the ability to whip one up in the five minutes said agent has before they're set to ship out.
In answer to your question, yes, expanding the department would be nice, I'd say necessary, for the agency as a whole. But before any of this new government capital is placed in expansionist hands I would like to inquire about a raise for this peasant in the present.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, April 14th, 2021

Author Comments

I worked as an assistant stage manager in college and helped to build sets for a while after graduation. There's always so much that goes on in theater beyond what an audience sees on stage. There are stories behind and beyond the actors, just as there are stories behind the heroes of every sci-fi tale. This piece allowed me to merge my fondness for theater and science fiction, as well as my experience, into a single story.

- Jessie Atkin
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