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art by Billy Sagulo

Time to go Home

Stephen Persing is an art critic and blogger whose writings have appeared in Art in America, The Hartford Courant, and Big Red & Shiny. His art blog can be found at art note.blog.com/

"It's always a beautiful day."
Those words, not spoken but thought, fell across Ward's mind. He even noted, with a chuckle, that the "voice" in his head had the same Massachusetts accent as he did. It spoke his language; anything to make him feel at home.
"I don't mind a little bad weather," Ward said. "A snowstorm at evening, spring rain. It can be beautiful--even a hurricane has its attractions."
"Those can be provided," said the voice. "And the location need not be one place alone. You can combine the best elements of your favorite towns, places where you vacationed, anywhere. Should you want to make changes, we have devised it so that the changes occur in real time. Buildings are torn down and new buildings rise. It helps to pass the time."
"And if I want immediate change?"
"That is possible," said the voice, "but we find that it causes greater stress on the client. Your body and mind are in tune to natural rhythms."
"And the alternative?" Ward felt his hands tighten on the arms of the chair, and wondered for a moment if there was a chair at all, or just something placed in his mind. The room around him was beige, ecru, tan--nondescript in several different shades. The voice seemed to come from a loudspeaker on the wall--aside from that and his chair, the room was empty. Somehow, he knew the voice did not actually come from the speaker. He heard it internally.
"Fantasy worlds, locations from literature. Dickensian London, Middle-Earth, Moonbase Alpha...."
"No, I mean living in reality."
The voice sounded sorrowful. "You will not want that."
Ward sat up straighter. "Why do you think I came here? I'm a time traveler. I came to see your world, my future. At least let me see it."
"Even though you can never go back?"
"You convinced me. Everything we thought we knew about time travel was wrong, or most of it, anyway. Time flows in one direction only. But I'll be missed. Rescuers will come."
"They are already here," the voice said, with greater sorrow.
"How did they get here before me?"
"Their time machines were more advanced than yours. Would you like to see them?"
Ward shook his head. "No. What could I say to them? 'Sorry I took you away from everything you ever knew?' No, maybe later, when I think of something to say."
"They have their home and family," said the voice, "even if they are only re-creations."
"But they know they're not real."
"We are not certain of that," said the voice. "For a while, yes, but if you live long enough, and everything around you stays the same, the brain begins to adjust. We believe some clients no longer know they are in a virtual environment."
Ward got up and began to pace. "How many time travelers have you got?"
"Twenty, including you. Several missions went out, and then several rescue missions. Each time that the technology advanced they tried again, until they sent only robots. We have them as well."
"They all came here?" Ward stopped his pacing. "To this time and place?"
"The limits of your knowledge and technology, we assume. There appears to be a safe passage through time to us."
"Hard to imagine."
"We were as surprised as you." The voice sighed. "The travelers came over the span of eight years, approximately. Our knowledge of history tells us that you, mankind's first time traveler, are the last to arrive."
"And now I can't go back." Ward started to resume his pacing, but stopped after a few steps. "Can I go forward?"
"Into an ever-stranger future, until there are no people to comfort you, and no place to call home?"
"Into the future, as I was trained to do." Ward's eyes lit up. "Perhaps your descendants will figure out how to move back in time."
"We stopped studying time travel centuries ago," said the voice. "And history shows no sign of travelers returning from the future."
Ward nodded quickly. "And so no one has tried. That's enough for me. Whether here or somewhere in the future, I'm going to die among strangers, but I can't give up. I'll travel ahead and try to convince whatever's left of mankind to give it another attempt. That'll be my goal, my reason for living."
There was a grudging tone of admiration in the voice's speech. "Perhaps you have the initiative our century lacks. If you wish to try it, we will not prevent you. Your ship is undamaged and can be flown at any time."
"No time like the present," Ward said with a laugh. "I'll try going ahead two hundred years. That should be enough for major technological changes. If not, I can always go farther.
"I don't want to seem impolite, but I'm going to leave immediately. You've been very kind, helping me understand what happened and all that. And thanks for lunch, even if it was just pills. You'll take care of the other time travelers?"
"They are safe and happy, and will be so the rest of their lives."
"Great. Thank you." He paused, and seemed lost in thought. "I would like one more thing. You've taken good care of me, but I would like to see you. I suppose after so many million years you might look different from the people of my day..."
Before he could finish speaking, the wall he was facing began to fade away, and he looked into a larger, dark grey room. Light flickered on the walls, but he hardly noticed. In the center of the room was a collection of pale shapes, blobs that sat on the ground or seemed to hover in the air. The blobs were crisscrossed with blood vessels. Tendrils stretched between the blobs, like muscle fibers or nerves hugely enlarged. The entire mass seemed to gently pulse with an even rhythm. Ward caught a faint whiff of an odor somewhat like the smell of warm flesh.
"My God... is that you? What... what are you?"
"I'm sorry to shock you, Mr. Ward," said the voice, "but I'm a human being."
Two months later, Ward stood on the porch of his parents' house. It was June, and the roses were scenting the air. Though it was a warm day, the towering clouds promised a thunderstorm ahead, perhaps a break from Summer's heat. He took a deep breath and sighed.
"The poor devils," he said. "I couldn't get back to them. Imagine having to live the rest of your life in a make-believe world, when all they needed to do was go ahead a few hundred years and find the technology to travel back in time?"
"You always were lucky, Tom," said his mother. "To be honest, I'd long since given up ever seeing you again."
"Well, you'll be seeing a lot of me from now on. No more time travel for me. With the data I collected on the journey back, they can send rescue parties and bring all the time travelers home without my help. I'm staying on Earth."
"I couldn't be happier," his mother said. She rose from her rocking chair and kissed him on the cheek. "You won't grow bored being confined to one time?"
He laughed, and she joined him. "Bored? I'm going to take it easy for a while, drive out to the Cape, maybe get Jim to take me out on his catamaran again. After that I'll do theoretical work--study time travel from the safety of the lab. I've done enough to get in the history books. If I never do anything again, that'll be okay with me.
"Which reminds me, I have to run into town and get the salad fixings for dinner. Do you need anything?"
The old lady shook her head. "I have everything we need, you know."
"I promised to bring the salad, and I'm going to." Ward strode down the front steps and paused on the walk. He scanned the clouds. "Looks like I can get everything done before those thunderstorms get here."
"I'd say you have another hour yet," said his mother.
"Storm or no storm," Ward said, "it's a beautiful day."
Yes," his mother said. "It always is."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, December 9th, 2013

Author Comments

"Time to go Home" was a rare treat, a story that flowed smoothly from start to finish without the need for multiple drafts or plot outlines. I don't write much fiction, so it was especially pleasing to just sit down and let the words pour out.

- Stephen R. Persing
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