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By Susanna Fraser, Kate Fall
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Susanna Fraser
All rights reserved.
Lisbon, 24 December 1810
Sydney couldn't deny the truth any longer. Her time machine was broken. She'd taken the temporal engine apart and put it back together a dozen times in the past two weeks. She'd checked every single connection — first methodically, then obsessively, at last frantically. Nothing worked, not even kicking it and screaming obscenities.
This wasn't supposed to happen. All the newer-model time machines had an auto-recall function that brought the machines and their occupants back to their "home" time at the first hint of a serious timeline fracture. She'd helped to test the technology herself, going back a few days into her past and attempting to make changes. The auto-recall had always whisked her back before she could buy a lottery ticket with winning numbers for a major jackpot, let a friend set her up on a blind date, or even persuade her parents to go to Mexico instead of Hawaii for their winter vacation.
But here, now, that function had failed, and the temporal engine refused to turn over. The rest of her 2013 technology still worked — the interior lights, the mini-fridge where she kept the samples she'd collected, and the tablet computer where she stored her notes. All useless if she couldn't go home.
She'd already stayed in 1810 a week beyond the maximum the National Institute for Temporal Research's review board allowed. If by some miracle the time machine suddenly worked, they'd never let her time travel again. She'd be lucky not to be kicked out of her PhD program at the University of Washington altogether. Still, if she could only go home, she'd gladly work a cash register at Target or McDonald's for the rest of her days.
But she didn't believe in miracles. She was a scientist. She couldn't even hope for rescue, not anymore. If her time machine's failure was a simple mechanical issue and someone from her time could've helped her, they would have set their own time machine for some point before her two weeks were up. She tried not to dwell too much on why no one had come, since the most obvious explanation — that she or some other traveler had already broken the timeline and her 2013 no longer existed — made her want to vomit.
No, it was time to give up. She had enough gunpowder to blow up the time machine, and she'd practiced using it back in her own time — her favorite part of all her training since it had felt like playing Myth Busters. The deserted stone barn just outside the city where she'd hidden the time machine was isolated enough that the explosion wouldn't put people at risk. She hoped that precaution would be enough to keep her from destroying the timeline in her attempt to save it.
As for herself ... she took a deep, shaky breath and remembered her last argument with Cody and Jessica. Like all time travelers, they'd sworn to uphold the Protocol, acting as observers only, maintaining their distance, and avoiding any interference with the locals that might change the past. But her friends weren't so sure about the Protocol's provisions for what to do if they couldn't come home.
"No one really expects us to go through with it," Jessica had maintained.
"Of course not," Cody had said as he passed out the latest round of drinks. "It's not like we're not going to destroy our 2013. There's no reason to even take that pill with us. I'm going to throw mine down the first privy I find. If I get stuck, I'll stay, have fun, and try to do good. Who knows? Maybe I'll get the universe with no Hitler or no global warming."
"It's not going to happen," Sydney had said. "The auto-recall works. I tested it myself." She'd taken a firm swig of her beer and frowned at her friends.
"But haven't you ever thought about it?" Jessica had asked. "I have ever since the time machine was invented. Before then, really. I used to read the Little House books and imagine I was traveling with Laura and Mary."
"Syd would imagine she was at a garden party with Mr. Darcy."
She'd jabbed Cody with her elbow. "I would not! Besides, I know what I'd have to do. I promised. We promised."
He'd shaken his head, suddenly serious. "Hell, Syd, don't tell me you'd pull a Mike Carey."
"But that's what the Protocol says we have to do," she'd insisted, never dreaming it could happen to her. The auto-recall was designed to protect both travelers and the timeline, after all. And even before it had been added to the design, scientists had taken hundreds of trips to the past. As far as anyone knew, Carey's had been the only one to go wrong.
But in his case, the time machine hadn't died like hers had. Instead, the research team hadn't done a good enough job picking his landing site in 1917, and the machine had been blown up by a German shell. So Carey had written a poem that sounded just like a standard soldier's bleak lament of the era, then gotten himself killed in no-man's land. He'd sent the poem in a letter to UW before he died, and it had ended up on the campus World War I memorial. Ninety years passed before his best friend, Wayne Krakowski — later to become Sydney's mentor — had worked out Carey's coded references to the twenty-first century and sacrificing himself for the sake of the timeline.
She'd always believed Mike Carey had done the right thing, and she'd sworn to obey the Protocol and follow his example. All the theoretical physics in the world couldn't give her certainty that every change in the timeline just created a new multiverse, and that nothing she could do in the past would undo everyone and everything she loved in 2013.
Now she took out the bottle with its lethal dose of painless, fast-acting poison that was part of every time traveler's standard equipment. She should blow up the time machine, then swallow it and get it over with. Only she didn't want to die.
So she set the poison aside, sat in the time machine's open door, and turned on her iPad. Fighting tears, she paged through her pictures. Mom and Dad in Hawaii last winter. Her brother Brian and Katie's wedding — she'd been one of the bridesmaids, dressed in a shade of pink she never would've worn of her own free will, but she hadn't complained. And there was little Ava, the prettiest and smartest niece in the world, dressed as a black cat for Halloween. She'd never hear that sweet voice again, calling "Auntie Syddie!" She wouldn't be there for Ava's third Christmas to see her squeal for joy at everything Santa brought her.
Blinking hard, she swiped away her niece's big brown eyes and baby grin. The next image was easier, just the party the night before she went into her pre-travel quarantine, with Cody photo-bombing as usual. He'd tried to take her home with him, but she hadn't been that drunk. Did she regret it, now that she wouldn't be going back? No. It wasn't like she was going to die a virgin, and she never had been as into him as he'd wanted her to be.
She missed him, though. She hoped he'd had better luck in 1814 New Orleans than she'd had here, and that he was already safe in 2013. Safe at home for Christmas.
She had to stop this and get the gunpowder charge ready. Lingering wasn't helping. She set the tablet down, tucked the poison bottle safely into her Regency lady's reticule, then sat up — only to spot a darkly handsome and all-too-familiar man gaping at her in amazement.
Captain Griffin. Oh, hell. How had she missed hearing him come into the barn? If only she'd never spoken to him, or at least never flirted with him when he'd come to visit his regiment's sick and wounded in the hospital where she'd been working as a nurse. It was a major Protocol violation, and she'd known better. But he'd been so persistent, so interested, and she'd been so glad to have a friend here. A very hot friend.
She thought through the strategy of how to respond if a local caught a traveler with twenty-first century technology. Disguise, distract, deflect. She sprang to her feet, slamming the time machine's door shut. On the outside, it looked like an ordinary carriage, but an old one with a broken axle, not worth stealing.
"Captain Griffin!" she said brightly, fighting to maintain her carefully cultivated English accent. Thinking of home, she had a hard time suppressing her Seattle voice. "What brings you here?"
But she could guess that he'd followed her. He was too damned curious. He'd been the only one at the hospital to ask her probing questions about her unorthodox technique for bloodletting, how frequently she washed her hands, and her habit of making notes in a journal after every few patients. She should've distracted and deflected then, instead of getting all dizzy and elated that he'd noticed her too.
It didn't help that he looked so sexy in that Rifle uniform. She could blame Sean Bean and her hours of watching the Sharpe movies for how hard it was to keep her eyes off a hot man in Rifle green, but Captain Griffin was his own kind of handsome — tall and broad-shouldered, with curly black hair and dark eyes that missed nothing.
Including what he'd just seen. "What is that thing?"
His voice shook a little, she thought. But not much. He was an officer and a gentleman, so he couldn't let himself freak out over something new and strange. If he was scared, he hid it well. She admired that. As a time traveler, she tried to live by the same kind of code.
"A carriage, sir," she said. "And a broken one, at that."
"No, Mrs. Sydney," Captain Griffin said in a tone that reminded her of Professor Krakowski in lecture mode. "It appears to be a carriage, externally. Inside is something very different. I saw it. I may not understand the evidence of my eyes, but I've never been given to hallucinations. And," he added with a musing, distant look that called her mentor even more strongly to mind, "if I were to suddenly take leave of my senses, I doubt very much I should hallucinate something I'd never imagined existed before."
Disguise had failed, so she must distract and deflect. "I don't see why not," she said. "After all, isn't that how strange religions start?"
He shrugged. "Perhaps. But you're no angel, are you? Although," he allowed, "you're tall and golden enough for one."
She shook her head. There had been concern among the review board that at 5'11" she was too tall a woman to go more than a hundred years into the past. Time travelers were supposed to blend in to their destinations. "No," she said. "Anyway, I'm shorter than you."
He smiled. It wasn't fair how the expression made him look even hotter, with white teeth straighter than anyone born before orthodontics had a right to in a soldier's sun-browned face. "Not by much. But stop trying to distract me. I know what I saw."
She crossed her arms and tried to look lofty. "What if I told you it was none of your concern and refused to say more?"
Now he grinned, a wicked twinkle in his eye. "Then I should be obliged to found a strange religion based on my suppositions. How do you think I would do as a mad preacher, ma'am? On Christmas Eve, I saw the most celestial vision ..."
He wouldn't. He couldn't. "You're far too rational a gentleman to do anything so mad," she said.
"True. But — hang it all, Mrs. Sydney, you must tell me something!" Now his voice shook, and she could hear the fear and amazement he'd been working to hide. "You cannot expect a man to see a light that glows bright as sunlight without a flicker of flame or a — a portrait frame that changes its contents with the touch of a fingertip, and walk away and never think of it again."
She bit her lip and fought to control her shaking breath. Maybe she could've passed off the electric light as some new and improved oil lamp, but he'd seen her iPad. What could she do now? She couldn't think of a single lie that wouldn't make everything worse. The Protocol made no allowances for this, but he'd already seen too much to be distracted or deflected, and wasn't it safer for such a curious man to know the truth? Who knew how badly he'd destroy the timeline with his guesses if she left him ignorant.
"It's my time machine," she said in her own accent, "my broken time machine. I was — I will be born in 1987. I came here from America in 2013."
* * *
Miles Griffin's mind went blank. He wasn't sure that his heart didn't stop for a moment. It was as if everything in the dusty, abandoned stable had gone still and silent. Even Mrs. Sydney stood as motionless as a statue, her clear gray-blue eyes fixed on his face.
His words, when they came, surprised even him. "Were you? That explains a great deal."
She'd caught his eye the day he met her with her height and beauty, but kept it with her strangeness, the way she held herself aloof while watching even the most mundane persons and objects with the avid curiosity of a natural philosopher. Even the way she walked was different, as if she wasn't quite comfortable in her perfectly ordinary clothing. He'd followed her today because it wasn't the first time he'd caught her walking briskly north toward the outskirts of the city. He'd suspected a lover, or that she'd got herself entangled with a ring of spies or smugglers. The truth, as mad as it sounded, fit what he knew of her far better.
She shook her head. "Wait. You believe me?"
Her accent was no longer that of an educated, cultivated woman of the English gentry, but something strange and new to his ears — somewhat American, but not like any loyalist emigrant or Boston sailor he'd ever met. "I do," he said. "The alternative, after all, is to believe you a hallucination or an angel, and we've agreed I am too rational for that."
He was fighting hard to maintain that rationality now. How could one travel through time, as if it were a road to be ridden or a sea to be sailed? It made no sense. But neither he nor anyone in his family had ever shown a hint of madness, he hadn't been drinking, and he hadn't taken a blow to the head. And Christmas Eve or not, Mrs. Sydney was no angel. Surely a heavenly messenger wouldn't smell so deliciously of woman, nor would an angel's golden hair slip out of her careful coiffure and fall over her eyes to be impatiently brushed away.
"Promise not to tell anyone," she said.
She flailed her hands as if fighting for words. "Because — because everyone would want to know how everything turns out. How the war ends, stuff like that."
"What's wrong about that?" It would be useful information to have, after all.
"Well, if you knew, you wouldn't do things the same way, and it would change the timeline."
"Change the timeline," he repeated.
"Yes. Make history take a different course. Destroy the future — my present."
After a moment's consideration, he nodded in understanding. He supposed that even a few small changes now would render the world unrecognizable two centuries hence. But — the implications were dizzying. He took a deep breath and swallowed hard. To Mrs. Sydney, everything in Miles's future was as decided and immutable as Queen Elizabeth's reign or the Wars of the Roses. To her, he was history, not a living man with undetermined choices and possibilities yet before him.
"But what if you could make the future better?" he asked. "You might go back another twenty years and kill Bonaparte before he came to power."
At that she laughed aloud.
"What is so amusing? It seems a rational way to make a more peaceful and orderly world."
"I'm sorry," she said. "It's just that exactly that argument has been made a million times — only Napoleon is never the example. I shouldn't tell you more than that, but believe me, there's much worse than him to come."
If that was the case, Miles thought it an excellent argument for changing the timeline.
"Besides," she continued, "you have no idea what would happen in France without Napoleon. It might be far better or far worse. You can't know. And if you went back and killed him before he did anything you didn't like, wouldn't that be murder, the same as if you killed any other innocent man? For all you know, any one of your brother officers might be destined to do something horrendous next month or next year."
She rattled off her argument almost as a recitation, and Miles suspected she'd had this discussion, or one very like it, any number of times. He supposed such speculations would be meat and drink to time travelers.
"I see your point," he said, although he wasn't sure it still applied when you knew from your history books what a man was destined to become. "Why are you here?" he asked. "I would've thought time travelers would want to see great events and meet great men, not spend weeks with the sick and wounded of an army in winter quarters. Or — is something significant about to happen?"
She rolled her eyes. "If there was, I couldn't tell you, now could I?"
He sighed. "That would spoil the timeline."
Excerpted from Christmas Past by Susanna Fraser, Kate Fall. Copyright © 2013 Susanna Fraser. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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