The past is another country, in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Tor.com tale of time travel and aviation history. “First Flight” is a finalist for the 2010 Locus Award.
The winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of short fiction published in Strange Horizons, Cosmos, and Asimov's. Her first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, will be published by Tor in 2010.
About the Author
MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL was the 2008 recipient of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a Hugo nominee for her story “Evil Robot Monkey.” Her short fiction, including "Rampion" and "Bound Man" has appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and many other markets. Mary, a professional puppeteer and voice actor, lives in Portland with her husband Rob and nine manual typewriters. This is her first novel.
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By Mary Robinette Kowal, Pascal Milelli
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Mary Robinette Kowal
All rights reserved.
Eleanor Louise Jackson stood inside the plain steel box of the time machine. It was about the size of an outhouse, but without a bench or windows. She clutched her cane with one hand and her handbag with the other. It felt like the scan was taking far too long, but she was fairly certain that was her nerves talking.
Her corset made her ribs creak with every breath. She'd expected to hate wearing the thing, but there was a certain comfort from having something to support her back and give her a shape more like a woman than a sack of potatoes.
A gust of air puffed around her and the steel box was gone. She stood in a patch of tall grass under an October morning sky. The caravan of scientists, technicians and reporters had vanished from the field where they'd set up camp. Louise inhaled with wonder that the time machine had worked. Assuming that this was 1905, of course — the year of her birth and the bottom limit to her time-traveling range. Even with all the preparations for this trip, it baffled her sense of the order of things to be standing there.
The air tasted sweet and so pure that she could make out individual fragrances: the hard edge of oak mixed with the raw green of fresh mowed grass. Louise had thought her sense of smell had gotten worse because she'd gotten old.
She drew herself together and pulled the watch from the chain around her neck to check the time, as if it would reflect the local time instead of the time she'd left. 8:30 on the dot, which looked about right judging by the light. Now, she had six hours before they spun the machine back down and she got returned to her present. If the Board of Directors had thought she could do everything faster, they would have sent her back for less time because it was expensive to keep the machine spun up, but even with all the physical therapy, Louise was still well over a hundred.
With that in mind, she headed for the road. She'd been walking the route from the box to Huffman Prairie for the last week so they could get the timing on it. But this looked nothing like her present. There had been a housing development across the street from where she'd left and now there was a farm with a single tall white house sitting smack in the middle of the corn fields.
If she thought too much about it, she wasn't sure she'd have the nerve to keep going. Down the road, a wagon drawn by a bay horse came towards her. Besides the fellow driving it, the back of the wagon was crammed full of pigs that were squealing loud enough to be heard from here. It made her think of her husband, dead these long years or two years old, depending on how you counted it. She shook her head to get rid of that thought.
Louise patted her wig, though the makeup fellow had done a lovely job fixing it to her head. She'd had short hair since the 1940s, and it felt strange to have that much weight on top of her head again. The white hair wound around her head in the style she remembered her own grandmother wearing. She checked to make sure her broad hat was settled and that the brooch masking the "hat-cam" was still pointing forward.
She hadn't got far when the wagon pulled up alongside her.
"Pardon, ma'am." The boy driving it couldn't be more than thirteen with red hair like a snarl of yarn He had a heavy array of freckles and his two front teeth stuck out past his lip. He had a nice smile for all that. "Seeing as how we're going the same way, might I offer you a ride?"
He had a book in his lap, like he'd been reading as he was driving. The stink of the pigs billowed around them with the wind. One of the sows gave a particularly loud squeal and Louise glanced back involuntarily.
The boy looked over his shoulder. "My charges are garrulous this morning." He patted the book in his lap and leaned toward her. "I'm pretending they're Odysseus's men and that helps some."
Louise couldn't help but chuckle at the boy's elevated language. "My husband was a hog farmer. He always said a pig talked more sense than a politician."
"Politicians or sailors. If you don't mind sharing a ride with them I'll be happy to offer it."
"Well now, that's kind of you. I'm on my way to Huffman Prairie."
He slid over on the bench and stuck his hand out to offer her a boost up. "I'm Homer Van Loon."
Well, that accounted for his taste in reading and vocabulary. Boys his age were more like to read the penny dreadfuls than anything else, but anyone whose parents saddled him with a name like Homer was bound to be a bit odd.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance. I'm Louise Jackson." She passed him her cane and gripped his other hand. Holding that and the weathered wooden side of the wagon, she hauled herself aboard. Grunting in the sort of way that would have made her mama scold her, Louise dropped onto the wooden bench. Three months of physical therapy to get ready for this, and climbing into a wagon almost wore her out.
"You walk all the way out here from town?" Homer picked up the reins and sat next to her.
"Lands, no." Louise settled her bag in her lap and told the lie the team of historians had prepared for her, in case someone asked. "I took the interurban rail out and then thought I'd walk the rest for a constitutional. The way was a bit longer than I thought, so I'm grateful to you." The Lord would forgive her for the lie, given the circumstance.
"Are you headed out to the Wright Brothers'?"
"I am. I never thought I'd see such a thing."
"That's for a certai —" His voice cut off.
Louise slammed hard against pavement. The wagon was gone. Power lines hung over her head and the acrid smell of asphalt stung her nose.
Shouting, half a dozen people ran toward her. Louise rolled over to her knees and looked around for her cane. It had landed on the road to her side, and she grabbed it to lever herself back to her feet.
Mr. Barnes was near the front of the people running toward her. The poor thing looked as if his heart would give out with worry, though Louise wasn't sure if he was worried about her or his invention.
The young fellow who did her wig got to her first, and helped her to her feet. It seemed as if everyone was chorusing questions about if she was all right. Louise nodded and kept repeating that she was fine until Mr. Barnes arrived, red-faced and blowing like a racehorse.
Louise drew herself up as tall as she could. "What happened?"
"We blew a transformer." Mr. Barnes gestured at one of the telephone poles, which had smoke billowing up from it. "Are you all right?" Up close, it was clear he was worried about her, and Louise chided herself for doubting him. He hadn't been a thing but kind to her since the Time Travel Society recruited her.
"I'm fine. More worried about the boy I was talking to than anything else."
That stopped all the conversation flat. The program director, Dr. Connelly, pushed her way through the crowd, face pale. "Someone saw you vanish? You're sure?"
"I was sitting in his wagon." Louise settled her hat on her head. "Maybe, if you send me back a few seconds after I vanished, we can pretend that I fell out of the wagon."
"Out of the question." Dr. Connelly set her mouth into a hard line. With her dark hair drawn tight in a bun, she looked like a school marm with an unruly child.
"He'll think he's gone crazy."
"And having you reappear will make things better?"
"At least I can explain what's happening so he's not left wondering for the rest of his life."
"Explain what? That you are a time traveler?"
Louise gripped her cane and took a step closer to Dr. Connelly. When she was young, she would have been able to look down at the woman, and still felt like she ought to, even though their eyes were on level. "That's exactly what I'll tell him. He's a twelve-year-old boy reading Homer on his free time. I don't think he'll have a bit of a problem believing me."
A muscle pulsed in Dr. Connelly's jaw, and she finally said, "There's no point in arguing out here in the heat. We'll take it to the rest of board and let them decide."
That was as clear a "no" as if she'd actually said the word. Louise leaned forward on her cane. "I look forward to speaking with them." She cut Dr. Connelly off before she could open her mouth. "As I'm the only one who's met the boy, I trust you'll want me to tell the Board about him." People shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that being old meant she was sweet.
* * *
Louise sat in her costume in a conference room with Dr. Connelly, Mr. Barnes, and two other members of the board, both white men who looked old but couldn't be much past retirement age. The conference room had flat-panel screens set up with the other board members on them. They had been debating the issues for the past half hour, largely going into details of why it was too dangerous to try to make her reappear on the wagon on account of it being a moving vehicle.
Louise cleared her throat. "Pardon me, but may I ask a question?"
"Of course." Mr. Barnes swiveled his chair to face her. The boy didn't seem that much older than Homer Van Loon for all that he'd invented the time machine.
"I hear you talking a lot about the program and I understand that's important and all, but I'm not hearing anyone talk about what's best for Homer Van Loon."
Dr. Connelly swiveled her chair to face Louise. "I appreciate your concern for the boy, but I don't think you have an understanding of the historical context of the issue."
Her disdain lay barely under the surface of civility. Louise had seen this sort of new money back when she'd been working in the department store, and she always had been required to smile at them. No need now.
"Young lady," Louise snapped at Dr. Connelly like one of her own children, "I've lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Collapse. I lived through race riots, saw us put men on the moon, the Spanish Flu, AIDS, the Titanic, Suffrage and the Internet. I've raised five children and buried two, got twenty-three grandchildren, eleven great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren with more on the way. And you have the nerve to say I don't understand history?"
The room was silent except for the whir of the computer fans.
Dr. Connelly said, "I apologize if we've made you feel slighted, Louise. We'll take your concerns under advisement as we continue our deliberations."
If she hadn't been a good Christian woman, she would have cracked the woman on the head with her cane for the amount of condescension in her voice.
"How many people do you have that are my age?" She knew the answer to the question before she asked it. She might not use the Internet but she had grandchildren who were only too happy to do searches for her. A person couldn't travel back before she was born, and Louise was born in 1905. There weren't that many people of her age, let alone able-bodied ones.
"Six." Dr. Connelly looked flatly unimpressed with Louise's longevity.
Mr. Barnes either didn't know where she was headed or agreed with her. "But you're the only one that's a native English speaker."
Louise nodded her head in appreciation. "So it seems to me that you might want to do more than keep my concerns 'under consideration.'"
A man on one of the screens spoke. "Are you blackmailing us, Mrs. Jackson?"
"No sir, I'm not. I'm trying to get you to pay attention." She straightened in her chair now that they were all looking at her. "You saw the video of me meeting him. Homer Van Loon is a boy out of time himself. He's reading the Odyssey, which if you know anything about farm boys from 1905 ought to tell you everything you need to know right there. Not only will he believe me, he'll understand why it needs to be kept secret — as if anyone would believe him anyhow. And if you think on it, having someone local to the time might be handy. He's twelve now. When you send someone back to Black Friday, which you will I expect, he'll be in his thirties. You think a man like that wouldn't be helpful?"
Mr. Barnes shook his head. "But we researched him today. His life was entirely unremarkable. If he knew you were a time traveler, wouldn't that show up?"
Louise took a breath to calm herself. "If he's told to keep it a secret, and does, do you think his history would look any different?"
One of the board members in the room, a lean man with wire-rim glasses, spoke for the first time.. "You've convinced me."
"Gerald!" Dr. Connelly swiveled to glare at him. "Conversations with a pig farmer are not what our investors have paid for."
And that was the real point that they had been dancing around in her presence. "I can do both."
They stared at her again, but she only looked at Mr. Barnes. "Can't I? There's no reason I can't go back to the same time twice, is there?"
He shook his head, slowly smiling. Oh, but he was completely on her side, wasn't he. Louise beamed at him.
"Well, then, why don't you send me back for twenty minutes to talk to Homer to see how he took it. Twenty minutes. That's all and then I'll come back to the present and tell you how the conversation went. If Homer believes me, then I can hop back to the same spot and he can give me a ride to Huffman Prairie. I'll get there about the same time as I would have walking. If it doesn't, then you can send me to the B point and we'll have tried."
Slowly in the screens heads began to nod. Dr. Connelly scowled and threw her hands up. "That's two set-ups. Do you people know how much that costs? Just the transformer delay is cutting into our return. I can't conscience this. We're contracted to deliver footage of the Wright Flyer III, and you, madam, are contracted to do that for us." She pointed at Mr. Barnes. "If she can go to the same time place twice, then send her to the same place she went today, but after she met the boy. We'd built in extra time for the walk, right?"
Louise prayed that the Good Lord would grant her patience and give her strength to forgive this woman. And then Louise added a prayer that He would forgive her for being devious. "That should be fine."
Mr. Barnes shook his head. "He'll still be there unless we send you too late to get to the field."
Never in her life had Louise wished for someone to lie, but she was beside herself wanting Mr. Barnes to be quiet. She was hoping that Homer had stuck around; in fact, she was counting on it so she could explain things to him.
Dr. Connelly rolled her eyes. "Not you too. You haven't even met the boy."
"No, but on the video he reminds me a lot of myself and, well, I'd still be there." Mr. Barnes shrugged. "Can you imagine being twelve and seeing someone vanish?"
"Anyone with sense would high-tail it out of there so whatever got her wouldn't get them, too." Dr. Connelly rolled her shoulders with blatant aggravation. "All right. Let's say he's more like you and still there. Send her back earlier so she can clear the site before the boy comes along. How much extra time will you need?"
The teeth Louise had left all hurt to answer civilly. "It doesn't take me but thirty minutes to get down the road to Huffman Prairie."
Dr. Connelly narrowed her eyes. "I trust that you won't try to wait and contact the boy instead of performing your contractual obligations.
Louise sucked in her dentures and set her jaw before answering. "I said I'd get you photos of that Wright Flyer and I plan to do so."
"That's not the same. I'll need your word, Louise."
"Dr. Connelly. You have my word that I will not wait for Homer. But I want you to understand that I think this is a terrible thing."
"Noted." She turned her attention to Mr. Barnes. "Given the trial runs, what's the shortest amount of time she'll need to be out of sight?"
"There's a bend in the road that she should reach in about ten minutes."
"Let's set her down fifteen minutes early, then." She surveyed the board. "Unless there are objections?"
Nobody but Louise seemed to care, and she kept her mouth shut before she could say something not very Christian.
Excerpted from First Flight by Mary Robinette Kowal, Pascal Milelli. Copyright © 2009 Mary Robinette Kowal. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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