Percival Sellers led me down rows of musty stacks that made me think of an old library, and then into a relative clearing where he removed documents from a chair and dropped them on the floor. I noticed a giant poster on the wall with the name, H.G. Wells in silver letters against a black background.
“Please, have a seat,” he said, finding his own chair amidst the mess and groaning as he sat down. “So. Aaron sent you, huh? He’s a good man. Quite unconventional, but that’s why I like him. Now, on to business. Tell me what happened to you.”
I shifted in my chair, getting a little more comfortable as I began my tale. Sellers listened with a ponderous and heavy scowl, nodding at intervals but not commenting. When I was done, he sprang to his feet with surprising agility.
“May I see the area of the head you were struck during your fall down the well?” he asked.
“Sure, why not?” I said, despite thinking it was an odd request.
By now, the bump on the back of my scalp had healed up well. Sellers looked at it for a few seconds, grunted, and returned to his seat.
“Very good,” he said. “Yes, Mr. Price. You are indeed a time traveler.”
I nodded. It wasn’t news to me anymore. “But how?” I asked.
“Before we discuss that,” Sellers said, “let me tell a little bit about myself. I’m a neuropsychologist and former professor at the University of Happenstance, and before that at Yale, and before that at Stanford, all of which institutions I summarily left--but that’s another story. My area of intense study has been the strong electromagnetic force fields created by a group of cells at the occipital--that’s the back--part of the brain when subjected to either trauma or electrical stimulation. I’ve observed these fields only in a very few subjects. So, my dilemma has always been, how can I study something that I can’t well define, and how do I define something I can’t study well? Getting grants to do this work is difficult, and most institutions consider my discoveries to be nonsensical at worst and unproven at best.
“Now, there was an interesting development when I met Aaron Muscat. He had postulated something like my model on some deeply autistic patients who engaged in head banging. His discovery was that the electromagnetic force fields were created by extraordinary neuronal impulses in the brain that travel close to the speed of light--which is one of the reasons they’re so difficult to detect. Are you with me?”
I took a breath. “Well, sort of. Not quite.”
“Think of it as when you strike your funny bone,” Sellers said. “You get that shock, right? But what’s happening in those special occipital brain cells is that it the shock is so fast, you wouldn’t feel it. Now, there’s something called the space-time continuum, thanks to our friend Dr. Einstein, whom I’m sure you’ve heard of. I believe that the electromagnetic brain forces--I call them EMFs--by tapping into Einstein’s theories, can interact with the space-time continuum and bend them with the colossal gravitational pull generated.”
“So, you’re saying my EMFs interacted with the space-time thing and somehow transported me into the future?” I asked.
Professor Sellers shook his head. “No, no. There is no future, because the no one’s future has occurred yet. There’s only present, and past. But in the universe, there are echelon points or plains in which space and time are set differently in relativity to one another. If a significant EMF is triggered, you can skip to a different level or plane, but it isn’t the future, even if the year is ahead of you. It’s the present there, and it’s the present on the plane you just left.”
“What about the past?” I asked. "Can I go back to when and where I came from?”
“You can return only as yourself and the exact situation you had on the echelon and as long as there’s still a vacancy in that plane. And no--it isn’t possible to go back and stop World War Two. The laws of physics will not allow such a thing. My query is, are you sure you want to return to 1980?"
I sighed. “I suppose I could become accustomed to 2022, although it’s kind of overwhelming. There’s another problem. Detective Ferguson thinks I murdered the man in the well beside me and I just know I didn’t.”
“You’re correct,” Sellers said. “You didn’t," which I found a little puzzling.
“Do I want to be accused of something I didn’t do?” I asked. "Run around like a fugitive? I realize that maybe my life in 1980 might not have been the best in the world, but I’m willing to bet it was good enough. These 2022 phones with cameras and all this stuff is incredible, but what I’ve been seeing and hearing in the news and some of the headlines around the world--wow, this planet really got fucked up."
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Sellers said. “A question for you. What ethnicity do you believe you belong to?”
“I’m White--British Isles ancestry--but people keep telling me otherwise.”
Sellers grunted. “I see there must have been a transcription error,” he said.
“I suspect your parents are--were--white and black. When you passed through the portal to 2022, a DNA transcription error might have occurred in which your perception became distorted, so you only have the ability to recognize your white half, as it were.”
“Ahh,” I said. “It makes sense. So, if I return to 1980, will my perception still be distorted?”
“That’s a good question,” Sellers answered, “and unfortunately I can’t answer it with certainty. I will say it’s more likely to return to normal.”
“Cool,” I said. “I wanna go, Professor."
“If we do this, Marcus,” Sellers said slowly, "I will need to map your brain structure overnight and check the EMF occipital neurons for their responsiveness. Their structure can be affected by the trauma so that they can no longer generate an EMF of sufficient power.”
“Oh,” I said, about to be crushed.
“Not to worry,” Sellers hastened to reassure me. “At your biological age, your EMFs will probably do fine.”
Compared to the mess outside, the professor’s laboratory was spotless brushed steel. The array of screens and electronic machines along the counter blew my mind. Sellers seated me in a procedure chair he could rotate in any direction. For the next hour, he attached electrodes to my head. Each had the tiniest of needles placed in my scalp, so it wasn’t the most of fun of activities. But at last, it was done, and Sellers sat in front of the screens to interpret the data. I drifted off to sleep.
I woke to Sellers’s gentle rousing. “Marcus? We’re set to go, but I want to give you a chance to reconsider. It’s okay for me to take all these electrodes off again--I don’t mind.”
“I want to go,” I said firmly.
“All right.” Sellers picked up a tablet and tapped the screen several times. “You’ll feel a slight warmth at the back of your head,” he said. "That’s all.”
Later on, Sellers answered the door to find Aaron Muscat triumphantly holding up a thumb drive. “I got it done, Percy!”
Sellers was aghast. “Are you toying with my emotions?”
“Nope,” Muscat said, pushing past his colleague. “Now you can now duplicate any brain mapping to the exact degree with no transcription errors, which is the bug you’ve been working on. I call it InTEC--Intuitive Transcription Error Correction. And if the EMF isn’t strong enough, this can boost it.”
“Then you must show me,” Sellers said eagerly. “Let’s go to the lab.”
“Yes,” Muscat said, whirling around. “How was Marcus’s sendoff?”
“It went very smoothly, I’m happy to say.”
“So, does that complete Case Number Four?”
“Correct. It’s daunting. No one will look at the numbers until we have at least ten documented cases. I’ll be dead by then. Genuine cases are so rare and hard to find.”
“Percy--that’s why I’m here: to complete your work and establish the Institute of Time Travel.”
For the next hour, they worked on incorporating Muscat’s program into the existing one.
“Now,” Muscat said, “if InTEC is working, it will override any other brain map even if you try to trick it. I want you to connect me up according to Marcus’s brain map to see how efficiently InTEC performs.”
Once Muscat was wired up in the procedure chair, Sellers stood beside him as Muscat dictated the correct input commands. InTEC worked beautifully, maintaining a steady reproduction of Marcus’s brain map.
“Okay, great,” Muscat said. “Let’s power down. Everything pretty much in reverse. Let me know when you get to the option to reverse the mapping.”
“All right, I’m here--what next? The option for reverse mapping must be ’NO.’”
“Oh,” Sellers said, a little surprised. He pressed ‘yes.’”
“Feeling a little warmth at the back of my head,” Muscat said. And that was all.
Slate Thomas, Sr., was the local white supremacist of Happenstance, or maybe the only one who was out in the open about it. He was in and out of jail for offenses all the time, although he always seemed to get off with light sentences.
Thomas’s beef about the Price family on that big ol' farm was taboo: a white mother, Penny, and a black daddy. It made Thomas want to throw up. He was drunk the night he came staggering up to the small office at the side of the house. Penny was inside by herself doing the bills. Thomas entered and lurched at her. She let out a screech, trying to get away as he clawed her down. They struggled. She fought him like an animal unleashed. She screamed as Thomas tried to position her, forcing her thighs open. And suddenly, he stopped moving and flopped over on his back dead as roadkill. Standing above him was Marcus, holding a bloody claw hammer in his right hand as his chest heaved with the effort of the blow. He helped Penny scramble up.
“What’s going on?”
Marcus turned to find his father, Clement, in the doorway. Penny burst into tears and fell into his arms.
“Tried to rape, Mom,” Marcus said tersely. “He had it comin’.”
“We gotta to get him out of here,” Clement said abruptly.
“What? How do you mean?” Penny asked wildly.
He turned to her sharply. “Even if we say self-defense, babe, we got a Black man who’s alive and a white one who’s dead. Who you think gonn' win that contest?"
“Where we take him, Dad?” Marcus asked quietly.
“You know that old well by the woods a couple of farms up? It’s deserted around there. No one’s gonna find him for a while. Come on, let’s move.”
They drove up to the side of the woods in the Studebaker. The land here was fallow and neglected. Close to the well, Clement stopped the car and held a flashlight while Marcus pulled Thomas's body from the trunk. It fell on the ground with a thud. Clement tucked the flashlight under one arm and made as if to pick up one end of the corpse to help carry it.
“Leave it, Dad,” Marcus said. “Just hold the light steady, I’ll do the rest.”
Clement was ridden with arthritis. This trip alone was an assault on his joints. Marcus could manage.
Marcus dragged Thomas’s body up to the dried-up well, the top of which was built up with a low wall of about eight inches above the ground with bricks now crumbling with age. At the edge, Marcus maneuvered Thomas while bracing himself with one foot on a section of the wall that seemed solid enough. He pulled the body the rest of the way and Thomas tipped over and dropped. After a few seconds, he hit the bottom of the well with an echoing crack of flesh and bone.
And then, a brick under Marcus’s left foot gave way and he slipped sideways, reaching instinctively out. But his outstretched hand found only loose gravel.
“Marcus!” Clement cried, jumping forward.
But he was too late. His son began to slide away fast.
At the very last instant before he plunged into the cold, dark well, Marcus felt two hands grasp him underneath his arms and around his chest.
“I got you,” a voice said above Marcus. "Push up with your feet.”
Marcus saw the looming shadow of a man’s head and shoulders. They were just as strong as the arms holding Marcus in place, and now, steadily, pulling him up and out of the well. Winded, Marcus rolled over on the ground, to catch his breath.
“You okay?” the man asked.
“I think so,” Marcus said. “Goddam, where you come from out of the blue, Mister?”
Clement shone his beam indirectly on the man’s face. He was a white guy with dark hair flopped over his forehead, Elvis style. Marcus stood up and shook the man’s hand fervently. “I don’t know how you did it, but all I can do is thank you for saving my life.”
“What’s your name, my man?” Clement asked him.
“Muscat. Aaron Muscat.”
“All right, now, Mr. Aaron,” Clement said. "Thank you, my brother. Look, about what we were doing here--“
“I saw nothing,” Muscat said curtly.
“Gotcha, man,” Clement said. “Thank you. You from around here? Never seen you before.”
Muscat was already leaving. “I’m from 2022,” he said.
“2022--that’s the street number?” Clement called out to the retreating Muscat, who didn’t reply. Clement looked at Marcus. You know a 2022 anything around here?”
“Naw,” Marcus said with a shrug. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Muscat strode across the field skirting the woods. His travel back to Marcus’s exact time and location had been an error Muscat called an unfortunate play of words between him and Sellers. But Muscat wasn’t upset, because he had now proved himself right and Sellers wrong. You can change the past if you go back to it, but just how much, Muscat wasn’t sure. He felt in his pocket for the thumb drive, with its perfect instructions to return to 2022. There was one problem, however. How could he make the technology work in 1980?
The death of Slate Thomas Jr. was ruled probable homicide. The medical examiner suspected the fatal blow was to the skull with something like a claw hammer. The other blows to the head were postmortem as a result of Thomas having been thrown into the well, presumably by his murderer. Two engineers who were about to permanently cap the well subsequently discovered the lone dead body of Slate Thomas Jr. at the bottom. There was no sign of either the weapon or a culprit.
Although murder cases were never officially closed, Lamar Ferguson never made an arrest in Thomas's murder. Marcus Price had fled and would never be sighted again anywhere on earth. Dr. Muscat had moved on to some other university hospital.
Slate Thomas, Jr’s past revealed he had grown up dirt-poor and uneducated in the woods. He hadn’t been worth much. On the low, the Lamar Ferguson was in no hurry to make an arrest. It was just going to become a cold, cold case.