(The following is a preview of The Number Four. Click HERE to download the entire story as a PDF.)
Lance wasn’t particularly happy with his life, but neither did he consider himself very lucky when he got his hands on a time machine.
Only a month had passed since the untimely death of President John F. Kennedy, and the timely death of his assassin. Apparently, Lance had come to realize, America had become such a superpower in the last two centuries that everyone in the world was required to give a shit about their internal affairs.
Lance didn’t care about JFK. He didn’t much care about England’s politics either. He just wanted to get through his life without any serious incident.
Christmas was only four days away, and Lance wasn’t looking forward to it. He didn’t have anything against the holiday, in particular; it was more the steady stream of relatives that he would be forced to interact with. His sister, Cheryl, would call soon, and ask if he was going to spend the holidays with her and her family. “Family” was of course a euphemism for “apathetic alcoholic husband and seven obnoxious kids.” Cheryl had never been big on birth control.
Per the norm, the gods hadn’t bothered to toss a handful of powdered sugar across London. While some of the more scenic towns in Europe looked like something out of a Robert Frost poem, England’s capital retained all the pleasing aspects of an Orwellian dystopia.
The sun had set when Lance stepped out of the firm, a thick jacket wrapped around him. This was partially to keep out the cold, and partially because he didn’t want anyone seeing him in the uniform of a security guard. He had always been vague about his occupation with those he might consider friends.
As Lance stepped onto the street, he pulled the collar of his jacket tighter around his neck. He was only forty-three, but he could already feel old age creeping up on him. The passing years manifested themselves in the form of increased irritation at the world and the inability to tolerate extreme temperatures.
The street were almost empty, he noticed; at least, empty compared to how London normally looked. Everyone would be out in the stores, frantically trying to buy Christmas presents for their loved ones, as if there was some law that they had to observe this arbitrary day. England was a largely atheist or agnostic country, Lance was pretty sure; and yet his brethren – along with the rest of the world – had accepted this inherently Christian holiday into their roster of secular celebrations.
Lance came to a stop beside a particularly dark alleyway. The streetlights did nothing to illuminate its negative space, and he could just barely make out the figure standing only feet away.
This is not what I need right now, Lance thought, though there wasn’t really anything going on that precluded him from interacting with people on the street.
“What.” Lance folded his arms and stared at the filthy man, trying not to wrinkle his nose in disgust. The man was obviously homeless, and not the sort of eccentric drifter who might teach Lance a valuable lesson about kindness.
“I’m starving,” the man said, his voice tinged with misery. “Can you spare a quid? Anything.”
“I don’t have any money,” Lance replied automatically, not bothering to wonder if this was true. He couldn’t even say what had made him humor the man.
“Anything?” the man begged. For the first time, Lance noticed his awful stench. He seemed to have all his teeth, and they weren’t too yellow – perhaps he had been a regular bloke until very recently. Maybe Lance himself was only one termination away from becoming this specter of misery.
Oh sure, Lance thought, the words draped in multiple layers of irony. It’s the Christmas season. “Want a fag?” he asked.
The homeless man looked dubious for a moment, then shrugged. “Never really been a smoker, but why not.”
Lance wasn’t aware that there were any vagrants who didn’t chain smoke cigarettes, but he kept silent on this point and fished a couple of Marlboros out of his coat pocket. As he lit up, then handed his lighter to the homeless man, Lance was struck with the reality that they really weren’t that different. Or, they weren’t if the homeless man’s life was anything like Lance was picturing it. If he was correct, then the man had lost his job and subsequently lost his home, his car, possibly his wife. Aside from the wife, there was a very good chance that Lance would follow in his footsteps, were his employers ever to decide he wasn’t a good enough security guard.
The two of them stood there in the semi-darkness, and Lance allowed himself to accept that he actually wanted to strike up a conversation with the man.
“Can I ask…?” he began.
“Ask what,” the man said, taking a shallow drag off the cigarette. He didn’t inhale.
“How…this happened.” Lance replied, gesturing towards the man.
He seemed to think for a moment, then shrugged. “A lotta shit happened all at the same time,” he said.
“Sorry to hear that,” Lance murmured. He wasn’t sorry so much for the man, as he was at the prospect of the man’s fate befalling him as well.
“I’ll survive,” the man said, looking down at the ground.
They stood their in silence, just on the alley’s threshold, the smoke from their cigarettes drifting up to mingle with the city fog. Finally the homeless man finished his and dropped the butt, putting it out with his shoe. A half-minute later, Lance followed.
“Thanks again,” the filthy man said, trying to meet Lance’s gaze. Lance kept his eyes fixed on the rough ground. The man cleared his throat and tried again. “Hey, I’ve got something you might take a liking to. Wanna see it, then?”
Lance looked up. The homeless man wore an expression of interest, as if he had been planning this whole time to ask his new acquaintance to check out whatever it was he had.
“Not particularly,” Lance returned. “I’d better fuck off back home, my sister’s – ”
“Just trust me,” said the homeless man. Lance caught a particularly bad whiff of his oder. “Stay here, mate. I’ll be back in a mo.”
When the man disappeared into the darkness of the alleyway, Lance didn’t stop believing that he was going to turn around and leave the scene. It wasn’t a matter of if he would abandon his new acquaintance; it was a matter of when. And yet, when the man reappeared, Lance hadn’t moved. Curiosity, he decided. That was what kept him here. He would accept curiosity over sympathy any day. Lance didn’t like to imagine himself soft enough to allow his heart to go out to any vagrant he met on the street.
“Look here,” the man said, producing a bundle of brown paper. Hesitantly, half-believing he was looking at a bomb, Lance took the package and began peeling off the bags, dropping them on the ground as he did.
Inside was an object that Lance could only describe as something out of science fiction – a prop from one of the extravagant films that were so popular the decade before, or from that new program about the doctor that had debuted the previous month.
The object was vaguely rectangular, though its four corners were rounded out like a loaf of bread. Its main body was made of a crimson metal, scratched and dented from what looked like years of abused. Out of its left side protruded a thick, rusty gear, whose cubical teeth jutted out to four degrees. On the top part of the device was a bubble of green-tinted glass: a hemisphere that, like the metal, had been scratched and marked.
On the machine’s face lay two horizontal plates of glass, behind which Lance could pick out hand-painted digits; three beneath the top glass – 2 7 4 – and four beneath the bottom – 0 2 6 1. Beneath the glass plates was a large red button, and corresponding to them was a pair of dials on the machine’s right side.
Feeling the weight of the metal device in his hands, Lance looked up at the filthy man. “The hell is this?” he asked.
“I dunno,” the man replied. “I just found it in the alley.”
“It looks…” Lance struggled to find the right words as his eyes flicked back and forth across the device’s face. “It looks like a toy. But like…a real version of a toy.” He turned the object over; on the back, drawn with bold strokes in what looked like black paint, was #4.
“You want it?” the man asked.
“Why would I want it?” Lance replied. He was curious now – at least more curious than he was when the man disappeared – but if neither of them knew what the device was for, then what use was it to him?
“Lord if I know,” the man said. “Just thought I’d offer, seeing as you’re the only one who’d even talk to me.”
Don’t thank me too much, Lance thought. I’m usually more of a bastard.
Turning the device all around in his hands, Lance noticed for the first time that someone had etched a swastika into the metal, just below where the gear protruded from the body.
Nice, he thought. Maybe it’s a German war machine.
Someone passed the alleyway, and the two men both looked up. They must have seemed right stupid, Lance thought, standing there and gawking at some children’s toy.
“You don’t have any idea what it is?” Lance asked. Some part of him wondered if he wasn’t spending so much time caring about this mysterious object just as a means of avoiding his sister’s eventual call.
“No idea,” the man grunted. “Obviously a machine of some sort, but fuck if I know what it does.” A pause, then: “I think it’s something to do with the dials.”
I could’ve told you that, Lance thought, but he gave the top dial a twist.
With some protest, the corresponding digits began flipping around, like the cards on a Rolodex. They went from 2 7 4 to 2 7 5, then to 2 7 6; after a minute of rotating the top dial, Lance had made it to 2 8 0. He tested out the bottom dial, and successfully moved the lower digits.
It took Lance a minute to recognize the change in the device, but once he noticed he couldn’t stop feeling it. The device – the machine, the toy, whatever it was – had begun to buzz. It was a similar feeling to that of a car just starting up, or the hum of a woman’s hairdryer as it worked its magic.
“I think something’s happening,” Lance said, suddenly excited. Whatever the machine was, he had never seen anything like it, and he wanted to know what it did even if it was no more than a toy.
“Keep turning the dials,” the homeless man suggested. His voice was casual, disinterested; as Lance fiddling with the knobs, he wondered vaguely if the man actually did know what the machine did.
Lance was about to point out that nothing much seemed to be happening other than the hum, when he did a double-take and realized that a pinprick of light had begun to shine through the scratched green glass of the top dome. He barely registered as the homeless man grabbed him by the jacket and pulled him deep into the alley.
“Something’s happening,” Lance said again as the light grew bigger. A greenish tint was projecting through the glass, illuminating the dark alleyway.
“Why don’t you try the button?” the man suggested.
Lance’s right hand shifted from cradling the device to hovering over its single round button. He paused, almost feeling as if he didn’t want to know; he was more curious than ever, of course, after seeing what must be a battery-operated electric light activate itself at the turn of a dial, but something told him that all the magic of this mysterious device would fly away if he pressed the button.
Oh well. Temptation was too great. Lance pressed his index finger down on the button, depressing it to the surface of the device, already thinking of how he would word this story when he related it to Cheryl.
The light glowed brighter than ever, and the alley was almost clear as day. The homeless man stood there, watching with some semblance of interest, as Lance struggled to hold onto the vibrating machine.
A point of darkness appeared on the brick wall across from Lance, and he frowned into the light. The darkness began spreading out in a circle, growing and absorbing the green until it was a good eight feet in diameter. Something was moving within the darkness, Lance could swear he saw it: something that defied shape, defied the laws of physics.
It was only after the circle of black stopped growing that Lance realized he had no idea what was going on.
“What the hell is that?” he cried, his eyes never leaving the unbelievable apparition. If he just understood what he was seeing, he might be able to form an opinion on whether or not he believed it.
“What do the dials say?” asked the homeless man.
Lance looked down at the device. “The top one says three-one-three,” he called back, only now realizing that the machine had begun to whir very loudly. “And the bottom one says null-four-two-one.”
The man nodded, a smile flickering across his lips. “Well,” he said. “Go ahead.”
“What do you mean, go ahead?” Lance cried. “Go ahead where?”
“Into the black circle,” the man replied, nodding. “You can walk right through. Just try it.”
Lance felt his brain working fast, trying to understand everything that was being thrown at him. The black circle – it was only a shadow, right? or else, something inside the glass, blocking out some of the light? The darkness – and the green light itself – was being projected onto a solid brick wall. There was no way he could…
He took a step forward. Then another. The device dropped to his side. Lance reached out and shivered as his fingers brushed empty air.
He turned back to the homeless man. “How is this possible?” he asked. It was like a science fiction movie, one of those that Cheryl would have begged him to go see with her kids: unassuming security guard is duped into a high-stakes battle with time-traveling space warrior disguised as London vagrant.
The man held out his hands to either side, as if to indicate the entire world for some reason. “Who knows?” he called above the whirring of the device. “It just is. Now go on through.”
The adrenaline and shock that pumped through Lance’s body wouldn’t allow him to be afraid, but a bit of wariness wasn’t out of the question. “Why would I?” he demanded. “I have no bloody idea where it leads! I don’t even know if this is possible! I should just get the hell out of – ”
By the time Lance saw the homeless man lunging towards him, it was too late to move. His arms pinwheeled wildly in the air for one comical moment, then his feet left the ground and he felt himself falling backwards, into empty air, into coldness, into an inky black –
Lance’s back hit the ground, sending wracks of pain through his aging body.
His eyes were shut, he realized. He didn’t want to open them.
Nothing happened, he thought. I just hit the ground. Maybe that bloke will rob me and this can all be over with. Almost a minute went by before Lance allowed himself to remember that, without the presence of a magic black hole, he would have hit a brick wall.
Lance opened his eyes and saw daylight.
Jesus, he thought, shielding his gaze. How long have I been out?
Slowly, groaning all the way, Lance pushed himself into a sitting position. The first thing he noticed was that the sun had come up. The second thing he noticed was that the ground wasn’t asphalt – it was dirt. Brown, untampered dirt, with disparate patches of dead grass scattered around. A faint whiff of something foul struck his nose.
When he raised his eyes, he saw people.
They were scattered around the alley, standing close by but trying to push themselves away from the unknown man. Their faces were shocked, mouths spread open and eyes wide. Lance wanted to tell them to calm down, to tell them it was just a mistake; but when he saw their clothes, his voice caught in his throat.
Lance wasn’t an expert on historical clothing – he hadn’t given any time period much thought since university – but he could almost swear that he was looking at a group of Dark Age peasants.
“Hello,” Lance muttered, scrambling to his feet. The peasants continued to stare at him. “No. This isn’t right. This is – ” He felt his throat close up, and he let out a dry, sickening wretch. “This isn’t right,” he said again, his voice like sandpaper.
Right or not – it was real. As he struggled to maintain his balance in the sheer impossibility of it all, Lance grew ever more positive that he wasn’t hallucinating. The ugly, machine-made towers that jutted up into London’s ever-cloudy sky had been replaced by tiny houses, their walls irregular and obviously the product of human hands. In place of concrete and steel were thatch and daub; where there should have been asphalt, there was nothing but dirt. The sounds and smells of the city had been replaced with the sounds and smells of chickens.
He planted both feet firmly on the dirt ground. His head was swimming and his gut felt wrenched; but the last thing he planned on doing in a crisis was giving in to panic.
A few of the people in the crowd had moved away, but most were still staring at him. And why shouldn’t they – he was wearing bizarre clothes, was quite a bit taller than the tallest among them, and had apparently stepped into existence on a busy street. Plus, if this really was the Dark Ages, then at forty-three he was quite a few years past the average life expectancy.
“Hello?” he said again, the greeting addressed to anyone who might be willing to speak. “You all speak English, yeah?”
The peasants continued to stare at him. Most of them were holding their eyelids so wide open that he could see the diameter of their eyeballs.
Lance had never been one to wax philosophical, but he found himself wondering – in his desperately inconsistent mind – whether someone from the modern day would have such an extreme reaction to a man from the future stepping into existence. Probably not: exposure to science fiction – and all kinds of fiction, for that matter – had desensitized modern folks.
He took a step. The crowd shifted, everyone trying to keep their distance. He took another. They made way for him, allowing him free passage out of the alleyway. If the space between two single-story thatched buildings could really be considered an alleyway.
Once he was on the street, Lance understood that the devolution of London wasn’t an isolated incident. The entire city stunk, and all the buildings were miserably old-fashioned. Not a single car was visible on what had, minutes before, been a busy street; now, people walked, their unaesthetic clothes swishing back and forth, or rode in wagons pulled by sickly-looking horses.
“Well shit,” Lance said aloud. Out on the street, the citizens were giving him weird looks as they passed – presumably because of his security guard uniform and shoes made from real-life cows – but none of them had seen him appear out of nowhere, so none of them stopped to stare.
He glanced down at the machine in his hand. He had almost forgotten he was holding it.
Turning it over in his hands, he could just see the painted #4 in the darkness. “Number four,” he said aloud. What the hell did that mean?
And who cares? Why was he grasping at straws when something incredible, something completely impossible, had happened?
He was in the Dark Ages. The goddamn Dark Ages. Either this was some elaborate prank involving dozens of actors and a huge movie set, or he had Rip Van Winkle’d himself into a post-apocalyptic future of medieval-looking civilization…or, somehow more likely than the other two options, he had gone back in time.
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