The following is a preview of The Number Four. Click HERE to download the entire story as a PDF.
Lance wasn’t exactly satisfied with his life, but any happiness he managed to cling to disappeared 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 United Kingdom politics either. He just wanted to get through his daily routine without any serious incident.
The sun had set when Lance departed the firm, a thick jacket wrapped around his body. As he stepped onto the sidewalk, 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 an inability to tolerate extreme temperatures.
Lance came to a stop beside an unusually dark alleyway. The street-lights 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,” he said aloud, folding his arms and staring at the unkempt man. He was obviously homeless, and not the sort of eccentric drifter who might teach Lance a valuable lesson about the power of kindness.
“I’m starving,” the man said, his voice tinged with misery. And a Yankee accent. “Can you spare a dollar? Anything.”
“I don’t have any money,” Lance replied automatically, not bothering to wonder if this was true. He wasn’t even sure why he was humoring the man.
“Anything?” the man begged. He seemed to have all his teeth, Lance noticed, and they weren’t too yellow – perhaps he had been a regular bloke until very recently, until a divorce or a termination had dropped him to the gutter.
“Want a fag?” Lance offered, almost shocked at his own generosity.
The homeless man looked dubious for a moment, then shrugged. “Never really been a smoker, but why not.”
Lance fished a couple of Embassy filters out of his coat pocket, first lighting up then giving one to the vagrant.
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. Must be a Christmas miracle.
“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.
The vagrant 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. He made it sound so…possible.
“I’ll survive,” the man said, looking down at the ground.
They stood there 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. “Hey, I’ve got something you might be interested in. Wanna see?”
Lance looked up. The homeless man wore an expression of interest, as if he’d been planning to ask this whole time. He probably had.
“Not really,” Lance returned. “I’d better get off back home, my sister’s – ”
“Just trust me,” said the homeless man. He didn’t smell terrible, Lance realized. “Stay here, I’ll be back in a second.”
Lance didn’t know what it was that kept him standing there, prevented him from disappearing and never thinking of the vagrant again; but stand there he did, and a few seconds later, the man reappeared.
“Check it out,” he said, producing a bundle of brown paper.
Hesitantly, half-believing he was looking at a bomb, Lance took the package. “What is it?” he asked. The man just nodded, prompting Lance to open it. Carefully, he 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 BBC1 program about the flying police box that had started up last 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 abuse. 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 homeless man. “What 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 into the alley – but if neither of them knew what the device was for, then what use was it to him?
“Hell if I know,” the man said. “Just thought I’d offer, seeing as you’re the only one who’d even talk to me.”
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.
Suspicious, he thought. Maybe it’s a German war machine.
Someone passed the alleyway, and the two men looked up. They must have seemed right stupid, Lance thought, standing there and gawking at some children’s toy.
“You don’t got any idea what it is?” Lance asked.
“No idea,” the man grunted. “Obviously some kind of machine, but hell if I know what it does.” A pause, then: “I think the dials are supposed to do something.”
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 four digits.
It took Lance a minute to recognize the change in the device, but once he noticed he couldn’t ignore it. The device – the machine, the toy, whatever it was – had begun to buzz. It was a similar feeling to the hum of a car just starting up, or 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 fiddled with the knobs, he wondered vaguely if the man actually did know what the machine was for.
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. The buzzing had grown stronger, and he felt it throughout his body, from his hands wrapped on the device all the way to the soles of his feet.
“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.
But 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 relate this story to his family.
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. Inside the green dome, tiny sparks of white electricity were crackling and growing into miniature lightning bolts that played across the glass; the vibration of the machine was almost too much for him to bear, not painful, but contracting, sending shockwaves through his body. He felt as though he would drop the machine at any second, but somehow, the buzzing had the opposite effect, forcing his fingers to curl across the metal surface and hold on for dear life. He didn’t realize that he had lost sight of everything around him, everything apart from the machine, until his eyes snapped shut and he felt himself falling backwards, trying to pinwheel his arms but clutching tight to the device, finally hitting the ground with a shock of pain throughout his body. He winced, squeezed his eyes tighter shut, and realized the device had ceased its vibration.
When he opened his eyes, he 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 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 history – he hadn’t given any past time periods 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 one- and two-story 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 were now uneven cobblestones and lengthy patches of bare dirt. The sounds and smells of the city had been replaced with the sounds and smells of livestock.
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 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 just off 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 a pair of two-story thatched buildings could really be considered an alleyway.
Once he was on the street, Lance understood that the de-evolution of London wasn’t an isolated incident. The entire area stank, and all the buildings were miserably old-fashioned. Not a single car was visible on what had, minutes before, been an overcrowded street; now, people made their careful way across the uneven stones, their utilitarian clothes swishing back and forth, or rode in wagons pulled by sickly-looking horses.
“Well,” 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. “Shit.”
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.