Short storyadmin / January 22, 2019
The detective did not look like the gumshoes from old dime-store novels.
He was a lot thinner and he wore a close-fitting bodysuit rather than a raincoat. He was, however, just as focused on getting his man and finding the facts as Sherlock Holmes ever was. However, he was always plagued by a sense of not quite knowing why he needed to find this or that man, or this or that fact. He was not, in fact, sure he was working for.
He was drawn to following perfectly ordinary men and women who appeared to have little background, and no history. Whatever their crime, it was subtle. They seemed to crop up in large cities, slightly off-kilter in dress and speech, youngish, handsome or pretty beyond the norm, and a bit credulous and naive in their behavior at times. He had watched in horror more than once when one of these targets of investigation had turned over his or her suitcase or watch to an obvious street criminal and thereby were neatly robbed.
Clearly, these folks were not themselves pickpockets; they were just too innocent. They were also too often seized by waves of racking, hacking coughs after taking huge, enthusiastic lungs full of the city air. They seemed to have no fixed addresses, but found themselves bunking with one person after another, sometimes for a day, other times for longer, and then moving on.
He followed them assiduously, and noted their movements in his pocket computer. From time to time, he sent a report to an address through the computer with no identifying information and always felt better afterwards. Then the compulsion would return. Find the folks who look like they don’t belong, and follow them. There was nothing else in his life, and, as a matter of fact, he could not remember a life or a time before this job, this pursuit. No childhood, adolescence, no family, no loves lost or gained; just find the folks and follow them.
One late summer day, he located a small group of them in a hollow of ground in the main city park, surrounded by trees and quite out of view of passersby. If he had not been tracking one of them, he would never have found them. They shared that look of not being comfortable in their clothes, and the habit of gazing at perfectly ordinary objects such as pigeons, squirrels, trees, bushes, grass, and especially the occasional hawk or falcon with rapt appreciation. They also were all wearing sunglasses and long sleeves, in spite of the heat.
They were now directing their attention to, of all things, a pile of sticks, which they were adding to diligently. On the ground nearby were several bags of what looked like groceries, perhaps from the delicatessen that was close to the park entrance. To his astonishment, when one of the peculiar folk opened the bag, he could see that, indeed, the bag contained, of all things, some sort of sausages, nested together like pink snakes.
His surprise was so great that he made an unplanned move, and the branches around him rustled loudly. The group around the pile of sticks looked up, and he felt he needed to withdraw immediately to avoid detection. Imagine a detective being spotted – imagine the irony. He made no report, being too bemused even to conjecture at what was happening.
The next time he encountered any sizable number of them was when the autumn winds were blowing and the darkness was descending earlier and earlier. Again, it was outdoors, in a largely empty lot just on the river bank. This area had never been developed into condominiums or casinos or yacht clubs.
Only a few car carcasses blocked the wind, and he hid behind one of them. In the blowing, cloud-tossing dusk, a circle of people was gathering. In the center of the circle was a pile; again, a pile. And the circle was growing as more and more folk arrived, as if from thin air. Each one carried a handful of something, something that did not weigh them down, but something clearly treasured.
At a certain point: he could not have differentiated it from any other, there was a spark, and suddenly, a fire! The scent of burning leaves filled the air with a sharp and biting tang. He took out his hand-held computer and started describing the crowd, and the now-dancing fire in rapid, concise text.
Almost immediately, he found himself in a blindingly white room, along with the entire crowd that had last been surrounding the fire with grave and loving attention. He was standing before an authoritative looking fellow, who was inexplicable beaming at him.
“Well done! You nabbed them!”
“Who?” asked the detective.
“The time fugitives” said the other man, with a note of deep distaste. “They weren’t content with the domes, the recycled air, the recycled food, the unvarying light and temperature, and the behavioral constraints here in this century, and so they have to take their nasty perversions back in time and pollute in the past.”
“How? Why?” babbled the detective, thoroughly lost in this discussion.
“Oh, of course, you’re still in your 22nd century persona. Here, let me switch you over to present time.” He tapped out a command on the detective’s mobile computer, which was still clutched in his sweaty hand, and suddenly, the detective’s head whirled. As though a foggy window had cleared, he recognized the other as his supervisor, Sterling, in the Temporal Special Crimes Unit. When he turned to look at the crowd of people from the empty lot, the fire-starters, he realized that many were the same as he had seen in August, preparing, he now realized, to start a fire in the park glen, and, yes, they were going to roast wieners. That was it. They were holding a – what was that term – a “barbecue”, and in a location where it was not, strictly speaking, allowed, for forest fire prevention reasons. But where else could they have staged a “barbecue”? In his 25th century mind, the mere word gave him shudders of revulsion and terror. Polluting the domes, polluting the air, eating animal flesh; horrible ideas!
And, just a few moments ago, what had they been preparing for in that deserted, chilly lot? A – again the memory of the term came to him from an official glossary, probably in his training manual – a “bonfire”.
And again, with returning understanding, welled up the sense of horror.
He looked around him. These individuals had not been willing to accommodate themselves to the constrained life of their own century. They could not accept the limitations of their post-holocaust world. They never got used to the precious and many-times re-used air, water, and essential proteins, all sequestered in the dome and protected from the toxic human-generated nightmare outside.
No, they wanted to breathe unfiltered air, and eat animal flesh seared over a flame, and, burn things for no reason but to smell the perfume and incense of autumn.
Thinking back to the scurrying clouds and the smell of cold and the sweet smoke rising from the tiny fire, he thought maybe, just maybe, he could understand why they went to the effort of time travel and secretive burnings of meat, wood, and leaves. But he was not going to share that opinion any time soon. He grasped the returning memories that were even now washing away the artificial life history that had served him adequately back in the past as a detective in 22nd century North America,
He straightened up, and summoning his most official voice, said, “You have the right to remain silent…” Just then, the door opened. An even more imposing fellow walked through, this one surrounded by bodyguards.
“Well done! You’ve finally returned.”
“Who?” asked the detective.
“You spotted their aberrant behavior and triggered the temporal return mechanism. It was strictly against the law to build bonfires back in the 25th century due to the ongoing atmospheric deterioration. Luckily, that problem has been solved with today’s technology.” said one of the man’s bodyguards.
“How? Why?” asked the detective, once again thoroughly lost.
“Oh, of course, you’re still in your 25th century mind. Allow me to brief you on what has changed in the last century.”
The detective shook his head. He was just now getting used to the idea that time travel was possible, and he was not sure how much more he could accept in the way of revelations. He had just seen his 22nd (or was it 21st ?) century self disappear like a bathtub ring down the drain.
The imposing fellow jabbed a finger at the screen of his mobile computer, and the image of a folder opened up in front of them and rested on his lap.
“An aircraft of unknown origin crashed into the Brooks mountain range of Alaska in 1944. Military forces rushed in to lock down the whole area and the survivors were determined to be of non-terrestrial origin. We’ve kept those we rescued in a special facility ever since.”
Several holograms of the crash site and the survivors popped up out of the virtual folder and hung between them, glimmering slightly at the edges. The apparently human figures were, to all appearances, about 24 years of age, and very attractive by the standards of 1944. And, the detective observed to himself, the standards of the 25th century, as well.
“Over time, as we observed them in their containment facility, we started to realize they age at a much slower rate than we do. Scientists at the time of the crash had no knowledge of DNA, but as soon as the implications of Watson and Crick’s work with chromosomes dawned on them, the ETs were tested genetically.
Even by the late 1960s, we could tell that there were slight variations in their DNA composition. They look just like us and it is nearly impossible to distinguish visually between a regular human and those biological entities. Unless”, he added, “you can stare at them for 20 years or so, as their initial observers did, growing gray and wrinkled while the ETs stayed vibrantly youthful.
The ETs also seemed to be able to time travel, even without their damaged ship. We have not ever figured out the knack, but the genetic differences probably explain a great deal.”
“This is spectacular news, but what does any of this have to do with me?”
One of the imposing fellow’s assistants leaned over and poked at the computer screen, extracting an image of the detective and his immediate boss to pop up in front of them.
“In 2472, you’re part of a special operations team run by your boss, Sterling, here. You’re last seen…”
“What year am I in now?” the detective interrupted.
“The year 2572. The individuals you were asked to follow all the way back into the 22nd century weren’t just ordinary criminals or terrorists. Instead, they were extraterrestrials who managed to make their way out of the crash site before our forces could arrive. We called them the Sleepers.
They had melted into the crowded cities of that globalized era, managing to survive on the margins of society. In fact, they actually thrived, since they had the appearance of youth and beauty on their side.
They sometimes traded on their physical appeal to obtain housing, food, or travel. They made out like bandits in the 21st century, and did decently in the 22nd, as you witnessed, but in the subsequent centuries, the changes around them made life in this marginal niche more difficult.”
The computer responded to another fingertip prodding by issuing forth more pop-up images – this time from space. “Here is the earth in the 21st century.” The blue marble planet hung in the blackness of space, gorgeously jeweled. “Here is the 23rd century – note the changes at the equator”.
In this picture, the band of brown desert was massively larger, and was engulfing Europe. The next image was terrifyingly dun colored. “The ETs ran into trouble once really strict government controls were imposed. Things got really difficult for them once the domes were built to shelter the remnant of humanity in the late 2300s.
Most of them had serious problems adapting to the constraints that became necessary in the 25th century. They clung to a lot of the customs and privileges of the 21st century such as building bonfires and eating meat, and daily bathing. We conjecture that in their home world, they were either able to do these things freely, or had had to give them up, and were delighted to find them available here.
For the most part, they don’t want to talk to us very much, even after all this time, for perhaps understandable reasons. Additionally, few of them ever wanted to work. In a word, many were mooches, and never paid their way in life. Naturally, such behavior got them evicted from everywhere they wanted to live, whether indoors under domes, or outdoors. They were eventually branded as criminals, as resources all over the globe became tighter and tighter.
They became truly outcasts and fugitives for having broken environmental laws and laws of trespass over and over again. They had an immense advantage over any other lawbreakers, because they could flee in time, as well as space. They tended to gravitate towards the 21st century because that was the last time that the world was both beautiful and fertile and it was relatively safe to breathe the air and drink the water and eat ‘real’ food from animal sources.
Efforts were set in motion to have local constabulary round them all up in our century. Soon after this initiative, another group from the higher-ups captured you along with most of the rest of the Sleepers. Your blood was tested along with others and as it turns out, you’re one of them.
This was a bit of a surprise, since you had always been a very dedicated worker and a credit to the Temporal Crimes Unit. You must have been an anomaly amongst your kind. We are still not quite sure what you were doing with them when that group was detained.”
In the detective’s mind there blossomed a memory – this one seemed real, and his own – of a week spent by a small, relatively unpolluted river, with days full of skinny dipping and nights full of campfires and glimpses of stars beyond the persistent scum of polluted air. Was he a time fugitive then, as well? Did he have a secret life spent with his fellow…what did they even call themselves?
“I don’t see how this can be possible… and why are they, no, we, called Sleepers? And all these centuries of life: how is this feasible…?” anxiously, the detective interrupted once again.
“Please allow me to finish. Your appearance is just as fresh as the day you were hired by Sterling, your boss for the last decades. When you showed up in the round-up, we decided to inject you with a denatured toxin known as Atroxium. It was originally designed for individuals who had troubles sleeping at night. We took the liberty of enhancing the effects of the toxin to a point where one could sleep for literally hundreds of years without ill effects. Needless to say, it was put into use on you, and some of your people.
Atroxium has the sometimes unfortunate side effect of wiping memory rather efficiently. In your case, it was exceedingly helpful. We were able to teach you a new set of only the most basic memories by hypnopaedic methods. You were awakened to help us find the whole group, since you could time-jump just as easily as your fellow sleepers. You have done so very efficiently. Now, you’re free to go. All of you.”
The man stood up and put started closing down the holographic images that still hung in air.
“After all these years, you people have decided to acknowledge and give free access to your world, and your past, to me and my people. There must be a reason for that?” asked the one who still thought of himself as a detective.
“It wasn’t my decision. The newly elected president decided that you’ve suffered enough. To be honest, I am strongly against this but I have no choice but to act accordingly. It seems extremely dangerous to me to release a race with largely unknown characteristics into our gene pool.”
The detective and his fellow aliens walked out and were never seen again.