Ryder’s Choice

by Mallory Noone

part 1 of 2


He was almost ready to go. He’d read up on the customs of the time, he’d begged, borrowed, or stolen the different parts he’d needed, and he’d looked through all the reports he’d found of the war, over and over again.

There wasn’t much to go on. He’d have to do the legwork himself when he got there. If he got there. Great-grandmother’s machine was notoriously unreliable, it had a tendency to send you back without it, stranding you whenever you were... But he had to try. He had to.

There was only one more thing he had to do, the thing he’d always hated.

Mal limped over to the crude shelf he’d put together; his footsteps echoed across the concrete floor. Each footfall sounded like a thunderclap in the dead silence. Carefully, he took the ancient balaclava off of the shelf and slid it over his face, wincing as the rough fabric brushed against his skin. He eased the wool gloves over his hands — they scraped against his burns, sending lines of pain down his arms — and pulled the long coat over his misshapen back, to hide the lumps.

It hurt like crazy, all of it: the mask, the cloak, the gloves; it scraped and tore and burned his skin, but it was worth it. If he managed to make this final trip properly the pain would be gone, forever.

Mal glanced out the window, double-sealed to keep the air in, and tinted to keep the radiation levels low. His ash-gray eyes skimmed over the sky — it was the same color as his eyes — and all the rest of it: the burnt, blackened world, the steely mountains, the barbed wire around the Compound, the flashing, red lights along the Perimeter...

He tried to keep himself calm. He didn’t want to get angry, but he always did, a little bit, at whatever ancestor had done this, when he looked out the window. And when he got angry...

He took a deep breath.

“Focus on the mission,” he told himself aloud. He talked to himself a lot, mostly because there was no one else to talk to. “With any luck, it’ll be better when you’re back...”

He sat down and picked up Great-Grandmother’s machine. Her time machine. It was the size of his head, and made out of smooth metal, worn by the touch of a hundred hands. It had a panel on it, with tiny red lights that spelled out the current year: 2327.

Mal put in the year he was traveling to, almost three hundred years ago, for him.

The time machine buzzed and whirred to life. There was a brilliant flash of light. And then...

He was standing in the middle of a green field covered in soft green spikes, outside a large, red-brick building. Even with the heavy balaclava on, he could feel the fresh air on his face. The world smelled fresh and green, and the sky was blue. Blue. Not gray or white, or chemical-yellow... blue. There was a bright, eye-searing light at the top of the sky...

“Is that the sun?” Mal said to himself, laughing a little. “It is the sun! I’m looking at the sun!”

Mal bent over and picked one of the spikes off of the ground. He twirled it between his gloved fingers. He could barely feel it, but... it was there. It was real: a blade of green grass, with tiny yellow veins running through it, and a jagged top.

“I made it,” he said. “I really made it!”

It was Eden-time, before the War. Before the bombs fell, killing everything they touched. Before the Compounds and the silence and the death...

That thought brought him back to himself, and he was grateful. Too much excitement was bad, almost as bad as getting angry.

Mal smiled, a lopsided, crooked smile, as crooked as his back and his arms and his leg. He put the time machine in his pocket, and stood outside the building for a minute, waiting for the person he’d come here to see.

“Is she even here?” he muttered. “The records said... But maybe...”

People — children his age — spilled out of the building, laughing and talking. Some of them were heading towards a row of big, yellow vehicles; others were walking on concrete paths, towards a row of houses. They were all incredibly beautiful; none of them had a single burn or lump or twisted limb, their hair shone, their teeth gleamed white. He felt ugly, and glaringly obvious like the gargoyles he’d read a book about once, and he wished he could disappear.

Then Mal saw her, the dark-haired girl in the neon-green shirt and blue pants. Her single braid swung against the back of her neck, and she looked... well, she looked like Mal felt. Like she wanted to disappear and never be seen again.

As he watched, she pushed her horn-rimmed glasses up her nose and kept walking towards him.

Then, he recognized her. She was the girl he was looking for. Mal only knew her from a battered photograph taken centuries ago at a “science expo” — whatever that meant — and as a name on a page. But he knew who she was: she was his great-grandmother, Ryder Kennedy.

And her name was mud, everywhere he’d seen it. She’d had something to do with the start of the war.

“Hey! Are you Ryder?” he called. His voice sounded weak, even in his own ears, weak and grating and rusty.

The girl turned around; one of her eyebrows lifted. “Yeah. They call me Ry. What do you want?”

She sounded a little tense. Mal thought that it might be the balaclava; he looked like an ancient bandit. But if he walked around, in this time without a disguise, he’d look like something from an ancient freak show.

“My name’s Malfet. Call me Mal. I need your help.” He kept his breathing steady. Don’t get excited, don’t seize up.

She walked a little closer, but she still seemed edgy. “What kind of help?” she asked. “I’m not gonna help you ‘find your puppy’ or anything.”

He heard the sarcasm but didn’t understand. Well, I can’t tell her why I’m here or what I’m doing. Not yet, not here. And not ever, if I can help it.

“Um... I’ve heard you’re good at science,” he finally said.

“Only the best in the whole school.” She rolled her eyes. “Why are you asking?”

He smiled at her, trying to put her at her ease. And then remembered she couldn’t see through the balaclava. It was probably a good thing she couldn’t, anyway.

“I need help. With my...” The balaclava scraped against his skin, distracting him with the pain. He tried to remember the excuse he’d memorized. “My science project. Only... um... I don’t want anyone else to steal my ideas. Do you have somewhere we can go? Somewhere... private?”

It was the weakest lie ever... he had never, ever been a good liar, and he knew it sounded... well, Ryder would probably say creepy.

She gave him an odd look, and Mal mentally held his breath.

Don’t get upset, don’t get excited, calm down. Calm. Calm.

“Whatever you want to say, you can say it here,” she said. “I swear no one’s gonna steal your stupid idea.”

He was tempted to drag her away, find somewhere where there weren’t any people. But he thought she could get away from him. Easy. Besides, you’d probably seize up, he told himself. And that would wreck it. You’ve got to stay calm. Stay calm.

“Why are you wearing that ski mask? And a coat? It’s the middle of May,” Ryder said, cutting into his thoughts, glaring at him.

“Ski..?” Mal was confused for a second. “Oh... you mean my balaclava?”

“Yeah, that thing on your head. The one that makes you look like a creeper,” she said sarcastically.

“I’d look creepier without it,” Mal said. He smiled, crookedly as always, with no trace of humor. The balaclava scraped his burns. He tasted blood on his lips and winced.

She gave him another look, a look of surprise and disgust.

“Okay, what the heck is going on?” she said. “Are you, like, a wanted man or something?”

“Half right... I’m something.” He didn’t want to tell her, didn’t want to cause a paradox. But it was starting to look like that was the only way he could...

“What the heck is that supposed to mean?!” She turned to one side, as if to leave.

You can’t keep this up any more. I guess I’ve got to tell her. And why not get rid of all this junk while I’m at it? he asked himself.

Mal looked from side to side. The field was pretty much deserted, almost everyone had left. He decided to risk it.

He pulled the balaclava off, ripped the gloves off, and flung the coat onto the ground. His skin — aching, scraped nearly numb — sighed in relief.

Ryder gasped, and took a step back. Her face looked... empty. Blank. Shocked.

Mal knew he was ugly as sin. His skin was bleached white; he was completely bald; he was covered in scars and red, angry burns; he had a stub of a nose and red-rimmed eyes, and he was malformed and lumpy. His back was hunched, his left arm was twisted so much that he couldn’t use it, and his leg was bent so that he limped.

You were right to go in disguise, he thought. If you’d gone out into the world like this... He pushed the thought out of his mind.

“Sorry. Are you okay?” he asked.

She bit her lower lip, and then tried to smile. “I’m all right. You just startled me. Did... what happened?”

Mal frowned. “I’ve always been this way.” He was used to it, and he said it calmly.

Ryder winced, and glanced away. “You said you needed help,” she said quickly. “What with? Your science project?”

Good. She’s trying to change the subject. He ignored her sarcasm. “Sorry... no. There’s something bad that’s going to happen. I need your help to fix it. Just you.”

“What kind of bad?” Her lips quirked to one side.

Mal scratched the top of his bald head, glad to be out of the horrible disguise. “Really bad. A huge war that ends up killing millions of people,” he said, voice flat. He took a deep breath, trying desperately not to get angry, or sad, or upset... Calm down... Calm down... Calm down.

“Give me a break!” Ryder scowled, and sat straight up. “What are you, some kind of time traveler or something?” Her voice was heavy with sarcasm.

“Actually, yes. I’m from...” He thought furiously, doing the math in his head. “Three hundred years in your future.”

“Prove it.” She folded her arms, and scowled at him.

I’m probably going to cause another paradox... but this one’s bad enough as is.

Mal pulled the time machine out of his pocket with his good hand, his right hand, and held it in his palm. The lights left a neon trail across his bleached skin.

“Here,” he said. “Take it. It won’t hurt you.”

Ryder took it and turned it over, again and again. The red lights blinked; the display showed the current year.

“So you’ve got a cool gadget,” she said. “So what?”

“It’s a time machine. From maybe... fifty years in your future. Don’t press any buttons,” Mal said. “I really don’t want to cause a paradox.”

She looked over it carefully with a cynic’s eye, blinked in surprise, turned it over again, frowned, and handed it back to him.

“This is for real, isn’t it,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

Mal nodded, glad to have finally gotten this far. “Yes. It’s ‘for real’. And I really need your help.”

Ryder kicked up a clod of dirt. “Why are you asking me for help? Talk to the President.”

“The who?”

She rolled her eyes theatrically. “The President of the United States? The guy in charge?”

“Oh... He wouldn’t listen to me,” Mal said, and grinned. “I’m an ugly ‘kid’ with a lumpy head and a weird horror story. And I don’t need to talk to him, anyway. I need to talk to you.”

“Why me?” Ryder raised an eyebrow at him.

“Um...”

This was the part Mal had dreaded explaining. He had tried and tried to figure out a way to soften the words. He must have tried a hundred times, saying it over and over to himself, but there was no way he could say it gently without making it sound ridiculous.

“Well?” Ryder asked impatiently.

“You... did something. Or will do something. I don’t know what. But it made the war a lot worse.”


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2011 by Mallory Noone

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