The Thirteenth Traveler
by Dave Ervin
Table of Contents|
chapters: I, II, III, IV,
V, part 1; V, part 2; VI
Travis did not open the door. He didn’t have to. The deadbolt blasted off the door in a flash of white fire and a tall man in a black mesh body suit stepped coolly into the room. His hair was white and his eyes a menacing, almost swirling blue. He held a strange gun-like device that retracted into the sleeve of his shirt. Travis hadn’t seen this man in fifteen years, but he looked exactly the same. The same as when he had pinned him in the woods that night and stuffed the godawful disk into his hand.
This was the man who had died when Zach shot him through the chest and then disappeared into a vacuum of light. But now he was not dead. Now he was standing before Travis, his eyes bearing down hard, the disk in Travis’s hand still blinking today’s date.
“Travis Burbage?” the man asked. Travis only nodded and sank weakly to his knees. The man glanced at the black disk in his hand. “So you peeked,” he said.
“Yes,” Travis said, in an unintended whisper. “You... you’re—“
“I’m supposed to be dead, is that it?”
The man took a flat black card from his back pocket and consulted it momentarily. “Shot through the chest by Zachary Dean at a rural location on October 17, 1998, is that right?”
Travis nodded. The man replaced the card in his back pocket and fished a pack of cigarettes from his utility belt. He lit up, a golden flame issuing from the finger of his gloved hand. “Ah, but Mr. Burbage, how can I be dead if I’ve yet to be born?”
The man took a black disk of his own from his utility belt and took the glove off his hand. The cigarette between his teeth looked ancient and out of place. He placed his bare palm on the disk and held it there as it glowed blue once, twice, three times. He showed the display to Travis.
Officer Malachi Linklater
Date of Birth: August 12, 2024
Date of Death: December 13, 2095
Travis eyed the disk and looked suspiciously up at Officer Malachi Linklater.
Linklater regloved his hand, the arrogant cigarette dangling from his lips as he spoke. “Of course, ‘date of death’ is a bit misleading,” he said. “That’s the official record, not necessarily stone-cold fact. You might say I died on October 17, 1998 when I sustained injuries from a gunshot wound more than 25 years before my own conception.”
“I saw you...” Travis began. But it was too much to say out loud.
Linklater continued. “I was celebrating my 39th birthday the evening I ported into the woods and ran into your buddy, Zachary Dean. So you might say my death date was actually August 12, 2063.” He pulled a chair out from the small, token hotel room table and took a seat.
“Of course, the official record shows I died on December 13, 2095. My shearsuit is equipped with 2095 technology. meaning should I sustain any mortal wounds, it will automatically port me to a hospital in 2095, where I can receive alkaline treatment. It’s unavailable in my time and in yours, of course. But then traveling so far ahead is mortally dangerous in and of itself; therefore the technology is engaged by the suit only as a last resort. I survived the jump into 2095, but not the treatment. I died before the doctor even entered the room. Thus, the official record. Date of death December 13, 2095.”
Linklater grinned. “Confused yet?”
Travis was not as confused as he was unsettled. What disturbed him most was what was not displayed on Linklater’s ID disk. His apparently imminent death made him momentarily fearless in his question: “No Human ID?”
For just a moment Linklater appeared hurt, then his smile widened. “Ah, perceptive. That’s right, Mr. Burbage. I am not human. Not quite. I am a traveler. One of twelve known to be gifted with the ability. A small genetic mutation with some decided advantages. Of course, I consider myself a man, the same as you. There are others coming, Mr. Burbage, who are very different from us indeed.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
Now Linklater laughed and the sound sent ice up Travis’s back. The man from the future stubbed out his cigarette and held out a hand to Travis. “Get up.”
Travis took his hand, bracing himself for some great pain or electric shock that would send him out of the hotel room and into some alternate universe. But Linklater simply helped him to his feet.
“I’m not going to kill you,” he said. “What? Are you worried about the date on the disk? Didn’t I tell you? That’s the official record, not necessarily your true death date. You’re not going to die today, Mr. Burbage. Though I’m afraid life as you understand it is about to change.”
Travis felt the forces of relief and dread at war in him once again.
“You’re going to take a trip with me, see?” Linklater said, “Back to 1998. We’re going to change some things.”
Travis was beginning to understand. Officer Linklater expected him to travel with him back in time. To That Night in the Woods. And he expected him to put a stop to the events leading to Linklater’s death. Travis would be erased from his own time. Or go missing or something. The official record would show him as dead. So he was skirting death, yes, but outside of death had any human being ever jumped into such an unknown? What would happen to his family? Would they hold a funeral? Would he ever see his kids again? He looked Linklater in the eyes. The swirling blue was almost hypnotic.
“You want me to stop your death.”
The traveler’s face turned candid. “Yes. But that’s not the point. My being alive or dead hardly matters.” Travis mustered an incredulous look.
“I exist outside of time, Mr. Burbage. I die every day. I am born every day. I could care less about when I die or how. I’m like music on a loop. Burbage, are you not getting this?”
The room began to rock a little, like a cruise ship. Travis sat on the edge of the bed. He looked at the black disk he still clutched in his sweaty hand. He dropped it on the bed beside him and watched as that damned date finally faded out. He was unable to speak.
Linklater gave him a moment, actually looked at him with some sympathy. “Forgive me,” he said. “I forget sometimes how little is known about my kind in 2013.” Linklater took a deep breath. For the first time his confidence seemed to falter. He was almost affected. Almost human, Travis thought.
“My mutation is not unique. There are eleven others like me. Or, should I say, eleven in which the mutation is nearly perfected. The thousands of others infected with the gene have simply withered or are withering away. It is a disease very similar to cancer. At least in the way it affects you. But it is communicable. You pass it through blood, mucus, fluids. When Zachary Dean stumbled into my grasp, he unwittingly infected himself.”
Travis felt his head go faint. The room blurred out of focus. Thunder bellowed outside and snapped him back to his senses.
“The problem,” Linklater said, “is that the gene should have been introduced into the world 23 years after our rendezvous in the woods. When I was shot, your friend tampered with a major chord in the time thread. He unleashed a disease upon himself that was then passed along to a handful of others. Those individuals passed it along to more, and so on and so forth.
“In my time, the disease was controlled with only a handful of casualties. With the cancer introduced in 1998, there have already been over 30,000 unintended deaths. And God knows how many more before the cure is available. Some believe the disease will pick up steam and soon be too widespread for a cure to do much good. Most scientists think that by 2150 as much as a third of the human population could be wiped out completely.”
“Good lord,” Travis whispered.
“Indeed,” Linklater said. “So you see, you really have no choice. We have to go back to 1998 and stop Zachary Dean from firing that shot. If my blood is spilled, thousands of lives are at stake.”
Travis thought about this. About the tens of thousands of people who could die or contract cancer from one incident years in the past. Something he was involved in. He also thought about his wife and kids, all that he would be leaving behind. Today’s date. His life, his future, erased like a blackboard.
“Can I come back?” Travis asked. “My family... Can I—“
“If we are successful,” Linklater said, “then I don’t see why not. Of course, who’s to say how the altered events may change things? You may come back to a very different life, Mr. Burbage. A different family altogether.”
“Will I know? Will I have an awareness of the way things were or—”
Linklater cut him off. “Don’t try to reason through the time thread. Its complexities leave no practical foothold for science or logic. We simply learn its rules as we go.”
“I can’t help it,” Travis said. “I think in numbers. Always have.”
“Then here’s a number. Thirty thousand.”
But Linklater could have just as easily said “one.” For the overriding image in Travis’s mind was that of his friend, Zach. And how unfair life had been to him. And now he had the opportunity to change all that. Perhaps Zach would never have to wilt away like a broken flower, never have to suffer the shame and agony of a disintegrating body. If Travis had to do this, that’s what he’d cling to.
So he would not catch his flight home tomorrow, that much was certain. And if what Linklater had said was true, he could return unharmed back to this time once the deed was done — or rather, once the deed was undone. Life could continue. He would go on. The date on the disk could change, right?
“How can I help?” Travis asked. “I’m not a time-traveler. Can you bring me along? Does it work that way?”
“No,” Linklater said. “It doesn’t work that way. You have to be a traveler to make the jump.” Linklater looked at his shoes. He seemed unsure how to proceed.
“Zachary Dean wasn’t the only one infected with my blood that night,” he finally said. And the look in his eyes told Travis all he needed to know. The world stopped moving. The rest of Linklater’s words were like the voice of a man speaking in a distant room. Muffled sounds behind a closed door.
“In you the gene was perfected,” Linklater said. “The only human being ever to contract the gene from another and have it develop to its full potential. The rest of us were born with it. You had it bestowed upon you... Travis — Mr. Burbage — you are the Thirteenth Traveler.”
It was a long time before anyone spoke. The thunder and lightning had retreated and all that remained of the storm was a steady patter that spattered the windows and pavement outside. The room seemed suddenly bright.
Finally, Travis stood up. “What do I have to do?” he said.
Linklater produced a mesh suit from a poncho bag in his utility belt. “Put this on.”
Travis did and Linklater pulled another one of the gun-like devices from his belt. He entered some numbers into a keypad on the handle and gave it to Travis. “When I say ‘go’, press the red button.”
Travis nodded. He inhaled an involuntary deep breath. The travelers exchanged an important look. When Linklater said “Go,” they went.
Copyright © 2014 by Dave Ervin