The artificial windows displayed the dark starless sky. I curled up on our built-in couch, while my mother tapped her foot from her stiff armchair. Que laid with his stomach on the floor, hand to the cheek, no doubt enjoying my mother losing her mind.
“It’s just not fair. How can you do this to me?” My mother’s performances were getting bolder and more over the top by the minute. “I won’t even get to see my own daughter’s wedding!”
“Mom,” I groaned. “I don’t have to go through with the actual marriage. I can still talk him into doing an art career instead of a music career… I just have to get the proposal to satisfy the council’s ridiculous made-up requirements. Proposal does not equal marriage.”
Mom sighed and leaned her head on her arm. “Why would you want to be engaged to a boy you’ve never met? That you don’t even love?”
“Mom! Mom… Mom.” I tried a couple of different tones to calm her lament. “I promise that I will never become Mrs. Emmeline Lennon. It’s a horrible tongue twister name. Trust me. I won’t.”
My mom shook her head and sighed. “I don’t like this.”
Our housebot chimed for my mother to retire to bed. She dismissed it.
“So many years that I would miss!” She leaned her elbow on the end table and rested her fingers on her forehead. “I mean what if this boy did fall in love with you and you got married and had children and they grew up without their own grandmother. I don’t see why you can’t find somewhere here.”
“You don’t really want to go through with this, do you?” my mother said rubbing a little circle on her temple. “You don’t really want to go all the way back to 1958.”
“1958 is a hydro propelled space dump.” My brother Que rolled onto his back. “I mean Disneyland is still this brand new, dinky outdoor park.”
“I don’t care,” I said picking at a hangnail. “I’m going to be in England anyway.”
My mom gasped at that. “Oh, Emmeline! With all that flooding and everything!”
“Not in 1958, Mom. That wouldn’t have been a problem for another hundred years.”
“You know, England was always at war with somebody,” she said, tugging her sweater around her neck.
“No, that’s America, Mom,” Que said, laughing.
Her mouth twisted all funny and she shook her head. “Well, they don’t even have nutritionally balanced food then. You’ll get scurvy. Or polio or something.”
“Gee thanks for the congratulations, Mom. So glad I have all your support.”
“Well, I just don’t like the idea of you time traveling,” my mom admitted. Although, I had already heard this spiel several hundred times. “So far away, with no way to communicate with me.”
“Mom, it would be instantaneous for you. You wouldn’t miss me,” I said. “It’s a boomerang portal. I would go in one side and come right back out at the same exact second. Mission finished.”
“You know I read an article about a time traveler that never came back through the other side.” Mom nodded gravely at each of us. “He supposedly went to the middle ages, but after he stepped in. Nothing. No one came back out. The portal just shut.
“That only happened once,” I said, exasperated at this point. “Most of the time travel missions are completed safely.”
The housebot chimed again through our otherwise silence.
“… I don’t see why you can’t meet a nice boy from here.”
I groaned with every frustration in me.
After grabbing a quick box lunch from the vending machine, I walked into the department of time travel and headed to the screening office. What exactly were they screening me for? It’s not like there was a big concern for time-altering terrorists or something since that’s basically what they hire travelers for. And well anyway, I was still really upset that they were giving me such a to-be-failed mission.
Everything in the screening office was white and shiny like a VR arena. I squinted. The inner marbled lights on the floor gave me an instant headache and I just wanted to be done and out of there as soon as possible.
A woman with a tight decorated bun sat at the front desk. She was old and kind of doughy looking, which was odd. I wondered if her fat-burning modification wasn’t installed properly or something.
“Emmeline Mor,” she called, her voice both raspy and low.
I closed my eyes, remembering that my only solace would be that by this time tomorrow I would be through with screening. At least I hoped.
“Follow me, please,” she said in this irritated burnt-out kindergarten teacher kind of way.
We walked through the hall, surrounded by people beeping, ringing, and talking in loud professional voices. We stopped at a small room, in the corner sat an empty chair with a wired helmet.
“A lie detector test?” I snorted.
“Have a seat,” the lady said, using her IND to activate the lie detector.
My eyes shifted. Why did they want me to take a lie detector test? Were they kidding me? No doubt they were probing my loyalty after submitting that footage. Other than that, I’ve never as much broken a single rule in my life. The only thing I could possibly think of is when I accidentally entered an illegal address playing a stupid game of VR World roulette. I was only twelve! As if I were actually trying to get into some security training simulator.
“If this is about the Bouncers R Us… I really don’t care about breaking into cyber clubs.”
“Have a seat,” she repeated, her tone becoming even more irritated than before.
Ugh, fine. They know I sent the footage. I have nothing to hide. I sat on the metal seat and the woman strapped the helmet on me. Her breath smelled like Chinese food, but not good Chinese food more like a little Chinese food compost pile.
She sat across from me and turned on my helmet, which was too heavy for my neck. Her IND activated, but a giant grey square shielded the screen from my view.
She cleared her throat and read off her side of the mysterious screen. “Are you planning on engaging in any kind of gambling or betting while in the past?”
“No.” I shrugged. Okay, this would probably be easier than I thought. The woman glanced at the results and then flicked her finger across the screen to the next question.
“Will you return with any unauthorized artifact for the purpose of monetary gain?” she asked.
She checked her screen and swiped to the next question.
“Are you planning to engage in a sexual relationship with Mr. Lennon or anyone from his time period?”
My helmet made a crunching sound as I shot her a look. What kind of a question was that? Why would this be a part of the screening? Surely Thompson had something to do with that off-the-wall question.
“Okay, well, so…” I struggled. “The mission is to romance him but that’s not why I chose to do the mission or anything. I know it might seem like that and sure, there will probably be some hugging or hand-holding along the way—”
“Just say yes or no,” she said with no patience or emotion.
She checked the screen, paused, brought her fingers to the air, and tapped out a message.
“Wait, what did it say? What did you just type?” I leaned forward in my chair, trying to see around the grey block.
“Would you be willing to protect yourself against all diseases that have not been eradicated in 1958?”
“Hold on, hold on. Go back to the last question. The answer is no!”
Instead of fixing my answer on the Lennon question, she brainlessly continued with the questionnaire. “If the mission fails, will you be able to eliminate the subject?”
My mouth bobbed open and shut like a fish. If I said ‘no’ would they fail my screening and deny me my mission? If I said ‘yes’ however, would it come up as a lie and they would still deny me? There was definitely a no-win answer. They could use my unsure answer as evidence toward their defense of not approving peaceful travelers.
“Do you want me to repeat the question?” she asked, blinking at me with her swollen puffy eyelids.
“I heard you,” I said as calmly as possible to keep the detector from picking up any nerves in my voice. I closed my eyes and relaxed my shoulders. “Yes, I would. IF the mission failed.”
She checked the screen one last time and nodded.
“Training starts tomorrow,” she said. “Be logged in to virtual training at eight. The time travel law class meets in person.”
“I’m approved?” I asked.
“Time Travel Law meets in room B5.” She sent the schedule to my IND and showed me the door. “The schedule says eleven, but please be here by 10:45 at the latest. Dr. Thorne does not entertain any latecomers. He even locks his door, just so you’re aware.”
“No problem,” I said cheerfully. I wasn’t worried about any hard trainer. All my worry now channeled into whether or not I had lied about being able to kill.
My time travel law class was supposed to start at 11 o’clock sharp. I showed up to class at precisely 10:44 and I swear to you that Dr. Thorne guy was out in the hall about to program the door to lock me out.
“I’m here! I’m here!” I called frantically to him.
He gave me such a stern look his frown alone had slapped me across the face. This guy had disapproving father written all over him. He had a suit and tie, which I don’t know if that’s a time travel thing or what, because men haven’t worn suits and ties in decades. He had thick dark hair that was perfectly slicked back, a meticulously trimmed beard peppered with gray and a brow so heavy it sat as a permanent V on his forehead.
Or maybe the dip of the brow was because I wasn’t as early as he wanted.
“And you’re Emmaline Mor I presume,” he said with a smooth and accusatory voice.
My upper lip scrunched up. Excuse me. I don’t know why being exactly on time would presume him of anything. And I also didn’t know why he had my name in his repertoire of people to presume things about.
“And you’re Thorne,” I said simply giving him an OK sign with my hand and clicking my tongue against the side of my teeth.
“You’ll call me Dr. Thorne.”
So, that’s how it’s going to be huh? Wow. Yikes. How long did this class run again?
“Dr. Thorne,” I corrected myself and slid past him, feeling all the icy death daggers spearing into me from his black soulless eyes.
I walked in to find fifteen to twenty other time travelers all sitting at their seats with their IND’s activated and plugged into the class’ demonstration board. Apparently, they too had been warned about Thorne beforehand.
As I took a seat, I scanned every single person in the room, wondering which one of the attendees would be my partner into 1958. There was one particularly beautiful-looking guy kitty-corner to my desk. Broad, sharp shoulders and full lips. I wouldn’t mind throwing myself into a portal with that specimen, wow. What a stallion.
As I was shamelessly staring at my dream partner, I got to thinking. How exactly does one get another person to fall in love with you? I mean, for example, this handsome guy in my Time Law Class had certainly caught my eye, but then what? How do normal people do this love thing? My go-to tactic is to run away and ignore my attraction until I give up on dating forever.
But if you’re actively trying to seduce someone, say one of the most successful musicians in the world, how do you even begin? You talk to them and say what? You spend time with them and do what? I was beyond inexperienced in the romance department and now an actual life depended on my flirting skills.
I rested my chin on my hand. If Mr. Sharp Shoulders were my partner, Lennon would not be at the forefront of my mind. That’s for sure.
“During your time in the past, you will be in contact with hundreds of items,” Thorne said, looming in front of the classroom. “Some of the items may be useless. Some items are things you would never see in this day and age. And some things you’ll have contact with… are extremely valuable.”
The way he stopped pacing and gave everyone this eye when he said that. Oh, my Galatica, this wasn’t a time law class, this was a trial in practice.
“Miss Emmeline Mor,” Thorne’s voice reverberated through the classroom and I scrunched down into my seat a few inches. “Could you please tell me when it is appropriate to return through the portal with an item from the past?”
I shifted my eyes. The attractive Broad Shoulders Guy turned and looked at me. Actually, everyone turned and looked at me, so that was cool. I couldn’t believe this guy was picking on me. And why? Is this because I hadn’t shown up earlier to his class? Was this going to be a forever micro-penis power struggle thing?
I cleared my throat. “So, uh, the appropriate time to bring an item?” He nodded and I shifted in my chair.
Look, I didn’t know. I hated when teachers did that. I had a virtual History teacher who did that every day. Ask the question in a way that’s like, ‘you’re supposed to know this’. How am I supposed to know the answer? Aren’t you my teacher supposed to be teaching me the answer? If I’m supposed to already learn all the coursework beforehand, doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose? I mean, doesn’t that mean I’m basically doing your job for you?
I made my best guess. “The only appropriate time to bring an item back is when it’s explicitly part of your mission to bring back a sample.”
“Incorrect.” Ooh. And I could just tell that he enjoyed reprimanding me in front of Broad Shoulders. Making me look stupid in front of my gorgeous future partner and everything. “It is never an appropriate time to bring an item back from the past. Article Forty-Seven – Fifty-Three of the Protective Time Exchange Environments Act.”
“Okay well, trick question,” I said underneath my breath.
“And do you, Miss Mor, know the penalty of such an offense?”
Again, everyone twisted in their seats to face me. I pinched my mouth shut. “I don’t know. Probably some suspension or something.”
“You will go to prison,” Thorne said with a harsh nod. “You will go to prison and never time travel again. If you have a single penny or seashell in your pocket. You will go to prison for smuggling time-era sensitive material across the portal.”
I slumped further into my seat. Okay. Galactica. Why did he keep saying “you will go to prison” while making direct eye contact with me?
“Before your return trip, it is imperative that you go through every inch of your bag, your clothes, your teeth. Because as soon as you get through to the other side, you will be detained by the portal customs. And they will go through every lining. Every stitching. Every single solitary seed pod and speck of grass that may have worked their way into the cracks of your shoes. They will find it. And you will not leave until you are devoid of anything from the past.”
Everyone was dead silent, listening to Thorne belt out each word and jab the air with his pinched fingers. Finally, after everyone was clearly too afraid to make a peep, I raised my hand.
He shot an eye at me. “Ms. Mor.”
I dropped my hand onto my desk. “Yeah, um, why though?”
His heavy brow sagged lower into his eyes. “Excuse me?”
“That’s— I mean,” I brushed a piece of crud off the desk. “I’m not trying to be defiant about the rules or whatever. I’m just wondering why it’s such a big deal. It seems like it would be valuable to us to have actual physical samples—”
“One. It’s an environmental hazard,” he said, holding up a big hairy finger. “Two. It would encourage travelers from using the past to import to the dark market.” He advanced until he was inches away from my desk. “And Three. Because it’s against the law. That’s why it’s ‘such a big deal’, Ms. Mor.”
His presence was so overwhelming, that I involuntarily slid up straight in my chair. “Gotchya,” I said quietly and gave him a pained smile until he went away.
I did not know it was possible to be a worse human than Dr. Thompson. Bravo. The rest of the class was just as equally awkward with this intense authoritarian dictator guy as a teacher. Most of the travelers were too afraid to make any comments. Thorne barked at us for the entire class period, calling on me specifically a dozen more times.
When he excused us, I tried to beat it out of there as fast as I could. But he called to me, “Ms. Mor, a word?”
A word? What, another thousand words to make me feel like an idiot? How many more words of this guy was I going to be able to take? I dragged my feet to his desk.
He glared at me from under two deep creases where his brows furled together. The cherry stench of his hair gel gagged me.
“I wanted to let you know that I’m assigned to be your partner in the Liverpool mission,” he said.
I stared at him with no expression. The reality slowly sank in. This guy was going to be breathing down my butt for a hundred days? Maybe even decades? There was still time to back out, right?
“Great.” I forced myself to smile.