1. A Slip-up In Time

©2020 William A. Lasher

“If a man dwells on the past, then he robs the present. But if a man ignores the past, he may rob the future. The seeds of our destiny are nurtured by the roots of our past” – Master Po

We sat on the bluff for awhile, and after an hour or so, we saw the otters coming. Two swam underwater, and then surfaced in the pool directly beneath us. Playful creatures, one stayed in the water doing barrel rolls, while the other exited the river and climbed up on the bank. He looked right at us, to let Molly and I know we had been seen, and then gleefully dove back in, joined his companion, and swam back into the snappy current, making time downstream, and finally, the pair joined a third in a lower pool.

Molly was delighted, and we watched with fascination as the three otters continued downstream, to a grassy flat where the entrance to a cave was visible on the steep hillside. One by one, all three of them climbed out of the river, and did what I had seen them do before – they scrutinized their surroundings cautiously, and then darted into the limestone cave and disappeared.

“Where did they go?” said Molly.

“I’m not sure, but if we sit here and watch, they won’t reappear any time soon. I’ve sat here and watched for a couple of hours. Once they go in the cave, they’re gone.”

 

We decided to climb down the steep bluff to have a look, and we picked our way along the cliff towards the cave, being careful not to lose our footing and slide off into the river. Occasional loose rocks tumbled down the hillside and splashed in the water as we traversed our makeshift trail.

Up close, the mouth of the cave was bigger than it appeared from a distance, about five feet tall. I’d brought along a copper candle lantern, and I struck a wooden match on a rock to light it. I ducked inside the cave, and when I held the lantern up to illuminate the interior, I saw the otters a short distance away, further up an inclined natural tunnel. Then they turned and darted off, as quickly as the candlelight illuminated their eyes.

I went back outside, “I just saw the otters again. It was almost like they were waiting for us. You want to see where the cave goes?”

“You mean climb inside?” Molly with a look of alarm.

“Yeah.”

“You think it’s safe?”

“Sure, why not. We have the lantern and I brought extra candles and matches.”

“Umm, I don’t know – it looks sort of spooky.” Molly anxiously twisted a lock of her long red hair.

“Then why don’t you wait here, and I’ll go take a look.”

She paused, looked around, and then, “No way, I’m going with you.”

We had to keep our heads down to walk up the inclined tunnel that became steeper as we went. There was a gravelly muck on the floor of the cave and the air was damp. Molly stayed close, grasping a handful of my shirttail. The shaft of daylight behind us grew smaller and smaller, and finally disappeared.

The tunnel became narrower and took a hard turn, and we were almost ready to go back. Things might have turned out differently if we had gone back at that point, but when I held the lantern up high, we saw the entrance to a much larger cavern with a ceiling that was probably twenty feet tall. We had to jump down to a lower floor to keep going.

As I scanned the interior of the cavern with the lantern, we discovered crystalline stalactites hanging from the ceilings, and bats, who fluttered off into the depths when disturbed by the light. Looking to the floor, we saw our three otter friends – were they waiting for us to catch up? The way they moved their heads, they seemed to be beckoning us to follow.

“You want to keep going?” I said.

“It’s not as scary now that it’s so much bigger. I think I was getting claustrophobia before.”

“It looks positively benjo in here with all the different colors.” (I learned the slang word from Uncle Clay, and I said it with a British accent that made Molly laugh.)

“Your voice has an echo, Bertram.”

“Yours does too.”

“You still have dry matches?”

“Yeah, they’re dipped in paraffin, they won’t get wet.”

“Alright, let’s keep going, but pa said I have to be home for supper later on.”

The otters’ trail wound its way through a low jumble of stalagmites as the cavern became taller and wider. They were letting us stay closer now, so we could keep them in sight.

“I was talking to your dad while you were getting ready to go. He said the whole country is getting ready to bust apart at the seams.”

“Because the people down south don’t want to give up their slaves. The railroads are making it easier to move things around, and the cotton growers are afraid they won’t be able to compete.”

“Yeah, but Father O’Duffy said that owning a slave is a sin, Molly. They’ve been doing it for a long time, and they don’t want to change, but it’s wrong to treat anyone so poorly.”

No one owned any slaves in Leacock Corners. Traveling to Richmond took two days by horse and carriage, and we were actually much closer to Pennsylvania where owning a slave was against the law.

We walked underground for a considerable distance, it could have easily been two miles, and ultimately arrived at a junction.  We found the three otters waiting for us once again, sniffing at the entrances to two separate tunnels, inspecting each as if they were trying to decide which to choose, and finally, they darted into one of them, though both looked almost exactly the same.

“Should we keep going?” said Molly uneasily.

“We’ve come too far to turn around. They seem to know where they’re headed. Let’s keep following.”

We entered the tunnel, and it narrowed as we proceeded. The ceiling was low, and we had to duck down as we picked our way along the rockbound walls. After another hundred yards or so, we became aware of daylight at the end, and as we approached it, a goodly flow of water. We were back to ground level, and the tunnel’s narrow terminus had come out behind a pocket-sized waterfall.

We stepped through the waterfall quickly, to avoid getting soaked, and found ourselves on a steep mountainside. Below us, the joyful otters were sliding down a section of naturally polished marble in the stream. As the otters darted off into the trees and disappeared, we discovered something much bigger to contemplate – as we walked through the waterfall, Molly and I had both changed in ways that were completely unexpected.

Our appearances and clothes had changed completely. I was now wearing clothes that were much different than what I had set out in. My hiking shorts had become sturdy wool trousers featuring thin vertical stripes, and my ratty shirt, a long sleeved button up under a long-tailed frock coat. My previously clean shaved face now sported long bushy sideburns and a handlebar mustache, and I wore a top hat with an usually tall crown.

I laughed nervously when I looked towards Molly, because my bricky girlfriend was now dressed like a man! Her long hair was tied up and hidden under a squat black bowler. The rest of her wardrobe was similar to mine, and Molly had a mustache – was it real?!

Even more troubling was how much we had aged. We were much older, full grown adults, Molly looked like she was in her 40s.

“What in the world is going on around here?” said mustachioed Molly.

I was carrying an extraordinary firearm too, an immense .50 caliber pistol concealed in a leather holster under my bulky coat. Heavy with mechanical apparatus, the gun had a compartment built into the handle that held some type of gas cylinder. After a hasty examination, I quickly returned the gun to it’s holster, thinking it would be better to learn more about it before I fooled around with it. I certainly didn’t want to risk shooting myself!

“An astonishing turn of events,” remarked Molly as she looked over her own pistol, her green eyes wide.

“I’ll say, and there’s definitely something suspicious about those otters.”

“Where are we? Where did they lead us too?”

“I’m not sure, but there’s nothing about this place that looks that familiar at all.”

A leather sling over my shoulder carried a strange type of optical equipment I had never seen before. Like binoculars with an extra set of lenses, on arms that folded out, and then pivoted into position in front of the primary lenses. A tiny brass nameplate bore the words, Burnwell Quadopticals, the apparent name of the odd device.

I positioned the gadget in front of my face, lowered the extra set of lenses into position, and found a pair of adjusters to bring distant objects into focus. There was a town below us, at least a thousand feet lower in elevation, and with my newly discovered observation device, I examined the nameless place thoroughly.

“The mountains seem bigger, and the forest is much drier. It’s all evergreens, there’s no maple or beech.”

“Maybe we should go back.”

I still had the lantern, but the candle was burned down to a stub. When I reached into my back pocket, I realized the extra candles and dry matches were gone, “The candle is burned down, and the spares are gone. We may not be able to find our way.”

“What are we going to do now?”

“Let’s walk down into town and try and find out where we are. Maybe we can find some new candles or someone who will help us to find our way home.”

As we picked our way down off the steep mountainside, the strange new garb and unusual devices slowed us down considerably. I was almost ready to ditch the bulky copper candle lantern, but on second thought I kept it, thinking we might need it to find our way back later on.

About halfway down, we stopped at a rocky outcropping to rest.  The rocks afforded a fair view of the valley below, and I used both hands to support the quadoptical device, looking things over from our new vantage point.

The architecture looked as eccentric as our clothes, steep roofed buildings with garish colors and ornate cornice work around the eaves. Across the river, there was a busy industrial area, with some type of industrial plant belching out clouds of smoke from tall smokestacks.

It was late afternoon when we reached the outskirts of the town, and a breeze began to blow down from the mountains, a cool wind that carried the durable scent of coal smoke, mixed with the smell of the evergreen forest.

On the outskirts of town we found dirt streets and ramshackle houses with chickens in the front yards and hogs visible in backyard pens, the acrid smell of livestock manure heavy in the coal smoke breeze. We continued walking towards the center of town, keeping to ourselves, and at first avoided talking to anyone, still headed downhill.

The housing grew taller and denser with boardwalks and hitching posts along the side of the street. As we entered the commercial district, the sidewalks turned to brick, and there were street lamps that looked like they were fueled by some type of gas.

Downtown was more populated, and we passed a number of pedestrians on the brick paver sidewalks. Some well dressed, in fashion styles similar to what Molly and I wore, others in gritty work clothes, many covered with coal dust.

We passed by three dirty-faced children, wearing checkered wool ivy caps, playing in a mud puddle. They looked at us like we had been recognized – pointing dirty little fingers, whispering among themselves, and then they began following us. We picked up the pace, but they stayed on our tail.

“We need to get off the street and find someone to talk to,” I said. “Try to find out what happened and who we’ve become.”

“And just who should we approach?”

“Let’s go in here,” pausing in front of a storefront with etched lettering on the window that said, Winterborne’s Clock Shop.

I opened the door, and let Molly go in first. The three little street urchins continued to follow and stare, and I paused to give them a look of disdain before I followed her in.

A cuckoo clock went off with a bang when we were a just a few steps in on the creaky floorboards – a faux gunshot that sounded like real gunpowder and then: “cuckoo! cuckoo! cuckoo!”

We walked further in, and found a collection of clocks displayed on uneven wooden shelves with narrow walkways in between. Each one had a handwritten price tag attached with a bit of string. There were Skeleton Clocks and Vienna Wall Clocks, Carriage Clocks, Dial Clocks, and more.

Glass cases towards the back of the store displayed wrist watches and pocket watches, and behind the cash register, mounted on the wall, there was a sterling silver great horned owl clock that was at least three feet tall.

I was quick to notice that none of the clocks seemed to be set to any hint of the correct time. Every clock in the store was wound and running, but each one displayed a different time.

“What time is it?” I said to the bald-headed clerk, a diminutive man named Higginbotham.

“Subtract seven hours from the Chronometer – we’re on London time here in the store.” Outside, our juvenile tails had their dirty little noses pressed against the front window, trying to get a good look inside, and Higginbotham, in starchy striped shirt and bow-tie, hurried over to shoo them away.

“What’s the date?” said Molly to the clerk as he returned to the counter.

“September 21st.”

“What year?” I said.

“The year? Why 1881 of course,” Higginbotham looked a bit puzzled by my question, and then, “is there something I can help you with? Do you need a new clock, or perhaps a new watch?”

1881?!  I kept my shock to myself, and looked towards Molly. Her wide eyes told me she was equally astonished.

“What we really need are a few new candles,” I said nodding towards the copper candle lantern I held in my hand.

“There’s a candle maker down the street, inside Skullington’s General Store. Turn left on your way out, you can’t miss it.”

As we were turning to leave, a man appeared in the open doorway behind the counter, “Wait, before you go, I’d like to have a few words with you.”

“A few words?” I said.

“Yes, a few words in private,” he gestured with his hand for us to follow, “I’m Henry Winterborne, the owner of the store, please step in my office so we can talk.” He was a heavy set gentleman, middle aged, wearing a paisley vest over a billowy white dress shirt.

We followed him down a short hallway and then into his office. He closed the door behind us, “Please have a seat.” He motioned towards a pair of armchairs casually arranged in front of his desk. I noticed a number of different style clocks at various locations around the office, all were wound and ticking, and every one displayed a different time.

“What’s on your mind?” I said as I noticed what looked like a two way mirror on the wall. We could see an image of Higginbotham waiting on a new customer in the mirror.

“You’ve noticed my surveillance mirror, I see. It’s actually a series of mirrors that begin in the owl’s eyes. Did you notice the great horned owl clock behind the counter? The image grows larger and larger as it’s transferred through a series of optics, and then displayed in life sized detail here in my office on the wall. It allows me to keep my eye on things in the store.”

“An ingenious invention, Mr. Winterborne,” said Molly as she used her thumb and index finger to smooth out the long ends of her faux mustache.

She made no attempt to disguise her voice, and when Winterborne heard her speaking in her normal feminine parlance, he smiled and raised his eyebrows.

“I recognized you as quickly as you entered the store.”

“Recognized us?” I said.

“Yes, you’re the infamous Molly Keagan and Bertram Backus. The infamous Molly Keagan disguised as the fictitious Elmo Gould that is.”

“Where do you know us from?”

“From the Marshall’s wanted posters, there’s a number of them around town.”

“Wanted posters? What are we wanted for?”

“Why, bank robbery and murder of course. You can speak freely with me, I’m not going to call the police.” He picked up a newspaper from a stack piled behind his desk, thumbed through it, and then laid the open paper out on his desk so we could read it. The poster reprinted in the paper displayed charcoal images of both of our faces, with Molly as Elmo Gould.

“Bank robbery?!” exclaimed Molly, “up until a few hours ago, I was 16 years old, living in western Virginia in 1851!”

Winterborne grinned, “According to what I’ve heard, you were framed for the robbery.”

I held up my hands and shook my head, “No, listen for a minute, Mr. Winterborne. We followed a trio of otters into a cave and something happened. We stepped through some type of time portal, and we don’t know anything about this town, or who we’ve become. We’re teenagers from Leacock Corners, Virginia.”

“A trio of otters,” repeated a skeptical Winterborne nodding his head still grinning.

“Yes, and if we can find some candles, we may be able to find our way back.” I was still carrying the copper candle lantern, and I set it on his desk. “The entrance to the cave is behind a waterfall, up in the mountains outside of town.”

“Well, that’s quite an imaginative story, I must say, and if what you say is true, it would be better to wait until after dark before you go back through town. I think the dirty little children at the window may have already recognized you.”

“Could we wait it out here for awhile?”

“Of course, would you like to play a game of checkers? I have a bottle of caramel flavored crab apple whiskey, care for a snort?”

“Yes,” said Molly, “at this point I could definitely go for a drink.”

I looked at Molly with astonishment, but then I thought about it, and I realized in my brand new clothes and persona, I could use a drink too.

From a low spot behind his desk, Winterborne produced a silver tray that bore a quart sized brown bottle and three crystal whiskey tumblers. He seemed pleased to be spending a bit of clandestine drinking time with the local outlaws. Winterborne poured drinks, and then pulled a small jar from one of his desk drawers.

“Would you care for a miniature game hen? They’re Prince of Liechtenstein,” he held the jar up to display the fancy lettered labeling.

“Miniature game hens?” said Molly with surprise. And then, “I think I’ll pass, but I’ll take another splash of your whiskey – that’s tasty stuff.”

I was famished. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and it had been a busy day, “Sure, I’ll try one.” Winterborne handed me a pair of sterling silver tweezers so I could choose one myself, right from the jar.

He smiled as he held the jar out in his hand, “a hint of hot mustard, they’re very good.”

I was unfamiliar with the delicacy, and soon realized one miniature game hen would do little to satisfy my hunger. The birds were rather small indeed, and one was all I was going to get. After choosing one too, Winterbourne quickly closed the jar and returned it to its hiding place in his desk. He was much more generous with his whiskey.

“Prince of Liechtenstein game hens are extremely rare ever since the Hydrogen War.”

“The Hydrogen War?”

“Oh, I forgot, you’re time travelers,” with a hint of sarcasm, “Yes, the war began when the Union Army leveled Richmond with a hydrogen gas detonation. From there the conflict escalated, and most of the United States was destroyed.”

“Western Virginia too?”

“Completely flattened.”

Without warning, the whole building began to tremble and shake. Winterborne grabbed the bottle of crab apple whiskey as it was about to fall off his desk. The long clock in the corner tumbled over and crashed to the floor, and then as quickly as it began, the shaking stopped.

“What was that?” exclaimed Molly, “an earthquake?”

“Yes, it was a quake,” said Winterborne refilling our whiskey glasses, “common since the Pendlebury Gas Company moved into town. They began injecting compressed river water into an underground geothermal hot spot, and that’s when the earthquakes started.”

“What’s the point of that?” I said, “injecting water into a geothermal hot spot?”

“They use a coal powered turbine to compress the river water. When they shoot it into the volcanic hot spot, it creates a severe underground explosion. I’m not sure exactly how it works, but somehow the process separates the hydrogen from the oxygen in the water. Pendlebury bottles the hydrogen gas as it comes to the surface, and they sell it for fuel. Here in Dunkwell, most everything is powered by hydrogen gas. It’s a wonderful fuel.”

“That’s where we are?” said Molly, “In Dunkwell?”

“Actually, here on the hill you’re in Dunkwell Heights. Dunkwell proper is along the river at the bottom of the hill.”

“Are we still in the United States?”

“The Union is gone. California and Oregon were the only states that survived the war, and in the aftermath they joined to form a new sovereign nation, The California Republic. The remainder of the land west of the Rockies was absorbed by the British Empire.”

“What about the land east of the Rockies?”

“A toxic wasteland, The Forsaken Zone. From the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, the effects of the Great Hydrogen War made the country uninhabitable.”

Winterborne opened a desk drawer and produced a new jar, different than the last. “Care for a Prince of Liechtenstein Miniature Pork Chop?”

Molly waved her hand and said no, and I declined as well. The previous miniature treat had a decidedly bad aftertaste and at that point I was in the mood for something more substantial.

Winterborne returned the jar to his desk and produced another. “What about a spoonful of Dr. Helgenberger’s Miracle Perception Powder then? Guaranteed to increase your intelligence quotient by at least 10 points.” He smiled and held the jar up in his hand so we could see the label. “It’s an amazing product that might just help you to see things as they really are. A glimpse of intra-dimensional consciousness as Dr. Helgenberger might say.”

He opened the jar and sank a tiny silver measuring spoon into the peculiar looking powder – it had an iridescent glow. When he sprinkled the powder into his whiskey, a tiny plume of purplish-green smoke rose up from the tumbler. He stirred the concoction and took a sip: “Ah yes. I feel smarter already. The powder enables your mind to see; to see the more than one way you can be, or in some cases, the more than one way you already are – it allows you to perceive intra-dimensional consciousness. Could be useful in finding your way out of the little predicament you’ve found yourselves in. Care for a spoonful?”

 

It gave me an uncanny feeling of dread to be sitting in the tiny jail cell listening to the sound of carpenters building the gallows where they would hang Molly and I. Uncanny and terrifying as well.

They had Molly locked up in another cell, far enough from mine that we were unable to communicate. It had been a few days since I had last talked to her, and I wondered how she was holding up. A 46 year old woman who knew nothing of her life beyond the day when we walked into a cave in western Virginia when she was 16 years old. Thirty years of our lives had somehow vaporized, and sitting in the jail cell, I still felt like I was 16 in my conscious mind.

We had returned to the waterfall with fresh candles and bad hangovers the next morning. We discovered that one of the frequent earthquakes had sealed the entrance to the cave shut. We returned to Dunkwell Heights where we were arrested by a trio of automated police officers. Robots constructed of intricate clockwork and powered by hydrogen gas. The jail guards were robots too.

Henry Winterborne hired an attorney on our behalf, a Mr. Knightingale. He said he would do his best to get a stay of execution, but the judge wanted some kind of evidence, or at least some sort of credible testimony from a witness. Something to prove that we had been framed for the bank robbery and the two homicides that we were mistakenly convicted of.

I could hear the carpenters sawing boards and driving nails as I wrote these words in my journal.

To Be Continued …

 

©2020 Surreal Science Fiction

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