The plan was simple. History dictated that a certain estate, up for auction, would soon be short one crate of uninteresting books. History also dictated that a certain politician, prone to bad taste in architectural redesign, would commission some work on a property that would stay standing for another three centuries.
History didn’t say anything about the two overworked and underpaid immortal operatives who had to make sure the books wound up sealed into the drywall. You can't always trust the history books.
Lewis had booked rooms in a perfectly good hotel on the coast. He had a couple of days before the estate sale, and Joseph had plenty of time to due whatever hobnobbing sketchy contractors did with sketchy politicians.
It wouldn’t look that way on paper. On paper, they’d spend the entire weekend on the clock. For a company that discreetly ruled the world and controlled its entire fortune, Dr Zeus Inc could be incredibly stingy in the accounting department.
Off the record, the plan involved digging in darker, more discreet matters. There were things that mattered more to Lewis and Joseph than complying with the demands of history.
That was the plan. It was a good plan. It was a plan that would have worked, as all of Lewis’s carefully handwritten schedules, timetables, and itineraries could attest. Unfortunately, it was also a plan that involved Joseph.
“It’s dead,” Joseph said as he scooted out from under the car. They stood on the shoulder of a road through the middle of nowhere, which in this case consisted mostly of endless farmland grids, unbroken except for the occasional distant barn or silo. The view might have been scenic, if the day weren’t overcast and the landscape weren’t throbbing with high rises and 24 hour convenience stores as yet unborn. Lewis resisted the urge to check his data and see how long urban sprawl would take to plow the farmland under. The future happens fast enough without you looking at it.
“Damned cheap modern vehicles,” Joseph said, and kicked the tire.
“Don’t puncture it, you’ll only make things worse.”
Joseph kicked the car once more for good measure and then took a deep breath. “I’ll make it up to you,” he said.
“It’s alright,” Lewis said, trying hard to sound casual.
“Boy, there’s a reason you were a stunt double and never an actor back in the golden years, isn’t there."
“Oh, all right, I’m very annoyed with you. I told you we should have taken a different road. A paved road. Through civilization. And that the car sounded funny. I have to put this on my report now, you know.”
“We could hyper speed into town,” Joseph suggested. “Is your retrieval deadline specific? I can reschedule my thing, but we can at least make the hotel reservation that way.” He brushed dirt and leaves off of his shirtsleeves, leaving greasy streaks behind. Lewis sighed.
“I’d rather not run across the landscape carrying all my bags, thank you.”
“If you hadn’t packed so much for a weekend trip—“
“We weren’t all raised in a cave, Joseph. I doubt I could keep up with you, anyway.” The man was practically programmed to run from his problems.
“What do you want to do, then?”
Lewis gave the car one last long, hopeless look. “Don’t you think it seems cruel to just leave it out here?”
Joseph rolled his eyes. “It’s a car, Lewis. Not a person.”
“I know that. Still.” Lewis ran a hand over the hood, still warm. His own mechanical components would be warmer still, wrapped as they were in flesh and muscle. It was a terrible thought. “Poor broken machine, left on the side of the road when its useful is used up,” he said. “There but for the grace of gods go we.”
“Not us,” Joseph said firmly. He swatted Lewis’s hand away from the hood. “We have work to do, remember?”
Wordlessly Lewis accepted his bag, which was larger and heavier than Joseph’s canvas backpack. That was what he got for assuming the trip would be an easy, as-planned one.
“There’s a farming town a few miles down the road. We’ll find a mechanic or someone who can give us a ride the rest of the way,” Joseph said. “Just think, if this happens a couple decades from now we can call a car to us. The future never comes fast enough.”
They shouldered their bags and headed down the road as the clouds overhead began to leak mist.
“Oh, this is perfect,” Joseph said. He got grouchier with every step. “You know how long it’s been since I had to hoof it from job to job? Not nearly damn long enough. I spent centuries waiting for automotive transportation. This is unfair.”
Lewis very carefully did not say anything about which of them had insisted on taking the unpaved road. At least he got some smug satisfaction out of the moment. The light moisture in the air had become a definite, if sporadic, patter of rain. It reminded him of other walking trips, with another friend, which wasn’t something he wanted to dwell on. Time for a hard emotional about-face, then. Maybe some forced cheer would do it.
“This reminds me of my fieldwork days. I used to love pre-industrial traveling assignments. You never knew exactly where you’d end up or what you’d walk though. No worries, just adventure. The romance, the drama.”
“You would say that,” grumbled Joseph.
“You never miss the old days?”
The sporadic patter of rain had begun to intensify. Lewis did another fast access while Joseph shielded his eyes and considered the sky overhead. “Storm’s probably going to break right on top of us.”
“There’s nothing about a storm in the weather file,” Lewis fretted.
Joseph sighed. The unpaved road wasn’t exactly muddy, but no one would be racing down it leaving dust clouds in their wake anytime soon. Especially not them.
“I never said I didn’t miss the old days. Parts of them, anyway. Constantinople was good. I’d go back there, if I could.”
“I’d go with you in a heartbeat,” said Lewis. The idea distracted him from the road and the broken down car. “You know, I’ll never really get used to the idea that I get to see all the rest of human history, and yet there’s still so much that’s out of my reach, whether through timing or scheduling. If only we could get ahold of one of those boxes they ship people back in for patch jobs. I’ve always wanted to try one.”
“You really don’t, trust me,” said Joseph, with feeling. “And boy would that be up close and personal.”
Lewis was suddenly very quiet. Joseph didn’t seem to notice, because he went on talking. “Anyway, antiquity wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. True agony is taking yet another prehistoric stream bath and knowing how long you’ll have to wait for indoor plumbing, let alone pressurized showers. You got to see most of the good stuff.” He considered this and amended his statement.
“Except for maybe medieval Europe. Medieval Europe was pretty awful.”
“I have fond memories of fourteenth century France, thank you very much.”
“Lucky you. I’m just saying, for every great invention I ever witnessed or unsolved mystery I arranged, there were decades of unsanitary field work with bad food and body lice. But the future? The future only gets better.”
“Or wetter,” Lewis said as the heavens opened up and began to pour in earnest. Within moments his hair, which had begun to frizz in the increased humidity, was slicked flat against his skull. Lewis took off the glasses he’d been affecting that decade and put them in his breast pocket, where the damp fabric immediately molded to the shape of the frames.
“My jacket’s going to be ruined,” he cried, trying in vain to peel it off. Except then he’d have nowhere to put it, except in his bag with the still-dry clothes, and that sounded terrible. And was the bag even waterproof? Had he thought about that when he packed? Why hadn’t he thought about that?
Joseph took one look at Lewis, through his head back, and laughed. He had a great bellowing laugh that would have echoed across the fields if it hadn’t been for the sudden arrival of thunder and lightning, intent on drowning out and lighting up every last square inch of the landscape for what felt like miles.
“Just like the good old days!” Joseph whooped with laughter.
“I didn’t mean like this,” Lewis wailed. He had always carried Company issue rain gear in the good old days.
He was still fuming about this irony when Joseph grabbed his hand. Lewis stared for a moment at the big, square brown hand wrapped around his own. A class ring. What did Joseph need a class ring for?
“Will you run with me now?” Joseph asked. He was grinning ear to ear behind his mustache.
Hyper speed wasn’t something Lewis used unless he had to. Generally, he felt that one ought to slow down and savor life, because while all the laws of physics said you could go back and experience time again, Company policy and accounting had different opinions on the matter. Lewis therefore reserved hyper speed as a last resort for moments when human patience just wouldn’t get the job done.
Running through the rain with Joseph was exhilarating. They cut a diagonal across the furrowed rows, leaving behind two sets of shoe prints that swiftly vanished in the rain. At high speed, the rain came on like laser fire. Everything blurred and ran in Lewis’s vision until he couldn’t see anything, he could only feel Joseph’s firm grip, leading him along so swiftly that their feet seemed to barely touch the ground, as if they were suspended in the static rain and Joseph’s rich baritone laughter.
They came to one of the barns that had been looming on the horizon. Joseph had the door unlocked and open before Lewis had time to see what his friend was doing, and then they were inside and dry, no longer moving, disconnected from the world outside.
“That’s better,” said Joseph, mopping his face with his equally wet sleeve. “What do you say we sit out the rain in here?”
“Sure,” Lewis said. He collapsed on a bench and looked around. The barn looked like it was mostly a storage shed. A few pieces of heavy equipment dozed under canvas covers and moving blankets, rakes and shovels leaned against the far wall, and there was a pile of bagged fertilizer in one corner. If animals had ever lived here, they were long gone.
When he looked back, Joseph had stripped to the waist and was crouched over his backpack, water dripping off the end of his nose.
“You might as well change, too,” Joseph said. “You brought enough clothes to have a few extra sets. When the rain stops we can head over to the house on the far end of the property and ask about a lift into town.”
“What house?” Lewis asked, eyes stuck on Joseph’s broad, muscled shoulders. Some people had all the luck in the genetics department. He was scrawny despite the ferroceramic bones and cyborg super strength. The thought of undressing here turned the tips of his ears pink. Joseph, apparently without shame, pulled out dry clothes and changed everything but his socks and sneakers.
“Only brought one pair of shoes,” he said mournfully, when he saw Lewis looking.
“I have spares, but I don’t think we wear the same size.”
“Nope,” Joseph said, considering Lewis’s muddy oxfords. He propped the wet shoes upside down on a palette to drip dry and padded over, barefoot. He took one look at the puddle forming on the bench around Lewis and stayed standing.
“There’s a house about a quarter mile away. I saw it right before we reached the barn. You didn’t?”
Lewis shrugged. “I think my attention was elsewhere,” he managed.
“Well, we can walk down there and tell whoever it is that our car broke down, we were heading towards town, and we had to crash in their barn when the lightning started. Which is true. I don’t want either of us getting our hardware fried out there. They’ll be mortals, so they probably won’t realize our timeline’s a little off, and if they do, I’ll facilitate things.” He shuddered. “It’s going to get cold in here if the rain keeps up.”
“The car’s going to be filthy,” Lewis realized. Just thinking about coming back to the car, covered in mud and abandoned, was enough to plunge him back into his early melancholy.
“It’s just a car,” Joseph said again. “Lewis, look at me.”
He had pulled the quilted moving blankets off one of the little tractors, or whatever they were, and looked terribly solemn for someone standing barefoot in jeans and a floral print shirt in the middle of a barn, draping one moving blanket around their shoulders like a cape . Lightning licked at the walls. Lewis’s hair stood on end.
“We’re not leaving it there forever,” Joseph said, a little kinder. He shook the other blanket out on the packed earth floor in front of the mound of fertilizer bags.
“You can sit on that bench and mope in your wet clothes, or you can put on something dry and watch a movie with me. We’ve got to have at least one thing in common across our personal media stores. I’m giving you five minutes.” He reached over and dragged his backpack closer to the blanket. A couple of chocolate bars were stashed in one pocket.
“I won’t even watch you change,” he added, peeling back the foil wrapper and staring intently at the backpack. “Unless you want me to.”
Lewis wasn’t sure whether to feel amused, or annoyed, or guilty at that. Mostly he felt his ears going red again. And Joseph was right, the rain had dropped the temperature. The hotel reservation was very far away now.
“I’m going to catch hell from my case officer about the car,” he said.
“Uh-huh,” said Joseph. There was a general sound of chocolate bar being eaten. Lewis opened his suitcase and started hunting for something more comfortable than wet business wear. Sitting on a moving blanket in a barn was not what he had packed for. Thunder rocked the barn again.
“Try not to think about it,” Joseph said in the lull between thunder claps. Lewis froze. “The thing you’re thinking about. Try not to. It won’t get the work done any faster, and there’s nothing you can do about it right now.”
“No,” agreed Lewis. He checked that Joseph was still staring at the backpack, then hurriedly changed into dry clothes. “I know that. But we can’t all compartmentalize as well as you.”
“I’m sending you some film titles,” Joseph said. “Tell me if you have any of these downloaded. Oh, good call. Definitely that one.” He made room for Lewis on the blanket as they both started the film in their own media library. The ground was hard and the pile of bagged fertilizer wasn’t an ideal backrest, but Lewis had barely sat down when Joseph wrapped an arm and the other end of the blanket cape around him. At least he was warm. Joseph passed the chocolate bar over.
“See, I said I would make it up to you.”
“This does feel like my old fieldwork days,” Lewis admitted. He bit off a chunk of chocolate bar to calm his nerves about Joseph settling in against him as the opening credit roll finished and the film started. It didn't feel like the old fieldwork days. The change wasn't uniformly for the better. But this part of the future, at least, was good.