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Variety (Short Story)

The first rule of time travel is that you must avoid thinking about it at all possible costs. It makes little sense, and since human beings, at least six times out of ten, are sensible creatures, it wouldn’t bode well for anyone to think on it too deeply.

The second and third rules of time travel were promptly forgotten after being made, no doubt because they conflicted with the first, but the fourth rule does not require much thought at all; on the contrary, this rule is inspired by unexpected, immediate, and sudden panic. If you are to engage in time travel, the fourth rule states, you must have unquestionable and irrefutable passage back to your good and proper time.

Now, this would seem simply logical (and it is worth noting that logic is not always simple, and being simple is not always logical), and indeed it is. For it stands to reason that if you are unlucky enough to trap yourself in the years 1602 or 3499, each one measurably as confusing and unpleasant as the other, that you would have to think on how to get out. Everything must inevitably fall back to the first rule, for the first rule is the only one that must never, ever be broken.

~ part one ~

Crescent makes it a point to hire a variety of people. A man with Latin phrases tattooed along his arms and a degree in fashion design, for example, works part time in eighteenth century costuming. He sips cold chamomile from a chipped mug at all hours of the day, complaining of corsets and stitches and, most recently, stains. Miss Taculier threatens to turn him into a leather briefcase, but every morning he’s at his desk, a bunch of lace in his right hand and the cup of chamomile in his left.

Likewise, there’s a doctor on Floor 7 with more than a few malpractice accusations who just returned from her assignment in the mid-1600s. She helped Jacquotte Delahaye fake her death and received, as thanks, a rather becoming string of pearls, a purse of solid gold doubloons, and a few scattered rubies in need of polishing. More than worth losing three fingers, she claims, and her coworkers rather agree.

As part of a contract made in 1955, Broadway sends some of its finest auditions to Crescent every six months or so. Instead of playing in a production of Les Misérables in the year 2091, Juliana Ytegga has been sent to live in the 1790s with her former Navy Seal partner. Their mission statement is scribbled in blue-black ink on the standard travel form: enflame French Revolution, avoid cobbler “Gabriel”. In the upper right corner in red ink is scratched the name “Marie-Antionette”, with an oversized question mark beneath it.

The remarkable irony of Crescent, however, is found in the fingerprint press they use to clock in and out. Your hands must be perfectly, obsessively, and deceptively clean to make it work, else the oldfashioned thing will refuse to recognize your print.

And yet, presentable as you must be to begin a shift at Crescent, it is, as many employees have noted, impossible to maintain that appearance. There’s something worse than blood that falls on your hands when you meddle in the past, something that doesn’t wash off quite as easily. The fingerprint press seems to know it, too.

It’s rather like they don’t want you to leave at all.

Or so Liam Jones is fond of thinking, silently, to himself. “It’s only when you think loudly that you get into trouble,” he tells Gayle as he rewires her arm—the one made from steel and chrome, not flesh and blood.

His younger sister winces at the operation, though whether it’s a wince of discomfort or judgement he can’t quite say. Likely both. “Just say what you think,” she tells him. “It’s not against the rules to think out loud. You can’t get in trouble for it, technically.”

“If I said whatever came to mind, I’d sound like you.”

“Sensible? Don’t make it out to be so bad.” She swings her legs idly over the table, tapping them against the bruise-colored floor. Her left calf is mechanic, and her entire right leg along with her right arm. Her smile is real, though, and mocking. “I think you have it in you to be smart.”

“Thanks,” Liam replies dryly. He pokes at her malfunctioning mech. “What did you do to shortcircuit this thing?”

Gayle shrugs, averting her grey eyes in a way that says she’s not going to tell him. “Maybe the
humidity screwed with the gears.”

“Give me some credit. I’d never give you mech that isn’t resistant to water.”

“Should I go for a swim to test it?”

“If you feel like drowning, sure.” Liam grabs a kelv-torch from his desk, aims the crystal-like
point of it at the gash in the metal until it glows orange, and begins welding. He glances up at Gayle as the steel cools and asks, casually, “How’s security?”

She gives him a withering look. “Secure.”

Liam focuses the rest of his attention on untangling the nest of wires.

Before this endeavor can either succeed or electrocute him, a voice rings in from the speakers in
the hallways, bouncing off marble and echoing through walls. “Crescent attendants Eleven-O-Seventy-Four and Eleven-O-Seventy-Five,” it begins in the pleasantly calm tone of the program known as VARIETY. “Attention, attendants Eleven-O-Seventy-Four and Eleven-O-Seventy-Five.”

A pause.

“Report to Floor 103.”

There’s really no way to make that sound pleasant, even if it’s coming from a robot engineered to sound like a yoga teacher (as Gayle has once put it). VARIETY repeats the request as cheerfully as an AI can, and the sound gutters out over the basement speakers. Gayle rolls her eyes at the program as though it’s her fault.

“Tell them I’m dead,” she suggests, poking at the red wires of her arm.

“I doubt they’ll find that to be a viable excuse.” Liam flicks her hand away. “Stand up, SeventyFive.”

Gayle does as he asks, but not without muttering under her breath, “I’m Seventy-Four.”

Floor 103 is no less well made than, for example, Floor 85. In fact, if one were to make the comparison, they would find it to be far superior to Floors 51 and 13, and quite nearly as decent as Floor 6 66. But the stability of the infrastructure and the cleanliness of the restrooms are not quite the measurement of Crescent’s levels, unfortunately, else the majority of them would pass. Floor 103 sits at the highest plane of Crescent, holds the thinnest air, and in a fascinating coincidence, hosts both the highest and thinnest people.

This is not to say that they are tall or slim—though Crescent does not prejudice itself against either type, they insist—but rather that the occupants of Floor 103 stand on pedestals, sometimes literally, and have wrung their brains so sufficiently in the past that very little remains for the present.

They consider this to be their highest achievement.

Liam presses his thumbprint to the R.E. pad in the elevator. Not his actual thumb—those are too generic—but the silicon-based keycard that contains his employment code, security clearance, and level access. He’s pretty sure they’re all the same thing. Every Crescent employee is given a thumbprint after training; Gayle and Liam were given theirs on their first day by mistake, and after a five-minute discussion on the ethics of secrets, elected to say nothing about it.

The R.E. rings twice, flashes a neon blue color, then fades back to an unassuming dark grey. “Thank you,” it says, sounding bored, and the elevator begins to glide upward. It stops, goes left for three seconds, forward for five, and up diagonally the rest of the way. Muffled piano music plays from hidden speakers while Gayle taps her foot against the blue-and-red checkered carpet. “Think we got fired?”

“Not unless you broke something.”

“They pay me to break things.” She flexes her bio-mech hand.

“Don’t use it yet,” Liam reminds her, exasperated. “The updates aren’t done. It could break and fry your nerves.”

“There’s a joke in that, somewhere.”

“Try not to look for it.”

VARIETY’s there when the doors open. For a silvery-blue hologram on which someone forgot to design ears, her facial expressions are pleasantly diverse: melancholy, joy, contentment, confusion, confusion2 (closer to neutral, Liam always thought), irritation, happiness, and Christmas. He’s never seen the last one—even Crescent closes for the holiday season. VARIETY’s not-hair is pulled back in a high ponytail, her not-dress patterned like the inside of a kaleidoscope, complete with movement. She puts on happiness, usually reserved for level 8 personnel. “Thank you for your promptness Eleven-O-SeventyFour and Eleven-O-Seventy-Five.” She gestures to the ivory hall in front of her. “This is Floor 103. Please follow me to Conference Room 909.” It’s fascinating the response Liam has to the number 909.

He thinks it’s rather like having a weight taken off his shoulders and replaced by a small bird that won’t stop trying to rip off his ears.

Gayle points at the tilted, sunset-paned windows. “Could I jump out there instead?”

“Given your physical form and enhanced bio-mechanical limbs, you would have a sixty-eight percent chance at making it through the missile glass windows on Floor 103,” says VARIETY. She turns her cobalt not-eyes on Liam. “You would have only a thirty-one percent chance, dependent entirely on your resourcefulness and intelligence.”

“Thanks, Variety. That’s good to know.”

The AI blinks joy at him, then reverts to general happiness and spins on her not-heel to walk down the white hallway. Gayle follows first, mouth set in a thin line as she outpaces their host. Liam sighs.

Owen Brown’s laugh is just as loud as he remembered it. Crescent’s CEO stands at least a foot taller than Liam in height and is twice as heavy, and his voice has no trouble matching his size. He sets down the cup of overpriced coffee that he always seems to have with him and bellows a greeting to his guests, spreading his arms as though expecting a hug.

Gayle, for her own reasons, doesn’t give him one. “What do you need?” she asks, though it hardly sounds like a question.

Brown ignores her, opting instead to coerce Liam into what might be the most unnecessarily rough handshake on record. “Glad you made it Jones, glad you made it. Like Variety’s dress? We’re keeping the design for the next six months, maybe more. That Swedish woman I met in an elevator made it, half price, barely eleven million for the whole deal!”

Now Liam feels bad for not admiring the thing more. “That’s . . . fascinating.” He clears his throat and gestures to Gayle. “This is my sister, sir. You remember Gayle?”

“How could I forget?” Owen laughs, again, and gives Gayle’s arm an enthusiastic slap. It’s her metal arm, but he has the grace not to make any comments about it. Today, at least. “The foster sister, is that so? Yes, of course, of course, I’d know your pink hair a mile away, Miss Jones!”

“Yes, well, pink hair is my defining characteristic.”

“Indeed, indeed,” says Crescent’s CEO, oblivious, “but of course you’ll have to dye it, you know. Black would make you look a ghost, but a light brown would be swimming on you if Miss Taculier is to be believed, and as she always says, she’s never wrong. I do recall a time she was, though, but it’s only the one! Something to do with whatever they called pants back in the day.”

“Trousers?” Liam supplies.

“Yes, exactly that! She insists they were breeches.”

 “They . . . they were, sir.”

“Wait, hold up, hold on.” Gayle holds up her hand, processing. “Why am I dying my hair?”

Liam thinks he can guess. “We’re being sent to the past?”

“Oh yes, naturally, yes.” Owen Brown laughs at the comment’s obvious hilarity. “Wouldn’t want to be burned as a witch. Even in the nineteenth century, people are so particular about those things, and not even for the sake of style! A shame, really, truly, a shame, but hair dye is needed. A light chestnut, just as Taculier says.”

“Sir,” says Liam, “why are we being sent to the past? We’ve never been sent before.”

“Oh, don’t think on that, Jones, don’t think on any of it. We’ve taken care of it all, as we ought, and it won’t be a problem. The sixteenth to nineteenth century PACTIN needs to be replaced and you’re just the team to send, at least while Ulmer is away. You’ll do—oh, what’s that word I just used? Swimmingly, yes, that was it, of course.”

Liam glances at the clock. For all the advances in Crescent technology, Owen Brown keeps an old grandfather clock on his southernmost wall, a deep, polished cherry wood, with handsome golden 11 gears and roman numerals for numbers. It was 10:09AM when they arrived; the hands now fall on 10:16AM.

Liam decides seven minutes worth of information should be better quality. “If I could ask, sir, when are we going?”

“As soon as possible, I’d hope!”

Gayle bites her lower lip and stares intently at the corner of the room. Liam contends himself with biting his tongue. “I’m . . . glad. May I ask what year we’re traveling to?”

“To 1864, in London, England. A nice little vacation, isn’t it? And with pay no less!”

“That’s a lovely way to put it,” Gayle says, seeming to have already put it another way in her head.

Liam elbows her. “We would love to go, sir.” He ignores the glare his sister throws at him. “I hear London is beautiful in 1864. Can’t wait to see it.”

Owen Brown proceeds to detail the wondrous capital of the United Kingdom (a rather odd thing for a man from Texas to do), and the glorious benefits of the past. Fresh England air, he says, and wide- open spaces if you know where to find them (which Liam does not), plus the people are so genuine! Only somewhat regressive, not nearly as bad as the eighteenth century, and worlds ahead of the seventeenth. Such a privilege to go, he claims, he’d follow along himself if he weren’t so fond of modern coffee.

But Liam isn’t thinking of London or the English monarchy or the lack of gourmet coffee in the Victorian Era, but of a door with metal gears and a glass handle beneath the bottom floor. He’s thinking of the questions he had for the woman who wound a copper wire through the frame, about whatever power source ran beneath its panels, and of what exactly happened when the glass handle was turned.

Really, he ought not be thinking at all.

The grandfather clock reads 11:49AM by the time Liam and Gayle Jones step out of Conference Room 909 on Floor 103. Liam asks VARIETY for their assignment details to be processed into his employment account. “Done,” says the hologram with a smile that has more substance than any of Owen Brown’s assuring grins. Her eleven million dollar not-dress morphs into shapes like diamonds, then stars, then four-petal flowers. “Good luck, Eleven-O-Seventy-Four and Eleven-O-Seventy-Five.” There’s a moment where her not-features portray something Liam does not remember in her programming, something . . . new. But it was gone in an instant.

As the elevator doors close, Gayle looks sidelong at her brother. “I’m not dying my hair.