Ask the Next Question: stories + images inspired by Theodore Sturgeon - Jordan McLaughlin
For this piece, I drew on the style of dialogue contained in Sturgeon’s Microcosmic God.
You Are My Good Luck Charm
by Jordan Taylor McLaughlin
Charlemagne wouldn’t wake up and Yuri was in trouble. “Come on, buddy,” Yuri said, poking him with his own golden scepter. “This is not a good time.” Yuri poked him harder and he rolled over onto his belly, eyes lolling in his kingly head. Ambulance and police lights red and blue capped the bridge nearby. It wouldn’t be long until the timeline broke now, Yuri thought. He wondered what law enforcement would think of his dying friend.
Gasoline leaked from the overturned Hyundai Sonata on the roadside, pooling near where Charlemagne lay in the grass. Yuri smelled it before the gas could soak his friend’s ermine cloak, and dragged him away from the road. The sirens were getting louder. He had blacked out while driving, probably from overexposure to radiation, maybe from exhaustion, he couldn’t know. But that was the least of their problems.
Yuri knew that things could never be the same between them if he went back to Charlemagne’s homeland, but staying here had potentially cosmological consequences. The king had told him that he wanted to stay here no matter what, but that was just pillow talk. Yuri knew of his responsibility to save the universe.
Cars continued to rush by, but Yuri could see that two vehicles had stopped and the owner of one was wading through the tall grass towards him. “Everyone all right?” the bald man in khakis called out. Yuri stared at him. The man was carrying a first aid kit in one hand and holding his cell phone up with the other. He was recording the interaction.
Yuri loosened his grip on the cold metallic cylinder within his coat pocket. He would have to explain the period attire, but that wouldn’t be difficult: Halloween was last weekend, wasn’t it? The man drew close enough to notice but did not seem outwardly concerned. “No, my friend isn’t breathing,” Yuri replied. “Please help him. Do you know CPR? I don’t know,” he continued. “We don’t have much time left.”
“I do, I do, move to the side, we’ve got plenty,” the man said, kneeling in the grass beside the king. He opened Charlemagne’s tunic and pulled the cloak off his shoulders, bunching it in the grass around the prone body.
Charlemagne’s head rolled back and forth as the bald man performed chest compressions. After what seemed like several minutes, but in retrospect only a matter of seconds, Yuri asked, “Shouldn’t you be helping him breathe?” The man shot a look at Yuri and continued to attempt resuscitation. “They don’t recommend it anymore,” he replied.
Yuri began to explain why his friend was dressed as a king, but the khaki-clad man was uninterested. “It doesn’t matter right now,” he grunted. “Go talk to the EMTs, okay?” Yuri walked towards the ambulance that was now parked alongside the road and met a group of two EMTs and a police officer halfway through the grassy field. The pressure on his chest, an anchor around his heart, increased with every step. The EMTs slowed as they approached Yuri and gave him a curious look.
“We’re here to help, what’s the situation?” an EMT asked. At least they were professionals.
“I’m fine, my friend--he’s down there by the car, he’s not breathing. Please, you’ve got to help him,” Yuri explained. The EMTs ran to Charlemagne’s side and took over from the bystander.
The remaining police officer asked Yuri if he could give a statement and Yuri paused before responding. What was the harm, after all? It was already done. Their plans to live together in anonymity in this new world were over almost as soon as they had begun. Charlemagne was cared for and might well live, but even so. Why tell a lie about Halloween when the truth was no longer potentially harmful? The lab would never find them now. The lab might have never existed in a few minutes.
“What you’ve got to understand,” Yuri began, “is that we didn’t mean for this to happen. No one did. People have talked about temporal interference for a long time and thought it would just be a lark, for the most part. And most educated people thought that it was logically impossible.” The police officer began to interject but Yuri continued with growing confidence.
“But it turns out, of course, that nature is not always as logical as people would like her to be. When my research team finally figured out how to move objects from the deep past into their present without the objects subjectively experiencing the passage of time, it was only a few days before they got reckless. They decided, by themselves, to pluck my friend from the timeline and do some interdisciplinary historical research.” The police officer was not taking notes, but he was still listening, humoring this oddly well-spoken yet plainly intoxicated person in a lab coat.
“What they didn’t count on is what we would lose in the process. We found a way to track changes in the timeline that our interference would cause. We tried to minimize changes. So when we took Charlemagne, we decided to take him from his deathbed. What effect on history could a few days make, after all? Turns out, we underestimated. Can you come with me to see my friend?” Yuri asked the officer.
“Yes, sir,” the police officer responded, and they walked to the prone ruler, who EMTs were still working on.
“Or rather, the date of Charlemagne’s death was unknown to us. It turned out he was alive and well at the time we took him. Oops,” Yuri said, ruefully. “So now the Charlemagne myth included his being raptured into heaven during a pivotal battle previously unknown to history. He became the messiah of a new religion and the historical reality of our research project quickly began to dematerialize. This reality set in pretty firmly and we’re about the only old worlders left. How is he doing?” The EMTs signaled a thumbs-up to Yuri, who could see the king’s chest rising and falling.
“I wanted to live here, actually, with this guy. He and I could do anything together. Plus, this world has some really nice restaurants,” Yuri quipped. He knelt beside Charlemagne and drew the metal cylinder from his coat pocket.
The police officer raised his weapon. “Put it down, now!” he yelled, but Yuri was too quick. He injected the contents of the cylinder into Charlemagne’s arm. The Frankish monarch’s body shimmered into redshift and disappeared, leaving only his ermine cloak and royal attire. “I’m never getting the old world back,” Yuri said. “But I can help my friend make a new one.” The police officer’s arm drooped and his face was twisted into bewilderment. Yuri paused, then injected himself with the cylinder, watching as the world around him faded from highway to forest.
JORDAN MCLAUGHLIN is a speculative fiction writer living in Mt. Rainier, Maryland. He hopes to release a novel-length manuscript of a different story in 2019.