Win a place among the worlds' first commerical time travlers, the email said, busted words and all. No entry fee!
The mail had been routed to my spam folder; there was no way it was anything other than a half-pound of horseshit. But I was tripping balls, and this was the funniest thing I'd seen in a month. I gave them a throwaway email address as a goof.
Even the followup mail that came to the throwaway a couple of weeks later, that was just a goof too. You know how it goes. I gave bullshit "information", didn't give my bank accounts or anything identifiable (I'm not stupid)... but I wanted to play them for everything I could, you know? Maybe I'd get a good /r/spammerbait out of it.
So we went back and forth for a while, and I was getting all sorts of funny stuff. Just a goof.
Until the guy in the suit shows up at my house.
My mom comes into my room giving me the what you been caught at now, Artie? look, you know how it goes. And then this Asian guy follows her in. Shaved head and no neck, thick-rimmed glasses and a mouth like an edge-on view of a skateboard. He's got a big briefcase locked to his wrist with an honest-to-god handcuff.
"Mr. Kaddison," he says in this voice like a subwoofer with a blown cone. No accent at all. I bet the girls go crazy for that voice in the bar. Not my mom, though. But he gives her the eye until she backs out, washing her hands over each other with a sound like paper rubbing together. I feel bad for a minute. She worries about me too much.
Now I'm alone with the guy, though, and I'm kind of worrying about me, too. "Hey," I say, trying not to sound desperate. "I told Jimmy I'd get him the money--"
No-Neck's expression doesn't change. "Who's Jimmy?"
"Oh. Um, nevermind." My room doesn't have much in it that would put a dent in No-Neck's skull. The pole lamp in the corner, maybe, but he'd break me in half before I got three steps.
"I'm here about the contest," No-Neck says, still no expression. "Congratulations, Mr. Kaddison."
"The contest?" It takes me a minute, because I haven't entered any contests, you know? Not for real. And he can't be talking about the time travel thing. I never gave my address. Never gave any information that can be tracked back to me. But it clicks, eventually.
No-Neck sets the briefcase down on my bed and I jump as the latch clacks. He lifts the lid and for a second I think I see the gun, but once the fight-or-flight ticks over I can see that it's just a little gray box, tucked into a nook in the foam.
"You're ready to depart," he tells me. I get the feeling he should be asking, but in the last email I'd said hells yeah, I can take off at any time, just show up and it's Good Bye Twenty-Fourteen. Of course, I hadn't given them my address, I'm not stupid. I was waiting for the inevitable money-ask, and then I was going to give them the police station address downtown, I thought that was a nice touch. Which is all to say that yeah, maybe he didn't feel like he had to ask.
On the other hand, I'd also told them I was twenty-two, not fifteen. That I'd been a big traveler for, like, all my life. (Hey, I went to the city to see The Lion King with my mom when I was six, that totally counts, right?) That I'd never done drugs (heh). And a million other lies, big and small. I never expected them to show up at my house, you know?
He takes the box out of the case. Hands it to me with both hands, gives me a little bow as he does it. "On behalf of the Sunumi Corporation, I want to welcome you to our family of travelers, Mr. Kaddison."
Family of travelers. Can you believe that?
I take the box. It's a gray rectangle, no buttons or hinges or anything. Weighs about three pounds, maybe tree-fiddy.
"I, uh." Mr. Eloquent, me. Wondering if the box will do enough damage if I hit him with it to give me a chance to get away. This can't be for real, he's got to be playing me. Maybe he has his own little scam going, /r/suckerbait or something like that. Probably a camera in his glasses. Best to play along. Don't want to look like a tool. The Internets are forever. "So what do I do?" I ask, because I got nothing else to ask.
"Ordinarily," he says, "we'd send a guide with you. Someone fluent in local language and custom, flora and fauna, things like that." He gives the I know you were lying and I don't care look. "But since you are such an experienced traveler, we decided to allow you the experience of adapting on your own."
"Don't you have, you know." I had no idea what I was going to say until I did. "Insurance stuff? If I end up eaten by a dinosaur--"
"No one will ever know, will they?" The look on my face, that gets him to smile. It's like a crack opening in the side of a mountain. "I'm only kidding you, Mr. Kaddison. The device is perfectly safe."
"What about the place I'm going? Is that safe too?"
"Every bit as safe as you want it to be," he says, calm as a fireman talking a kitten out of a tree. If firemen did that sort of thing, you know? "You'll be right here, after all."
"What do you mean?"
"They didn't explain it to you?" The smile goes away. "Press the top."
I grit my teeth. Press the top. Hope--this is such bullshit, it can't be real, but--hope I'm not launched right into the middle of the French and Indian Revolution.
The top of the box lights up from underneath and the top turns into something like an iPad. Except there are no apps, it's just a form like any web page trying to scam you into a lifetime porn subscription, not that there's anything wrong with a lifetime porn subscription. I find myself nodding. Easy enough, I can figure this out. And maybe something in me, this is weird, but something in me wants to make my buddy No-Neck smile again. Not because he might break my spine, but just because. Maybe because I never had a daddy, I don't know. /r/diagnosemybrain might have some ideas. Me, all I know is some weird part of me wants No-Neck to be happy. And let's be honest. there's no way this is a real time machine, right? But it's an awesome gag. Much respect to Mr. No-Neck for pulling it off. And let's be honest, I kind of just want to look cool for YouTube.
"First field," No-Neck tells me. "Plus or minus?" Just a drop down list. I get it. Plus for the future, minus for the past. But the next space is a text entry field, big enough to enter fifteen digits. "That's the years. You'll notice when you get to the months, days, and hours fields that many times will be unavailable. The device is calibrated to the Earth's rotation and orbit. We wouldn't want you to find yourself floating in space, after all." He laughs to himself like a stone cracking.
"Okay," I say. Minus, okay. Let's go see some dinosaurs. That was what, like, five hundred thousand years ago? I pick other dates at random, it's not like there was a calendar when T-rex was chowing down on woolly mammoths.
At the bottom of the page is a checkbox next to a red button labeled Travel. Select Yes if you agree to the terms and conditions the text next to the checkbox reads. There's a link there. More bullshit. Right? I look up at No-Neck, waiting for him to tell me I'm gonna be internet famous. But he's watching me like a hungry fox looking at a momma hen got hit by a car and left her chicks by the side of the road.
But what am I going to tell him? "No, man, it's okay. Can you just take your time travel box to the guy who came in second?" How's that going to play on the video? No, man, the play, the best way to look cool as hell, is to click through the EULA, press the button, and then flip him the box, say something cool, like Well, this one doesn't work. What else ya got?
I click the checkbox. The button turns green.
"All I have to do is press this?" I say. Trying not to let my voice shake. It's just as bullshit as it was when the button was red. But now it's not red, now it's green. It's not going to send me back in time. It's not going to do a damn thing. "How do I get back?"
"The button will change to say Return," No-Neck tells me. "Press it again and you'll be back here telling me about your trip."
"No shit?" I can't help it.
His eyebrows raise behind his glasses. "You doubt me, Mr. Kaddison?"
Of course I doubt him. I try not to gulp like some cartoon character. I don't want to press the button. I really don't want to press the button.
"Go on," he says. "You're an experienced traveler, Mr. Kaddison. You'll be fine. Just don't get eaten by--" he peeks at the display "--a grue."
A grue? What the fuck is a grue? He's joking, right? He's got to be joking. This is a gag. I smile for the camera. Ignore the sweat on my forehead. I'm in on the joke, you see? I'm in on it.
I ready my line. This don't work. No, busted is funnier. No, broke as ass. Yeah. This shit's broke as ass, Jake. Get ready to flip the box to him. To say the line without stuttering, looking right in his eyes, right at the camera.
And I press the button.
This was written for a /r/writingprompts challenge on Reddit: a character wins a contest, but the prize is not what he expected. My prompt generator gave me "time travel" and "amusement"; the first line came to me after a few moments' thought, and here we are!