The sound of heels clacking against the surface of the floor echoed throughout the empty room within the museum, an eerie silence remained heavily over the area. It felt strange to be making her way through the vast building without the bustling sounds of school kids taking a field trip, taking in the different exhibits without having to squeeze her way through the crowd of senior citizens, traveling tourists, or families gawking over the different artifacts that lingered within the walls.
Lula Peterson would argue that the Smithsonian National Museum of American History was the single greatest building to visit while visiting D.C., though she couldn’t help but feel biased. Being the curator for the museum gave her a sense of pride every time she had the opportunity to walk through the building, taking in the different historical pieces that were influential in making America what it is today.
However, her brisk walk through the diverse exhibits of American History was less about marveling at the history that surrounded her and more about what awaited her in one of the exhibits - a living, breathing, old friend she had not seen in quite some time.
Hearing the name after a few years brought unease to her already stressful day, her fingers nervously twisting into the soft material of her cardigan as she made her way into the “America on the Move” exhibition. This gentleman was determined to meet with her, claiming that his reasoning was urgent. With that knowledge in mind, it didn’t take Lula long to find the person she was searching for.
The familiar frame of Professor Altman entered her vision, her soft brown orbs watching the man closely as he stared at one of the highlights just before him. It was the display that featured the first car driven across the U.S. - certainly one of the neater parts of their exhibits.
The sound of her heels on the floor must have given her away, for the sound of Professor Altman’s deep voice met her ears before she was facing the man.
“You know, there was a simpler time where transportation such as this was viewed as impossible,” the Professor began, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his dress pants. “Cars were a thing of fiction. Yet, mankind still figured out a way to prove others wrong.”
“Nice to see you too, Professor Altman,” Lula chuckled, shaking her head as she made her way to the exhibit.
The Professor turned to face her, a weak smile tugging at the corner of his lips as he took in the familiar expression of his colleague. She hadn’t changed much at all in the few years they had been distant, her black hair resting on her shoulders in a soft series of waves that rested neatly on her shoulders. He remembered Lula to be a woman of simplicity - very little makeup was ever needed but her face today held a rosy tint that stood out in contrast against her pale skin.
“Pardon my manners,” Professor Altman began, shaking his head as he held out his hands. “It is nice to see you again as well, Miss Lula. You look lovely.”
Lula returned his smile, her eyes lighting up as she shook his hand firmly. “I must admit, I was surprised to hear that you were in D.C. Even more surprised to hear from security that they were unable to remove you at closing time because you needed to speak with me.”
Professor Altman let out a laugh at her comment, the genuine sound echoing through the empty area of the museum as he felt himself relax for the first time in a couple of days. The sound was enough to even pull a soft fit of laughter out of Lula, who was shaking her head in disbelief.
“My apologies for the theatrics, I am afraid I didn’t want to interrupt your workday. I know you’re a busy woman,” he pointed out, his smile disappearing slightly. “And I must say, I am sorry for your loss and for my lack of an appearance at the funeral. Your husband was a great man.”
The brightness within Lula’s eyes dimmed slightly at the mention of her husband, her eyes falling to the floor as she struggled to form a response. It had been two years since her husband passed from his battle with pancreatic cancer and while it was easier to face him being gone now than it was before, there was still a lingering stab of pain that welled up within her every time someone offered their condolences.
Lifting her head, Lula gave the professor what she hoped was a convincing smile. “I appreciate that Professor Altman, but am I correct in thinking that you didn’t show up here two years after my husband’s death to deliver your consolation?”
Her question was met with a soft sigh, the sight of Professor Altman’s lips pressing together leaving her to believe that her comment might have been a bit harsh. However, she knew that her suspicion was true. The man wasn’t here to dredge up old happenings, there was another reason he was here entirely and it was evident in the way the man’s eyes darkened as he stared at her.
“I’m in trouble,” Professor Altman confessed, swallowing hard as he glared back at the 1903 Winton before them in the exhibit, his gaze focused.
Lula’s eyes narrowed on the man, her head tilting to get a good look at the old fashioned vehicle. “Is it car trouble? Because you’ve been staring at this exhibit for an awfully long time.”
“Could you imagine being Carl Benz, having just created the world’s first-ever automobile… only to have your most trusted partner steal the entire bloody thing out from underneath you?” he questioned, glancing back at Lula. “All of Carl’s hard work, his dedication, the sacrifices he made to bring it to reality - gone within a snap, and no proof to confirm that he built it.”
“History as we know it would be different,” Lula responded, shrugging her shoulders. “But that’s just it, you’re talking about history. It’s already happened, so there’s no way someone could…”
“What if someone can?” Professor Altman interrupted.
“What? Change history?” she asked, her tone incredulous.
Professor Altman nodded seriously, resisting the urge to clench his jaw. “Let’s just pretend… that there is a way to change history. Maybe there’s a possibility of there being two time travel machines in existence right now, ones that would allow a group of travelers to travel to any point in time, much like H. Nelson and Sewall Crocker were able to cross the United States in an automobile for the first time.”
Lula’s eyebrows shot up to her hairline at his remarks, disbelief washing over her as she stared at the man questionably.
“Time travel?” she repeated, trying to control the skepticism in her voice. “Professor Altman, are you suggesting…”
“It’s real, Lula,” the professor assured her, the seriousness that flared up within his voice sent a chill throughout her.
Resisting the urge to shiver, she shook her head as she leaned against the bars that separated her from the Winton exhibit. “I thought you were working on flying cars with the Whittaker Foundation, Professor Altman. That’s already viewed as difficult. Now you’re suggesting that you’re working on some ridiculous invention that can only be found in movies and canceled tv shows.”
“You were always a realist,” Professor Altman chuckled. “That’s why I liked you. You would have brought a balance to my staff, had you accepted the position as the history professor for my Institution.”
Lula scoffed, rolling her eyes as she stared up at the man with an annoyed glare. “Is this why you’re here? To try and convince me to come work for you by making up stuff? I don’t know if you realize this but I happen to be working as a curator for the Smithsonian, not chasing fairytales.”
“Which is why I’m actually here,” Professor Altman began, pointing his finger at Lula as he lowered his voice to a whisper. “Because whether you believe it or not, I have stumbled upon a massive discovery. Lula, I have created a machine that great geniuses throughout history and mankind could only dream of.”
“A time machine?” Lula threw out with a heavy sigh, rubbing her temples as the professor continued.
His conversation was starting to wear on her, awakening the tender throb of a headache. It had already been a long day and he was only adding to it. Yet, she never found the opportune moment to tell him that before he began speaking again.
“Yes, and several nights ago, that machine was stolen right from my own lab by one of my students, who just happens to be the daughter of Richard Isaiah Whittaker,” Professor Altman explained.
Lula glanced up at the ceiling, attempting to harbor the groan that unfortunately slipped out as she thought over the details of his outlandish story. “So, your business partner’s daughter, who was also your student… abducted your time machine and ripped you off. This concerns me how?”
Lula grew rigid as a smile tugged at the corner of Professor Altman’s lips, her heart fluttering nervously within her chest as she stared at the old colleague of hers. Back in her college days, a smile like this from the professor meant that he had a plan up his sleeves - and more times than not, his plans were oftentimes ones that she was fully against.
“I am building a team, Lula,” Professor Altman continued, not bothering to check if she was truly listening. “I have a friend within Homeland Security who is assisting me with my issue but unfortunately she is unable to do anything to get my machine back from Whittaker without creating more problems. Since I have no credible proof that the machine exists in Whittaker’s hands, I am bringing together a group of people who can help me.”
“Help you do what, exactly?” Lula demanded, her patience slowly wearing thin.
She could hardly believe what was flowing out of the man's mouth, the insanely twisted nonsense that made about as much sense as the crazy stuff she read in countless SciFi novels.
“To get my machine back, of course!” Professor Altman interrupted her thoughts, staring into her eyes firmly. “But more than that… I think Whittaker might be planning something terrible. I think he might be targeting history. Before Whittaker’s daughter stole my machine, she left behind a note that a couple of my students found. It mentioned something about saying hello to the father of the theory of relativity for me.”
“Albert Einstein?” Lula sucked on her teeth, realizing that she was getting sucked into his little scheme. She muttered a curse under her breath, her eyes squeezing shut to dull the pain in her head. “I’m sorry, this is just… you’re suggesting that one of the most successful businessmen in America is going to use your machine to mess around with history? What sense does it make for him to do that?”
Professor Altman shrugged, clasping his hands together as he tilted his head towards Lula. “What sense does anything pivotal from our past make? Hell, machinery that can fly through the sky? Means of transportation that can travel on a road or on a track? It’s progress, and progress has the capabilities of bringing us as a society towards the light or plunging us deep into the dark. I suspect that whatever Whittaker has planned, it simply involves the greatest minds in history figuring out and it will most likely send our past, present, and future into darkness.”
Squaring her jaw, Lula took a step back from the man. Her eyes glanced over him thoughtfully as she put together what he was leading into, her hands gripping into her sweater nervously. She was starting to wonder if the man she once knew was slowly losing himself, concerned that years working in a lab was starting to get to his head. She was tempted to call on security to pull her out of this situation.
Professor Altman’s gaze softened the moment Lula stepped away, his hand reaching towards her reassuringly. He could tell by the uncertainty in her eyes that she was startled by everything that he was unloading, leaving him to wonder if he should have attempted a different approach. Needless to say, he knew that his people skills were rusty.
“I need a historian,” Professor Altman finally confessed, licking his lips nervously. “Someone who knows and is familiar with historic figures, moments, and clothing… someone who could get the team I am building to and from a specific point in history without mucking it up. I think you should be that person.”
“You said your machine was stolen, Professor Altman,” she reminded him, her voice flat.
“One of them, yes. Whittaker’s daughter took off with my newer machine, which my students had gotten used to calling Eve. Eve’s counterpart, Philip, is still safe within my grasp. He is what my team will use to travel safely to the past and back to the present.”
“So, let me get this straight… you’re gathering a group of random civilians with no experience to clean up your mess?” Lula snapped, a pitiful laugh leaving her lips. “You’ve clearly been holed up for far too long.”
Professor Altman’s mouth hung open slightly, his eyebrows furrowing at her remark. “Incorrect. I never said I was building a team of civilians… that would cause more harm than good. What I am building, however, is far more than what you’re envisioning. I already have two students who are well educated in not only the mechanics but the piloting of the machine. The next member is a soldier, who I plan on being our muscle. I am sure you’re familiar with the name Carter Reyes?”
Lula pressed her lips together in an attempt to keep her jaw from going slack, her head cocking. She knew from the way he smiled at her that he knew that she was aware of what game he was playing at, though it wasn’t enough to get her to part her lips to speak to him.
“He was your high school sweetheart, am I thinking correctly?” Professor Altman mused, giving her a knowing look. “You two were well on the way of becoming more before college drove a wedge between you. It’s interesting-”
“Why him?” Lula interrupted, her soft brown eyes settling on the professor.
The professor took his time answering Lula, staring down at his feet as he returned his hands to the pockets of his dress pants. If she were to guess, he was carefully plotting within his head the correct answer to give her.
“I have a friend who owed me a favor. It just so happens that I have friends in high up places. Unfortunately, over drinks one night this friend expressed concerns to me about a hotheaded soldier he knew, and he believed that the young man’s recklessness was distracting him from being the soldier he had the potential to be,” the professor sighed. “This project and this team may be just the thing he needs to help him shape up.”
Lula shrugged her shoulders, ignoring the unnerving way her heart fluttered at the mention of this man she had not seen in years. She felt that this game of dropping her former boyfriend’s name was nothing more than a gimmick to get her on board.
Seeing that she was struggling with her thoughts on how to respond, the professor pulled a card out of the pocket of his suit jacket and handed it towards her. “You don’t have to make a decision right now. If you need time to think, sleep on it and then call me. I’ll be leaving D.C. tomorrow afternoon.”
With that out there, Professor Altman gave Lula a sincere smile before turning to exit the exhibit, leaving Lula to stare at the business card as her thoughts raced with the decision she had to make and everything he had told her over the last several minutes.