“People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
“And then I had to walk nearly 500 metres with nothing but my flimsy coat and jeans as my sole protection against the rain.” Announcing, I shoved a big chunk of cookie into my mouth.
“I can’t believe Mr. Neville’s plan.” Luke sighed in defeat. “It’s even worse than the storyline of the new Star Wars trilogy.” He shook his head in dismay and gave me a worried look.
“You don’t know the half of it,” I began condescendingly, deliberating over the lack of planning and rationale that had gone into the rushed order, “The worst part of it all is that I-”
I sneezed loudly, just in time to quickly cover my mouth with my hands.
“-I am sick.” I finished while sniffling in a futile attempt to allay the congestion growing in my nasal tract.
Luke gave me a wide smile, staring intently at my sick state. “I am coming over at your house for dinner.” He enthusiastically added, nodding to himself in affirmation. “Can’t wait to try out your dad’s famous chicken soup.”
“Believe me, there’s no chicken in that soup.” I said slowly, mentally gagging at the mere thought of the dish. “And even if there was, I have a pretty good idea how it might have died.”
One of the many reasons dad still considered his soup recipe as a panacea for all ailments, was Luke’s incessant positive percipience and enthusiasm in regard to the dish, which I so many times had attempted to suppress in vain.
Interrupting our well-earned break, my phone started buzzing in my pocket. Looking at the caller ID, I saw dad’s name flash across the screen.
“Hey dad.” I cheerfully greeted him on the phone, employing my best abilities to mask any signs of infirmity in my system.
“Camelia, Mr. Neville’s asking for you. You should probably get to his office soon.” He added hurriedly, not wasting any minute in useless addressal. And with that the line went dead.
Conscientiously brooding over dad’s strange phone call, I put the phone back into my pocket and began getting up from the chair. Evidently, Mr. Neville seemed to have another surprise in store for me, and judging from past experiences, something told me it wouldn’t be a pleasant one.
“Wish me luck!” I said to Luke in an affectation of excitement. “I am going to the devil’s den.” With that, I began walking away towards the door with a sudden bilious attack of terrifying exasperation reigning over my senses.
From the distance, Luke gave me a thumbs up and I smiled goofily at him, despite the fact that my insides currently were churning violently at the thought of meeting Mr. Neville again. Something did not seem right about him, and I admit that I had an over-active imagination, yet the way his eyes followed his visitor’s every move and his ever-smiling face, did not sit well in my conscience.
I began towards the administration block, dexterously traversing through the winding corridors of the building, which I recently had so very well memorised. I knocked at the wooden doors on reaching Mr. Neville’s office and silently stood outside, waiting in anticipation.
“Come in.” Mr. Neville announced in a throaty voice.
Opening the doors and walking inside, I was greeted by a smiling Keith, a blonde-haired Brianna and a very peeved Rhys. Mr. Neville sat at his customary place towering every other presence in the room and harbouring his characteristic small smile.
I gave a quick nod of acknowledgement to both Brianna and Keith while completely ignoring Rhys, who appeared to be so lost in thought to notice my hostility.
“I see you have opened up to your new team-mates.” Mr. Neville stated, eying me curiously.
Technically to 66.67 percent of my team-mates. I thought humourlessly.
Not in the spirit of pursuing the topic of our newly formed friendships any further, Mr. Neville solemnly said, pointing to the couch, “Camelia, please sit down.”
I stared in disbelief at Mr. Neville’s paradigm shift from his creepy smile to the now seriousness lacing his face and demeanour.
Clearing his throat, Mr. Neville began, “Camelia, tomorrow you’ll be going on your first string of S-ranked travels along with your team-mates.” He said, without sparing a glance in my direction, while writing on a piece of paper with undivided attention.
The revelation was nothing short of a shock. For a moment, I stared at the working form of Mr. Neville, hoping that whatsoever he had uttered would be a part of an elaborate joke. But Mr. Neville made no attempts at clearing the air of confusion. He appeared to be dead serious about his decision.
The dark reality of the said words hit me like a brick- cold, painful and unexpected. My team-mates were novices and they still had a lot to learn about time travelling. Moreover, they could get sick just by engaging in the travel. It was not the best feeling in the world.
“Mr. Neville, pardon my impertinence, but I don’t consider them to be ready for the travel.” I stated with all the conviction and professionalism, I could muster in my now panicking state.
I looked behind me at Keith and Brianna with soft eyes, both of them staring at me in surprise. I admit, we might not be the ‘best-friend material’, still letting them confront the dark side of space-time journey, was an option I didn’t wish to consider. And if circumstances came to the worst, and something did happen to them, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.
I had heard stories about travellers going over to the past centuries and never returning. And as sick as it sounds, A-SATT hardly made any efforts to retrieve its fallen soldiers. They were left unaided and forlorn in the space-time fabric only to be remembered as characters of cautionary tales among the employees of A-SATT.
I considered it the worst way to go.
“My decision is final, Camelia!” Mr. Neville said in a loud voice, banging his hand emphatically on the table.
I flinched at the loud sound and stumbled backwards in surprise.
“It’s enough.” A low whisper emanated from behind me.
Turning around, I saw Rhys threateningly, trudging towards Mr. Neville. His hands were tightly balled into fists and his head was bent down in deep concentration, shielding his face from my view.
“I have already agreed to your deal. You don’t have to drag others into it.” He vehemently spat.
Gathering myself, I straightened my clothes and stood erect, masking any hint of dread that Mr. Neville or Rhys might pick on.
“It is what’s written in the scrolls, like it or not you’ll have to do it.” Mr. Neville spoke in a relatively composed tone, clearly dominated by his grandson.
Shifting his attention back to me, he addressed, “Miss Darrett, you know the protocol. Please visit the Record-Keeper on your way out. And all of you go along with Camelia.” He said uninterestedly; and continued filling out the forms that were scattered over his table.
Brianna, Keith, Rhys and I, all exchanged glances. Nodding at them, I signalled them to follow me outside. Crossing the common hall of the administration block, Brianna let out a sigh, “That was something.”
Addressing Rhys, Keith spoke up, “Some relationship you’ve got with your grandfather.”
Rhys looked at him with a blank expression, and without saying anything, continued walking briskly, leaving us all behind.
I wanted to say something to Rhys on the lines of gratitude and sympathy, but had already learnt my lesson the hard way. I did not wish to add a broken neck along with the flu I was already inflicted with.
Evidently, Rhys appeared uncomfortable with all eyes stuck on him. Trying to change the topic of discussion, I announced, “By the way Brianna, you look nice.” Enthusiastically pointing at her blonde hair. She definitely looked a lot better without blue reeds sticking out of her face.
Brianna scrunched up her nose and replied in disgust, “Keith pushed me to it. Doesn’t he realise, I have a reputation to uphold?” All the while, sending deathly glares in Keith’s direction.
“Unless your reputation revolves around you looking like the head of a toilet brush, I don’t think it was doing you any favours.” I joked in an attempt to lighten up the sombre mood.
Brianna snorted loudly and gently punched me on the shoulder.
“You fucking tell her.” Keith chuckled loudly.
Reaching Jaxon’s office, aka our Record Keeper, I gently knocked at his door. After waiting for a few seconds, I entered the room.
Piles over piles of folders lay stacked all around the room reaching up to the ceiling, hiding the walls behind it and making the room appear smaller than it actually was. In a corner, by the window, I could spot Jaxon huddled over an armchair, meticulously writing on a file with rapt attention.
Reflexively, Jaxon tore his gaze off of the file and looked towards us all. “Cammie!” Smiling, he placed the file down on the chair and made his way towards us, engulfing me in a fatherly hug. After exchanging introductions and greetings, Jaxon again turned towards me.
“I was so worried about you.” Jaxon began, eying me curiously. “Is it true that you’re going to an S-ranked travel?” He asked with concern. In response, I simply nodded my head, not making any attempt at elaborating the crisis we were in.
“I have a question.” I looked behind me, noticing that Brianna was standing aloof near the doorway. “What exactly is the S-rank stuff you keep talking about?”
Unfortunately, I had shamelessly forgotten about explaining the working process of the A-SATT. Taking in a deep breath, I began, “A-SATT hands out travels on the basis of clearance level of its employees. Thus, for the sake of convenience and systematization, the travels are divided into a range of time intervals.”
I paused for a moment, contemplating over my next set of sentences, when Jaxon gave me a small nod, encouraging me to elaborate further.
Clearing my throat, I continued, “The time intervals are classified as- C, B, A and S in ascending order of ‘years prior’. C being the ones in the most recent past with a range of 5-10 years before the current present, B in the range of 10-50 years, A is for 50-100 years ago and the S level is for all time periods before that. There is absolutely no upper time limit for S-ranked travels.” I finished and looked at my team-mates who all stared at me with awe-struck expressions and widened eyes.
Except for Rhys, who stood smugly, leaning against the wall and smiling wickedly at me. In an utterly patronizing tone, he asked me, “So Camelia, what was your highest clearance-level travel?”
Now this was a question, I didn’t wish to answer. Despite working exceptionally hard and succeeding with impeccable records in the missions, dad never sanctioned me to go on a high-ranked travel; he being the proctor of the travelling crew.
In his own weird way of keeping me safe and protecting me from falling into the same, sad fate as countless other time travellers; all the offers of the travels that I got, which were remotely concerned with danger or any thrill were sadly turned down.
I directed an angry stare in Rhys’ direction. The memories of yesterday evening were still fresh in my mind and I had not forgotten how barbarically he had acted out at my clear display of concern.
Swallowing my ego down, I replied cursorily, “A B-rank.”
It took every last bit of courage in me to not melt down at the spot and disappear out of embarrassment. Unfortunately for me, Rhys had clearly seen through my façade of acting strong. He shot me a look of amusement. “So, you haven’t even been to the time of the World Wars.”
Continuing his shameless verbal assault on me he added, “I really feel sorry for shouting at you the other day, for not doing anything good for the people in the past. Now I’ve gotten my answer. You are just an insignificant pawn with no actual power in hands. Something easily replaceable. Useless if you will.” He looked at me challengingly, his eyes glistening with mischief.
I had enough of his sass. Strangely, something about the Nevilles always seemed to bring out my inner homicidal tendencies.
Pointing my index finger threateningly at his face I said in a clearly agitated voice, “Listen here you little piece of shit.” I whispered. “That’s a whole lot of talk coming from someone who is such a pussy as to not go into the time travelling business himself and then actually do something about it.”
He stiffened at my sudden burst of anger.
Staring into his eyes, I continued in an unshaking voice, “And I might be an insignificant, useless and easily replaceable time traveller, but you mister, are a sorry excuse for a human being. And someday, I might change my career, but you will always have to live with that shitty personality of yours. And believe it or not, I pity you.”
By this time, I was breathing heavily. Keith and Brianna stood still beside me, processing the fight that had gone down between us. Jaxon glanced alternately between Rhys and me; surprise evident on his face.
It was a known fact among my acquaintances that I was extraordinarily bad at confrontation and would always avoid getting into word-wars. But today I decided to make an exception.
“I found your file, Camelia.” Jaxon suddenly piped in and thankfully all eyes shifted back to him.
Casually going through the pages, Jaxon remarked, “Hm, Lets see.” Abruptly, halting at one of the papers, he addressed the room vivaciously, “1867! Oh! A great year indeed.” Looking at me he smiled in approval. I gave him a curt nod in return.
“The year of The second Reform Act of Disraeli, and Oh! don’t forget the publication of the Dover Beach.” He squealed joyously. “A beautiful poem.” Closing his eyes, he said in a softer voice.
In a moment, he re-opened them, and looked down at the details of the travel. “So, you’ll have to hand a- letter to the address of.... Parkmount Estates.” He said slowly as if dissecting every little alphabet typed on the file.
Admittedly, handing a letter was not exactly the thrill and adrenaline-surge that I was hoping for, but the fact that it consisted of me going to the 19th century was a matter of colossal proportions and unfathomable joy. It would certainly look good on my yearly report and maybe this opportunity would make my dream of becoming a veteran traveller, a graspable reality.
“What! Wait a minute!” Jaxon suddenly yelled in a loud, fear-stricken voice; so much so, as to have put a banshee to shame.
He clutched the file harder in his hands in the process, wrinkling the papers due to the pressure of his hold. Reading the contents over and again, a dark apparition of terror crossed his pale, quivering face.
“Say no to the travel, Camelia.” He added fervently, as if reading the file alone had an ominous effect on the senses.
I stood beside Jaxon, attempting to calm him down. However, no words of serenity or any act of pacification, seemed to be successful in extricating him out of his perturbed state.
“You are-” Jaxon muttered incomprehensibly, downing a glassful of water in one go.
Finally, recuperating from his episode of terror, Jaxon looked at me sympathetically, and in a tone of overflowing seriousness stated, “You have to hand the letter to Aldaire Brawcarth.”