Welcome to the fourth week of Short Fiction Wednesday, in which I feature the first 1.5-2k of a story from my ebook collection Night Bird Soaring and Other Stories, which features 17 different reprint selections ranging from fantasy to horror to alternate history. If you enjoy what you read here, you can purchase the full collection at Amazon or B&N for $2.99.
With this week’s selection, we move back to science fiction. “My Sweet Andromache” is a time travel love story inspired by The Iliad, and a particularly fascinating class on Greek history I took in college. Nikias is an Observational Historian, sent back in time to observe history first hand, and he’s been sent back to find out the truth about the Trojan War and the collapse of the Bronze Age in the Aegean. To his surprise, some of the characters from Homer’s poems do indeed exist as real people. He secures employment with Hector, a nobleman known for his skills with breaking horses, but when Nikias falls in love with his wife Andromache, history could start unraveling….
My Sweet Andromache
I kissed Andromache gently on the forehead, letting my lips linger for a moment as I filled my nose with the smell of oil, sweat, and lilies. I didn’t want to leave. But Hector would return soon from the council meeting in the city and only a fool wished to test the man’s legendary brutality with a sword.
Out the door and over the side of the wooden deck I went, lowering myself to the top of the garden’s stone wall. I dropped behind a partition of crisp evergreen bushes growing along the outside and walked crouched until I came to the front of the house. Crickets hummed in the hot summer evening and the air smelled of jasmine and tasted of sea salt.
At the end of the hedgerow, I checked for slaves then stepped out and headed for the barn.
“The troublemaker emerges at last.”
No one had spoken English to me in several months, so I flinch and whipped around. A woman—the Continuity Monitor Catherine—sat on the corral’s rock wall, the breeze rippling her sheer gown. Her leather-sandaled feet were crossed at the ankles, mimicking her stern, folded arms. Her skin glowed white from the subspace shield covering her from head to foot.
“Why would you sneak up on a man in the middle of the night?” I asked, glaring at her. But I already knew the reason for her visit.
Catherine shook her head. “You couldn’t help yourself, huh, Nik?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I continued towards the barn.
“I know about Andromache.”
“You’re violating your contract.”
“Don’t start lecturing me about the stupid contract—”
“Cedrik will reassign you, Nikias.”
I turned to her. “He wouldn’t dare. The University chose me for the Troy mission, me—” I jabbed my chest with my thumb. “—I’m the expert on the Trojan War. If he takes me off this, they have no one else to send.”
“They can always train another, Nik,” Catherine reminded me.
“Cedrik won’t take me off the project for something as trivial as messing around with a woman.”
“You’re causing ripples.”
This gave me pause. “How big?”
She shrugged. “Not wreck-the-future monsters, but they’re bigger than acceptable.”
“All because of Andromache?”
“Of course because of her, Nik. You’re losing your professional focus. Your job is to observe history, not to involve yourself in it.”
“I’ll break it off with her.” I rubbed my stubbly beard and sighed.
“You should leave town for a couple weeks, just to prove you’re serious about it,” Catherine warned.
I sighed. “Hector’s going to Thrace at the end of the week. I’ll ask if I can join him.”
“We can find someone for you, Nik, someone not so important to the future—”
I shrugged past her without a word and kicked open the barn door, spooking the horses. When I turned to close it, Catherine was gone, the world a little darker for the lack of her ghostly glow.
As a child, I’d laid on my back on the floor of my father’s study, listening to him read me Homer’s tales and watching the heroes clashing in the shadows cast on the ceiling from the fireplace: Hector confronting Achilles, or Odysseus slaying the Cyclops. “Did the Trojan War really happen?” I once asked him and he told me, “Even fiction reveals truths of the human heart, Nick.” I memorized some of Homer’s shorter hymns and traveled from about the house, reciting them to empty rooms. I longed to be an ancient bard, traveling from town to town, entertaining warriors and kings with tales of adventure and heroism.
It was little wonder that after high school I went on to study ancient Greek history at the University of Cincinnati. As a gift, my father gave me his leather-bound copy of The Iliad, his favorite of all Homer’s works. “I’m sure it will serve you well in your studies.”
But my second year of college ended with a phone call from a family friend. “Your father died last night.” Disbelief haunted her voice. “He just didn’t wake up.” I skipped finals, and at the elegy, I read the funeral speeches for Hector; my father’s favorite of all Homer’s words. Then the cemetery workers laid him to rest next to my mother, whom cancer had consumed by my third birthday. My life suddenly felt devastatingly empty.
Five years later and a semester from finishing my PhD, Dr. Marcus Aldrich—head of the new Observational History department—approached me about a position on their upcoming ‘Troy Observation Project.’ Since returning from my six months on the Hesarlik excavations in northwestern Turkey, I’d heard strange rumors in the hallways, whispers about space capsules and time travel. I dismissed them, at least until Aldrich invited me to witness a jump.
“In a matter of seconds, all our questions and speculations about the construction of the Pyramid of Giza will be answered.” We stood in front of a glass barrier in a lecture hall that had been converted into the Observational History Department’s staging area. A glass capsule—tilted slightly back—stood upright on the other side, with a man inside. He disappeared slowly in a cloud of rainbows and a few seconds later, a microchip materialized in a smaller glass capsule. Workers in clean suits collected it. “That’s our info, gathered first hand. Whatever our friend saw, smelled, tasted, touched, or heard for the rest of his life is ours to look at and study. This will revolutionize the history field. Uncertainty will be a thing of the past; we can send people back to record the actual events and learn far more than we ever could from archeological records and ancient texts alone.”
We talked some more about it over lunch. “Dr. O’Bryan gave me your name. You’re doing your PhD on the collapse of the Bronze Age in the Aegean, right?”
“The Catastrophe Theory and Systems Collapse, yes,” I told him.
“Perfect. We’ve already sent some linguists back and they’ve made some astounding discoveries about language and writing in Asia Minor, but we need someone who knows something of the history, who will recognize important things when he sees them. Just imagine: standing in the middle of the city of Troy, not as rubble, but as a living, breathing entity untouched by disaster.”
The thought gave me chills. “But why me? Certainly there’s many others more qualified for the task, scholars who’ve studied Greek history far longer than I.”
“You’re bright, Nick, and you come highly recommended. You’re young, physically fit, and healthy, all necessary for any foray into the ancient world, and…well, you’re one of the few qualified men who doesn’t have family ties. Those going into the past can’t return, so naturally people with family aren’t inclined to volunteer.”
“Why couldn’t I return?”
“Radiation. A jump of only a couple hundred years into the past causes negligible cellular damage, but the further back you travel, the higher the exposure. If we tried to bring you back…well…it would kill you.”
“Oh, it’s nothing infirming. You’d experience some radiation sickness for the first week or so, but we have people there already to take care of you. And of course we’ll inoculate you before you leave. We have a very clean record when it comes to the first jumps. In fact, one of our linguists from the Troy period lived to nearly ninety. It’s the double exposure that causes the serious health problems, so we’d rather leave you there. You’ll live much longer that way.”
I told him I’d think about it, but I didn’t have to for very long. My father would want me to do this. “It’s your destiny, Nick,” he’d have told me. “So go get it.” When I got home that night, I immediately called Aldrich.
Preparations began a year out. I started on gene therapy right away, to alter my skin tone and facial bone structure to look more Mediterranean, and as double precautions against spreading my modern DNA into the ancient gene pool, I underwent both sterilization and a vasectomy. Weekly inoculations and vaccinations followed, as well as surgery to install a neuro-module for recording and storing visual, audio, and olfactory information. A final surgery installed a language module complete with historical texts and recorded lectures I might need, including the complete works of Homer and every Greek poet on record. I chose the name Nikias for myself—after my favorite Athenian strategos of the Peloponnesian War—since it was a close approximation of my real one.
The day of departure, I arrived at the university’s engineering labs early. After signing the twenty-page contract devoted to “preserving history whole and unscathed,” Aldrich escorted me to the prepping room.
“No second thoughts?” he asked before leaving me to undress.
“None at all.”
In the staging area, the techs secured me inside the time chamber. On the other side of the glass, engineers hurried from console to console, pushing buttons and checking things off on clipboards. Aldrich spoke to me through a scratchy intercom.
“Let’s do this.”
Power hummed as the seconds counted down on a blue digital clock behind the crowd of observers. I imagined my father standing among them, his thumbs up. God, I missed him.
An electrical shock stung me suddenly and I slapped the capsule’s thick glass with one hand, surprised by the agony surging through my flesh. I opened my mouth to scream but suffocating blackness swallowed it and squeezed the air from my lungs. I couldn’t make my arms move. Rainbows danced across my vision—
Then suddenly I drew in a painful breath. I gulped more air, humid and heavy.
I opened one eye to see a woman looking down at me. Her white heavenly glow made me mistake her for an angel. “Did I die?”
She laughed. “No, you’re very much alive.”
“Where am I?”
“The west coast of Anatolia, near Milluwanda. But we can talk more later. Right now, just rest.”
I stretched from my fetal position, muscles aching. The woman draped a blanket over my naked body and called for someone to get me some clothes. For the next week, I slept.
For much of my first year in mid thirteenth-century BC, I lived in a mud brick house on the outskirts of Milluwanda. It belonged to one of the linguists, an old fellow with only a few years left to farm his land. Catherine—who’d greeted me when I first arrived—came by almost daily to check on my progress.
“He’s become rather handy with that sword,” she told the old man one day when she popped into the yard while he watched me sparring with one of the other, younger linguists.
The old man nodded, chewing a stick of grain and smirking when I tried to sneak a glance at Catherine and got my knuckles bloodied for it. “Don’t let a pretty face distract you,” he chuckled. “Nothing will get you killed faster.”
I wiped my hand with the ratty cloth he tossed me. “I’ll remember that.”
“Is he ready?” Catherine asked.
The old man shrugged. “He can ride a horse and wield a sword.”
I leaned my heavy wooden practice sword against the giant oak tree in the center of the yard and gulped a cup full of water from the well bucket. “And here I figured you guys brought me back in time to herd goats for the old man,” I laughed.
“We couldn’t just send you out unprepared,” Catherine replied. “If you feel you’re ready, get on your way to Troy, but before you go, someone needs to talk to you.”
“Me,” a voice spoke up and I looked over my shoulder to see a man standing behind me. Like Catherine, he wore a temporal shield—necessary for life in the time-free zone of subspace—but his glowed a disturbing crimson and put off so much heat it made me sweat. He was tall and gladiator-like, though he wore modern body armor.
“This is Cedrik,” Catherine said.
I nodded rather than offering my hand. His grip would no doubt reduce my hand to cinders. “A pleasure to meet you.”
“Spare me the niceties. It’s not my job to like you.” Cedrik strode past me. “I’m very busy, lots of time to patrol, so let’s get this over with.
“By now it’s no doubt sunk in that you’re never going back. And in light of this new reality, some people get the stupid notion that they don’t have to care what changes they make here. But I’m here to remind you of that contract you signed, the one where you sworn to make no alterations to the timeline beyond what’s already changed by your presence here.” Cedrik had his back to me up until now, but he suddenly turned on me, imposing and serious. “You’re strictly forbidden from actively involving yourself in any major historical event or interfering with or influencing important figures. While changes may not affect you, they will affect the future this project belongs to, and it’s my job to make sure you never forget that.”
“I have a lovely niece who will grow up to make very important medical discoveries and have lots of kids and grandkids. If you do anything to jeopardize that future, I will kill you myself.”
I stared at him, looking for signs of bravado behind his stony facade. “I will do my best to not do anything wrong.”
“No, you will do no wrong. Understood?”
“Let’s hope you and I never see each other again.” Cedrik then vanished without a sound.
I didn’t even realize I was holding my breath until I felt my lung burning for air.
“He does the tough guy act for everyone, Nikias,” Catherine said.
“Who the heck is he?”
“He’s a Continuity Enforcer. I monitor for fluctuations in the space-time continuum, and if I find them, he deals with them.”
“Deals with them?”
“You just stick to observing and you’ll do okay.”
If you enjoyed this excerpt and want to know how the story ends, consider picking up a copy of the anthology at Amazon or B&N. (for non-US editions, please visit the Novel and Collections page for links)