Timewasters: Time-Eater

Hey Guys, for the last year I’ve been writing flash fiction stories and posting them to the blog before I bundle them up for publication. This has been a really fun exercise for me, and the results have been really positive. Often increasing sales of eBook and giving me a lot of valuable feedback before I publish. With that in mind, I’m extending the model to include longer Short Fiction works and projects. It gives me a chance to really share my work with people and see what people think. So, I’m posting my latest Timewasters story below, this is a follow up to Christmas Past and Time Trial that are both available on the kindle store. 

First, all three stories are standalone entries, but some background knowledge is useful. Timewasters follows three reluctant Time Travelers; Annie, Mark and Graham. Accidentally separated from their own time, they travel through time and space via a network of “Time Tunnels,” equipped only with The Detector, a portable computer that can predict where the next time tunnel will open. Enjoy the story!

* * * 

 

Timewasters: Time-Eater

 

Time Eater crouched on his perch like a gargoyle watching over the ruins. The gaps between meals were getting longer, they had to. Not much left now. He opened his eyes, even through the red tint of the goggles the light stung. Clouds covered the sky and the sun was dark, there should not have been light left, but his eyes weren’t what they were; even residual photons burned.  Around him there was nothing but wasteland, nothing to eat but Maybes and Perhaps. The bones of time. 

It had been lush when he arrived, a world with a long future, but he got greedy. He sniffed the air, checking if it was time to feed, and caught something in the wind. Just a tickle at the back of his nose. He placed his hands on his knees and inhaled deeply, a long breath to take it all in. It was far away, further than he had been in a long time, and it was wrong. The sweetest meat of all, something far from home. Something taken from its own time and cast adrift. And he knew where it was. He forced himself to stand and stretch his limbs. The skin on his arms was pale and sagging, how long had he crouched there? He was not sure. He walked back to his nest and pulled on his gear. A puddle was forming in the recess that was his bed. He caught a glimpse of his reflection before dashing the water with his foot. It was now or never. He had worn nothing for so long, the gear felt heavy on his back. He pushed his arms through the gloves, strapped on the belt and hit the power. Behind him was the beating of four metal wings. Ahead there was a ripping sound, like a knife through canvas, and a gap appeared in the air. The drain was too much for this world, he could see the surface turning to dust. The building beneath him was new, but it would not last much longer. He sprung forward and in a second, he had never been there. A moment later and the planet was gone too. 

***

“Look, how much for the food?” Graham pointed at the unlabelled tins. The stall owner grasped one between his fingers and held it to his ear. He spoke from behind a layer of bandages.

“Is Good!” He shook the can. “Fruit. Earth Fruit. Very rare, yes?”

“Yes,” Graham nodded. “Very good, how much.” He was growing impatient. He had money, spare change from everywhere they stopped. Odds are something was worth something, but nothing caught the little man’s interest. He had been there all morning, and nobody came through the city gate, outside the walls there was nothing but sand. That was the problem with the tunnels, no way of knowing when you’d landed. Or where. The tin cans ruled out the distant past, the pink hue in the sky ruled out Earth. Everything else was a guess.

“This is what I have.” He started emptying his pockets. The merchant turned his nose up at a few glittering coins, but his eyes glinted when he saw the keys to Graham’s old Volvo.

“Keys?” He held them up by the weathered AA keyring. “Opens what?” He said. Graham seized his chance.

“Who knows?” He leaned in close to the man and lowered his voice. “I got them from a trader on the coast.” He really hoped this planet had a coast. The merchant blinked somewhere deep inside the bandages. “He said they would lead me to good fortune.” The merchant stared back into his eyes and then knocked his head back with a wheezing laugh.

“I like you, crooked old man. I will give you special for…” He dropped the keys into the pocket of his dirty shirt. “…Magic keys.”

“No need,” said Graham, not wanting to push his look. “Just the food please.”

The merchant pushed the tins towards him, “You take.” Graham started loading his rucksack. He could finally stop hunting, they would eat well tonight. The merchant dipped under the table before coming back up with something.

“But take special too,” He smiled. “For making another crooked man laugh.”

The item was wrapped in thick fabric and roughly the size of a football. Graham pulled back the cloth and saw a glass sphere made of thick, uneven glass. It  was a dirty green like old bottles and lighter than he expected. He quite liked it, but as pleasing as it was, he could see no purpose to it. He guessed the little man was trying to shift some of his more useless stock. They really didn’t have room for extra weight.

“No thank you,” he pushed the ball back to the merchant. The bandaged man seemed a little hurt.

“No, no.” He lifted the ball. “Is good for traveller.” He shook it and the ball started to glow. Pale at first but it built until the merchant was holding a ball of brilliant green fire in his hands. He shook it again and the light went off. Now that might be useful.

“Is clever,” said the man. He placed it back on the stall and started wrapping the fabric up again. “But not much barter on world with no night.”

Graham took the ball and placed it in his bag. The rucksack was getting full now, but it still sat comfortably on his back. His knees, on the other hand, were struggling to carry him now. Time to head back. He was getting too old to be going on adventures.The others would probably have made a deal for shelter by then, and he could use the rest. He nodded a thank you to the stall owner who had already started fiddling with the old keys, and set off back to the rendezvous.

***

Time-Eater pushed his arms back. He felt the vibrations from his metal wings down at his fingertips. He gritted his teeth and forced himself through the gap between moments until he came out the other side. The brightness forced his eyes closed, he lost control of his wings and dropped to the ground. He thought he would fall forever until he fell until he felt hot sand on his feet. He had felt it before but he could not remember when. There were noises around him but he couldn’t decipher them, still the light burned him through his eyelids. He twisted the dial on his goggles, an ancient mechanical aperture tightened until only a sliver of light came through. He sniffed the air here, the scent of his prey was thick and heavy. It would not take long. 

***

The market was well populated, but small. The people filled every gap and he couldn’t even see the stall he’d just been stood at. The wind had picked up and those stood by the market walls were starting to close the gates and pull up windbreakers on the walls. Some were still shopping, but those that had finished were making their way to the building in the centre, so Graham walked there too. From the outside it looked like a small pillbox in the sand, barely enough room for few families, but he’d seen plenty of people carrying all their belongings inside. He guessed it went further down, under the surface. The people were hurried, but not panicked. That suited Graham, his new life was wearing on him, a little. He didn’t dare tell the others, but it was only a matter of time before he’d have to. And then? He chewed his lip. What choice did they have besides leaving him behind?

When he reached the pillbox, he got a better look at its construction. Made of old carved beams and finished in some sort of heavy varnish, it looked sturdy enough. Rivet heads the size of his fist were in place around the joints. It was obviously the oldest building there, and the only structure inside the walls with any permanence to it. The others should have been there already; he decided to walk the circumference and see if he could find them. He found Mark first, absorbed in conversation with an elderly local who seemed to be trying to sell him a watch. Mark was more interested in the history of the place. He watched them for a little. For every morsel of information the old man provided, Mark gave him another trinket from his pocket.

“Mercenary lot, aren’t they?” Said Graham.

Mark grinned. “Yes.” He nodded a thank you to the old man. “But it’s nice, in it’s own way. No games, no needling people for information. Everything for the right price.”

“Handy,” said Graham. “Until you run out of money.”

“Mm,” Mark wasn’t listening. “Did you get food?”

“A few tins,” He didn’t mention the lantern, he wanted to show them that in person.

“Of what,” asked Mark.

“You tell me,” Graham tossed him a tin. “No labels.”

Mark stared at the can as if he could see through the metal. He held it up to his ear as the trader had and tapped the top with his other hand.

“Stewed steak,” he said, tossing back the can.

“Oh you can’t be serious,” Graham snorted.

“Want to bet on it?”

“No,” said Graham. “Besides, I remember the flavour packets incident.”

“That doesn’t count.” Mark looked hurt. “Who ever heard of Raspberry Soup?”

“Where’s Annie,” Graham asked, changing the subject.

“Inside, sorting out a room.” Mark grabbed his bags and headed for the entrance. “Wait until you see this place.”

***

The first floor inside was empty. A bare, circular room with a railing that ran around the centre. It didn’t seem so special, thought Graham, but when he approached the railing, he saw a staircase inside the rails. He gripped the rails and leaned over. Beneath was a chasm that dropped so far, he couldn’t see the bottom. A cylinder carved straight down into the rock, with staircases, ladders, ropes and pulleys all netter across the side. Chambers were carved into the side, pinpricks of light at the bottom and constructions of steel and glass jutting from the rock. An entire city tunnelling into the ground.

“Most of the people live down there,” said Mark. “Quite advanced apparently, the market is just the porch. The traders travel out, collect debris from derelicts and space waste, and harvest the best stuff for barter.”

“How do they produce food?” Asked Graham, unable to look away.

“Don’t know,” said Mark. “Hadn’t got that far, maybe they harvest lichen or something from the cave walls, on Earth there are thousands of types of… oh hang on. I see her.”

Across the room Annie was negotiating with a local woman. He couldn’t be sure, but Graham guessed she was the leader, she was tall and dressed in clothes more colourful and lighter than the merchants outside.

The two headed over, as they arrived Annie was handing over a few of their collected trinkets. A long dead Robot Insect from a stop Graham hoped to forget, some pressed dandelion heads and a few of the less useful books they had raided from Bright’s library. Annie could be mercenary too, and was doing her best to get a good price.

“The last chapter has a good process for purifying water, not much use to us but you might make something of it.” Their host was gracious and, apparently, grateful. After the trade was complete, the two women bowed to each other and their host went to help put up the shelters outside.

“How did you do?” asked Mark.

Annie laughed, “I definitely won this time.”

“Don’t be so sure,” said Graham, going for his bag.

She held up her hand. “Wait your turn. No tunnels out of here for three days, right?”

Mark pulled back his sleeve and examined the computer on his wrist, the screen was a jumble of colours and numbers that made no sense to Graham. “Three days approximately, could be as high as four.”

“Well,” said Annie, beaming. “I got us a week, with food and supplies for when we leave.”

“Sorry Graham,” Mark pulled a face of false concern. “She’s wins.”

“You haven’t even seen mine yet,” Graham opened his bag and froze. Cut off by the sound of a screech outside.

***

When they returned to the square, the creature was in the centre with its back to them. It looked like a man but it stood a little under five feet with a hunch. Its arms and legs were bare, but its body was wrapped in what looked like armour and equipment. Wires from a backpack led down to boots and gloves that looked heavy and weathered and two pairs of metal wings sprouted from its back like a dragonfly. As it turned, Graham noticed he was holding its breath. It’s head was covered by by a face mask that showed nothing of beneath and in place of its eyes were a pair of thick goggles coated in a layer of dust. Even in the bright sunlight, Graham could see the trace of a red glow beneath the lenses.

The image was so stark against the sand, that it distracted from the crumpled mass it held in its hand. A small boy. Graham guessed he was the source of the shriek. At first he thought the boy was dead, but then he let out a strained whimper. Graham wasn’t sure if he was relieved. Nobody dare go near the thing, save one woman being held back by the crowd. The boy’s mother, Graham guessed. Whatever had happened to start this, whatever he missed, it had frightened the people so much that they would not intervene to save the child. He wanted to change that, to move in and try to rescue the boy, but his feet would not move. Something in the thing’s covered face, the dead tone of his skin, overpowered everything he knew was right. Further back, the workers who had been raising the shelters stopped. They had protection from the worst of the storm, but the wind was still bringing sand through the gap in the main gate.

The thing dropped the boy. He landed in the sand with a bump and then scrambled to his feet, dashing back into the crowd. The thing sniffed the air and then with a voice like breaking glass, it made its demands.

“Food.” It barked. A woman from one of the fruit stalls scurried out with a covered basket. The thing ignored her until the basket was immediately under its face. “No.” It knocked her back with a swipe of its hand. The people stayed stuck, even as precious food rolled in the dirt. The thing reach to its mouth and pulled apart a section of its mask. Beneath was a lipless gap in its jaw that moved as it spoke.

“Food here,” it spread its arms and inhaled a lengthy breath. “Far from home, out of time. Rich.” It bared a set of perfect teeth in its wasting face. “Sweet.”

Graham glanced to the others, they all thought the same. It was in one of their stolen books, move a pea two seconds into the past and you create enough energy to light every home in Europe. He was selfish at first, he hoped they hadn’t been noticed by the locals, but that wasn’t the case. He could see them staring less at the creature and more and the strangers that had brought it there. The three didn’t need to discuss it, they stepped out of the crowd and made their way towards the thing. Graham’s boots felt heavier with every step, and as he watched the creature, it didn’t move, didn’t react to them. He listened to his feet, their noise drowned out by the storm. And then the creature reached, it grasped for thin air where the child had been. It looked confused and Graham understood.

“It’s blind,” he whispered. The thing snapped its head in his direction, the wings on its back buzzed and thrust it forward until it was nose to nose with Graham.

“Can’t see,” it grinned. “But can hear.” It took another sniff. “Can smell.”

“Back Off,” Annie stepped between them. The creature flitted back and traced its hands across her face. “I’m the one you want, I’m the time traveller.”  Mark grabbed her shoulders to stop her, but she pulled out. The creature brought its face closer to her and then shook its head like a wet dog.

“No, no, no!” It pushed Annie back with its fingertips until she fell back into the sand. “Too young, too fresh, too close.” It went back to Graham, did it want him because he was old? Couldn’t fight back, or just smelled right, but the creature’s nose led it to the rucksack. With a single movement it ripped the straps from him and emptied the contents onto the ground.

The lantern lay in the sand, inert. The creature was drawn to it, but sniffed around it on the ground as if the lantern were hiding itself. The thing pulled apart the rucksack and ran its fingers through the sand, but never touch the orb. Graham was fascinated by the display, sure now that this was what the creature had sensed. The others had seen it too, Mark had started to shuffle around the side, to get between it and the orb shuffled. Without hesitation, the figure swung an emaciated around and grabbed Mark by the throat.

“Noisy feet,” it barked. “Will eat you last, noisy feet. Will eat this whole world. Eat every day there will ever be, and you will watch.” It threw him to the ground on carried on searching.

Graham got as close to Annie as he could. “Distract it.” She nodded and slipped her bag off her shoulder. Graham squeezed her hand, she looked back at him and he felt safer.

“Hey!” She shouted as loud as she could, her voice broke through the wind and the thing twisted unnaturally to face her. “I’ve got what you’re looking for,” she started running across the market. “If you can catch me!” The sand was getting deeper now, and the storm carried it in circles and whipped it into her body. She kept ahead by leaping across the empty stall. It could only keep up in flight, but the storm buffeted its fragile body about.

Graham didn’t have long. “Forgive me, knees” He grabbed the orb and began his own run.

He passed Mark, relieved to see he was still conscious, and he sprinted for the gate. He didn’t know how long he could last, his running days were long behind him, but he trusted his friend. If he needed the time, she would get it. The gate was getting nearer, still further than he needed it to be, but he couldn’t push his body much further. He stole a glance back, Annie had lead the thing to the other side of the shelter but it was closing in on her. His chest ached; he couldn’t keep going. This would have to be close enough. Graham held the lantern in both hands and hoped his theory panned out. He shook the lantern and brought the green light to life.

The creature screamed. It was a high pitched wrenching noise that settled unpleasantly on the eardrum. It could feel the green light, and it knew it has been tricked. It launched itself up into the air, Graham told himself to be patient. It started to drop, to flit and spiral through the currents of air, becoming faster until Graham doubted it could stop in time and when he could see the red tint in its eyes, Graham kicked the lantern as hard as he could. Pain shot through his knee. The glass cracked, but there was enough force to send the orb flying through the city gate. It spewed a bright green liquid as it went and the creature followed it in a frenzy. It navigated the winds like a trapped wasp until it crashed through the gap in the gate and disappeared into the storm. Graham told himself nothing could survive out in the storm, and he almost believed it.

The people in the market stood and listened to the storm, forever seemed to drift past until someone yelled to close the gates. A group of grease covered workers dashed past Graham and started closing the gates. He took a few steps and then stopped, and let himself fall back into the sand. Everything hurt, his heart pounded and he thought each beat would be his last. He closed his eyes and felt the heat of the sand on his face. His heart beat calmed, slowly, and he felt somebody taking his pulse.

“He’ll be fine,” somebody said. And he believed them.

***

“That was a quiet one,” said Mark, as they walked to the next tunnel. He checked the co-ordinates on the computer.

“What!?” Annie laughed. “Did you forget the flying goblin that wanted to eat us?”

“Except for that bit.”

Graham smiled to himself. He didn’t want to admit just how much he had to drag his leg, didn’t want to worry the others. Besides, he told himself, Mark was right. After the creature had gone, it had been a couple of days of good food and rest. Not many stops were like that.

“Any idea where the next tunnel takes us, Mark?” He shouted. Mark shrugged his shoulders.

“We haven’t hopped around here much,” he showed Graham the screen but it was still incomprehensible to him. “Not much frame of reference.”

“Anyway, we’re here,” said Annie. It was a small tunnel, just a swirling distortion in the air the size of a manhole, but they’d. Mark stepped through first, leaving just Annie and himself. She draped her hand over his shoulder.

“Are you sure you’re ok, old timer?” He laughed her off.

“I just need to catch my breath.” She looked concerned. “Hey, just go on through and I’ll be right behind you.” Annie stepped into the entrance, when he couldn’t see her at all, he sat back. Felt the sand as he had when he’d passed out. It was a cooler day, less inviting, but it was better than standing. He had a good ten minutes before the entrance closed, but he could feel something uncomfortable underneath him. He forced himself to his feet and felt around in the sand. It didn’t take him long to find, a shard of thick, ancient glass. Probably from some crash or derelict, but he couldn’t help thinking it was from the orb. He shouldn’t be surprised, he thought, something had to survive after all, but it was time to leave.