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“Let’s tune in shall we and see how contestant number
three is doing!” The applause lights flashed and the audience
dutifully complied as the host, decked out in neon and charisma,
turned to face the big screen.
Contestant number three, Robert Haines from Montana, wound
up in second place after last week’s elimination round. The task
during that episode was perfect for a guy that worked the
ranches around Great Falls. All five contestants – seven had
been eliminated during previous challenges – raced back to 1898
to acquire a branding iron. It hadn’t been hard at all for
Robert to move up from dead last to second place. The only thing
that slowed him down was himself.
“Oooooh,” the host cooed, “it looks like our friend Robert
might have himself a problem.” As the host posed for the close
up of his best I-look-so-good-when-I’m-worried face, flashing
signs made sure the studio audience filled the cavernous studio
with a made for TV chorus of worry.
On the big screen, Robert’s time travel belt was coiled
end over end, and tucked close to vending machines near a public
restroom. In the short span of time Robert had spent in the
restroom, someone had alerted mall security to the unattended
item in all it’s humming, buzzing, blinking, glory there on the
make-believe marble tile floor.
Mall security arrived in force, on foot and on Segways, and
made a big show of shouting at the restrooms to evacuate them
while setting up a cordon with caution tape. The last stretch of
tape was being tied off when Robert stepped out, oblivious to
it all, and started walking towards his time travel belt.
“Sir,” an especially beefy security guard with a tattoo of
a dragon wrapped around his neck called out, “please step away
from the unattended item.”
“Unattended item?” Robert replied. The same sort of thing
had cost him time last week in 1898. He’d had no problem
winning the branding iron in a quick card game with an old
cowboy named Cilester. On his way to the rendezvous point,
he dropped the branding iron and had to talk it out of the
hands of a drifter that was all to happy to have found something
he could barter.
“Sir,” the guard’s dragon almost seemed to dance as he
yelled, “the item there on the floor could be a bomb. Step
away from the item to safety sir.”
“That’s not a bomb,” Robert laughed as he stepped forward
and picked his belt up off the floor.
“Freeze!” An array of tasers and pepper spray canisters
instantly honed in on Robert and the thing he cradled in his
arms. The clatter of local police running towards the scene
echoed in the distance.
“Well now,” the host’s lips curled into his trademark
smile, the one that highlighted the fake mole purposely designed
to stand out against the cosmetic pallor of his face, “It seems
we have a...”
The host mouthed the word “situation” as the audience
repeated it back syllable by singsong syllable in sync with the
flashing signs above the stage.
“So let’s,” the host dug a familiar blue box with oversized
orange button from his pocket and gave the audience time to work
themselves into a frenzy chanting ‘pause, pause, pause’. Then he
drew back his hand, gave the close up his best oh-yes-I-can
sneer, and smacked his palm down hard on the orange button. Time
in Robert’s world froze.
On the big screen, Robert seemed either bemused or
terrified. It had always been hard to tell with him. After 1898,
the tabloids debated endlessly whether Robert was so angry or
so upset he almost cried when he realized he’d dropped the
branding iron. Mall security and local police didn’t seem
emotionally ambiguous though. Their faces were hardened. Jaws
clenched. Tasers, pepper spray, gun barrels raised. One
wrong move and Robert’s life could end in the year he’d been
“So studio audience,” the host strutted across the stage.
The crowd knew what was coming. They fed like gluttons on their
own palpable anticipation “you know what this means right?”
The audience erupted in a frenzy as a door opened behind
the host and Monica Mulberry Street strolled out. Was Monica a
woman or a machine? The tabloids debated that endlessly too from
time to time.
Monica Mulberry Street was nearly perfect. From the sinewy
tone of her deep chocolate form - not to mention her well
defined abs that looked better than anyone else’s found on TV –
to her elegant lips and smoldering eyes, she was stunning. That
she always appeared wearing transparent material held together
by golden chains, with runs of her silver and pink hair draped
carefully upon her body, was proof that Monica was authentically
the perfect woman. Even if no one knew for sure whether she was
flesh and blood, or pliable outer covering and high-grade
“Ladies and gentlemen here in our studio audience,” the
host’s voice turned grave just the way it had in that movie he’d
starred in where his character told everyone they had to die and
don’t you know it seemed so real when he said it, “and watching
at home. The choice is yours. Monica. Mercy. Or the mob!”
The audience went berserk as they and viewers at home cast
their votes. If the mob won out, the host would press the orange
button and time would resume again in 2015. Things would play
out naturally no matter what the outcome. If mercy, the host
would override Robert’s time travel belt and forcibly transport
him to the present. It might save Robert’s life, but it would
also end his shot at winning the game. Other contestants that
had lost that way went on to brief but successful runs turning
up on day time TV talk shows to peddle tell all videos and
contemplate the ways their lives would have changed if they’d
won the game instead. Robert himself had hinted at such an
outcome earlier during the second episode.
Back then, Robert had linked up with two others in a team
competition to travel back to 1572 and bring back a piece of
bread from the Eighty Years War. The Spanish Tercios eyed the
three suspiciously. “Que son espias” - “are they spies” - the
Spaniards mumbled. Robert knew that if the Tercios decided to
capture them and treat them as spies working for Jerome de
Tseraarts, their game would be over. “I can see it now,” Robert
whispered into the camera, “I’ll be the only guy that can say
his webinar started in 1572.”
“Webinar,” an especially gruff Spaniard grumbled. Capture
was about as imminent as capture can get. Tony Warren from Omaha
was a quick thinker though and he was fluent in Spanish. Tony
saved the day back in 1572. Robert was on his own in 2015.
If the votes cast went for Monica, Robert would
automatically end up in last place which wasn’t too bad for a
non-elimination round. Monica would travel back in time to his
situation, and when time resumed she’d belt out a song.
Something soulful and melodious anyone in 2015 would
recognize. Monica Mulberry Street had mastered – through her own
hard work or that of software engineers – modulating her vocal
tones in such a way as to interrupt the brain’s synapses and
acquire the undivided attention of all within earshot. A
modern day Pied Piper of sorts. That would give Robert a chance
to put his belt back on and depart 2015. Monica would follow.
Later, the game show’s producers would go back and scrub the
whole thing so that no one in 2015 would remember much if
anything about it.
The vote was never tallied though. While Monica Mulberry
Street sauntered across the stage, drawing more and more of the
studio audience’s attention, the host’s pallor turned a barely
perceptible shade of green. Yes, it was true, he and Monica had
once been an item. A real one and not just mutually
complimentary arm candy for the tabloids. They had engaged in
well, adult relations. And made a video about it doctored just
enough that it never was clear whether they were actually doing
what they were actually doing, so that people would download it
and argue about it. That all eyes were on her, watching and
wanting and she was eating it up...it was too much!
The host pressed the orange button and let time back in
2015 resume. Robert jolted back and forth as frequent time
travelers sometimes did. Where the first shot came from nobody
ever really determined. Poor Robert. He never really stood a
chance. Not against a squad hell bent on making sure he wasn’t
a terrorist bomber intent on blowing their local shopping mall
What the host hadn’t calculated was the effect the past
might have on the future. If he had, it might have dawned on him
that Robert’s kid brother was an engineer. A software engineer.
Where Robert’s parents had scientifically planned his conception
down to the minute, his kid brother was completely unplanned
for. With Robert taken down in 2015, the course of everything
that followed was altered.
Robert’s parents welcomed Robert’s kid brother into the
world in 2015 instead of Robert. Like Robert, Kip found the
countryside around Great Falls interesting but as his mind
developed, he found himself drawn towards engineering.
Mechanical engineering in particular. Kip completed a four
year degree program in three and was well on his way towards
finishing a Masters when a major mining company told him they’d
buy his remotely controlled tunneling machine.
The tunneling machine was the biggest advancement in mining
technology the world had seen in generations. Slightly larger
than a lawn mower, it gave the individual miner a way to bore
into subterranean rock face to dig into ever more hard to find
pockets of coal – or to rescue themselves in the event of a cave
in. In 2044 when a group of Andean miners successfully used
Kip’s machine to bore their way out of a mine collapse, Kip was
given a medal from the President of the Andean States of South
Kip’s medal didn’t get a lot of media attention back home.
His celebrity was one that informed fellow engineers, not social
media. No wonder the normally composed, scripted, and
choreographed host seemed completely lost when he turned to face
Monica Mulberry Street and instead found himself sharing the
game show stage with a bulky and squat piece of mining
The studio audience glared at the host. Their concept of
time wouldn’t update until they stepped outside the studio where
they’d rejoin the continuum. Until then, they’d seen him
override their vote and Monica Mulberry Street transform from
pop culture celebrity into a drilling machine on miniature
Federal Bureau of Time Management officials weren’t pleased
either. The host had violated at least a dozen regulations
concerning management and use of chronologic resources. As
TV programming from coast to coast to coast replaced the game
show with reruns, FBTM agents started moving towards the stage
as all that neon and charisma gave way to despair.
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