Chapter One The Beginning, in which we will also find the End.
Driving home from a banal day’s work one early evening in October, Eric Williams drifted into idle speculation on the nature of existence, the meaning of life, and humanity’s place within the great sphere of the Universe. This was a frequent occurrence after a day spent in validating forms 3X472/HY to 3X472/MP, and one in which he never found any truly satisfactory answers, but on this evening events were about to unfold that would give Eric a fresh insight into some of these puzzling concepts.
Eric glanced up at the sky as he accelerated down a narrow country road to the village where he lived and saw that the sky directly above him was bulging in a disturbing manner, which became downright peculiar when, with a strange groaning and wheezing sound, a black object materialised out of nothing.
The vessel descended and landed directly in front of the gaping Eric, who stamped hard on the brake and almost slithered off the narrow road and into a ditch. He stepped shakily out of the car to get a clearer view of what was happening, leaning against the solid, reassuring shape of his Land Rover for support.
As soon as the vessel landed, a hatch slid open on the front of the ship and a ramp descended onto the ground. Bright white light poured from out of the doorway, while the sound of complex machinery whined gently in the background until it settled down into an even, distant hum.
Then, as a cold white mist billowed out of the exhaust vents and snaked its way to the ground, something appeared in the harsh light of the hatch. It seemed to be broad, squat, and twisted, with a dozen tentacles that waved and undulated in opposing directions.
The creature lurched down the ramp and moved inexorably towards Eric, and as it drew nearer he could hear its strange, terrible language, a muttering, whining noise that became ever clearer as the thing drew closer:
’Is it him? Is it him? Ron, is it him?’
’I don’t know yet, Phyllis, I haven’t been able to ask.’
’Well it should be him. The company said it would be him, and it should be him,’ announced the voice which answered to the name ’Phyllis’. Whatever horrors the creature represented, sounding like senior citizens on a package holiday was not what was expected. Then the light from the hatch winked off and the perspective clicked into place.
Eric realized in bewilderment that he really was looking at a group of elderly tourists. His long years of museum work enabled him to instantly recognise the species; the Hawaiian shirts, the name cards, the pink v-neck sweaters designed to fool the wearer into believing they looked twenty years younger, were all common markings of the genus Sightseer Vulgaris. The bright logo proclaiming Willy Wundertours, - Time Tours Extraordinary on the side of the ship was also a bit of a giveaway.
Eric immediately identified Phyllis as the loud and obnoxious member of the group, who would habitually complain that she couldn’t see the sights, thus ensuring that she was offered the best possible view of the sights, after which she would contemptuously dismiss the sights as not being a patch on the sights back home.
Ron, Phyllis’s’ husband, was obviously the mediator of the group, while a miserly-looking woman with pursed lips was undoubtedly Phyllis’s longest serving friend and stooge, effectively freezing into silence any voice that dare raise itself in the mildest objection to the itinerary laid out by the dominating duo.
Also visible to Eric’s jaundiced eye was the man who would aggressively demand the most service, the woman who would aggressively demand the most information, and the man who would aggressively jolly everyone else into having a good time. Eric could even see the quiet member of the group who always took a keen interest in her surroundings, who thanked the guide graciously, and who was determined to obtain some culture and enjoy her holiday no matter what.
The tourists descended on Eric like a plague of photographic locusts, snapping at him with cameras and video recorders which all looked contemporary to Eric’s own era, a policy insisted upon by Wundertours so that their clientele could blend in with the background.
As they posed next to Eric for their photographs, the sightseers bombarded him with questions such as what it was like to live in his time, how he felt about what he was about to do, (which obviously he didn’t know anything about as yet, but how did he feel about it anyway), about his role in history, and about whether he suffered from feet, because Phyllis did so and she could not - just could not - find a good cure for bad feet.
’Well, say, is he really him?’ asked one of the tourists finally, who seemed to be slightly more aware than the others that Eric hadn’t said a word.
’I guess so, Earl,’ replied the man’s wife, ’though he is awful quiet.’
’Well of course it’s him,’ responded another, whose beehive hair gave her another foot in stature. ’He’s here in the right time and place, isn’t he?’
’Well yeah,’ said Earl, ’but he isn’t saying nothing and I just want to be sure it is him.’
’Earl’s always had an enquiring mind,’ said his wife, slipping a proud arm around her husband.
’Well it should be him,’ snapped Phyllis. ’We’ve paid good money for this trip, and if they think that they can palm off a nobody on us and expect us to believe it’s the real thing, they’ve got another think coming.’
’He looks like his pictures,’ pointed out the bee-hived individual who had defended Eric on account of his temporal and geographical placement, and whose name tag proclaimed her to be ’Hi I’m Wanda!’
’Of course he looks like his pictures,’ snapped Phyllis’s friend, Gladys. ’He’s got to look like his pictures, hasn’t he?’
’Not necessarily,’ replied Wanda, moving into a combative stance. Wanda had never liked Gladys or Phyllis, and her basic good nature was getting more and more aggrieved with the tyranny of the totalitarian two. ’You remember how Val turned out on her holiday snaps when she went to the dark side of the moon? You could never tell it was her, never in a million years.’
’It was dark, Wanda, how were you supposed to even see who it was?’ sneered Phyllis in the tones of one who has just won a major debate.
’Well, what about Harrison?’ responded Wanda. ’When he went to the Planetary Parks, you couldn’t recognise him from his photos.’
’When did Harrison go to Planetary Parks?’ asked Wanda’s husband, Hank, in bewilderment.
’Last year, with his new lady friend.’
’What new lady friend?’
’Lana, who does Harrison’s accounts.’
’Oh, that Harrison. I thought you meant Harrison Zwelleger,’ said Hank, his face clearing.
’Oh for crying out loud,’ responded Wanda in affectionate exasperation. ’I do mean Harrison Zwelleger.’
’Will you two be quiet,’ said another member of the group. ’This is a celebrated moment, history is gathering, and all you can do is argue about Harrison Zwelleger. And anyway, he’s not going out with Lana, he’s going out with Stella. It’s Harry Teertum who’s going out with Lana and went to Planetary Parks.’
’Really?’ cried Wanda in surprise. ’Well no wonder I couldn’t recognize him…’
’O.K. boys and girls,’ shouted the tour guide as he stepped forward to get his charges back into the vessel. ’O.K. boys and girls,’ he repeated, ’it’s time to go. Thank you Mr. Williams for this truly special, special, honourable, spiritual occasion.’ All the time he was speaking the man pumped Eric’s hand up and down in his own, while with the other he grasped a clip board that was headed ’Willy Wundertours. (A subsidiary of Keegan Enterprises). Senior Citizens Discount Time Trip: Itinerary’.
’O.K. boys and girls,’ repeated the man desperately, his hunched figure clearly demonstrating that he was not being paid enough to put up with Phyllis and Gladys. ’Back onto the bus, boys and girls, we’ve got another time event coming right up, and I’m sure you don’t want to be late for it. That’s it, back on the bus, everyone together now…’ The man’s hunched posture, combined with the company uniform of a vivid green blazer, green trousers, red shirt and yellow tie, gave him the appearance of a worried frog that had been sick and then squashed.
’Damn package tours,’ grumbled Hank as he was lead away, ’you’re never your own boss, always following the time table. Why did we come on a damn time tour if we never have time for anything? It’s not as if we’re going to miss anything, is it?’
The tourists finished taking their pictures of each other shaking Eric by the hand or else standing in front of the time craft, and walked back into the ship. The ramp lifted up with a smooth hum of advanced machinery, and then had to lower itself as the last elderly passenger came running round the side of the ship, pulling up his fly with one hand and banging on the hull with the other.
Cries of ’For God’s sake, Gerald, can’t you just hold it?’ and ’Gerald, why don’t you go before we leave?’ and ’Why don’t you get it fixed? My brother in law, he had the same problem, and he went to this surgery he found in Young Life Magazine, and he swears that he can go all day without even…’ were heard from within the craft before the sentences were swallowed up by the closing ramp.
The ship raised itself smoothly off the ground, ascended with unbelievable speed into the sky, and with the same wheezing and groaning sound that had accompanied its appearance, dematerialized from view, leaving Eric staring in astonishment up at the sky.