Story Ideas can come from anywhere. If you are lucky enough to have creative intelligent friends- they can often help with Writer’s Block, or coming up with a title worthy of the story. My friend Tim Lightfoot did both. The title of this story: The Savages of Time, came from an email Tim sent me. Let’s see where the story goes:
The Time Machine was ready. No one knew if it would work. Thank God for Engineers who think of things not going right, instead of hoping all will go well. For it was the Engineers who put in an Automatic Return to the Present failsafe into the Time Machine. Otherwise we might not have known what happened to those first few Time Travelers.
The first three attempts with Humans inside the Time Machine, should have taught us to be more careful. But nobody made the connection. We didn’t know about the Savages of Time yet. We were about to find out.
It began in the present time.
“You guys ready?”
He knew that remark would piss off both Dr. Martilova and Susan- both avowed Feminists who were sensitive to any Gender Labels in any kind of speech. Mark didn’t care. He was the Originator of the Theory behind the Time Machine they were about to enter. He liked teasing people who thought they were smarter than him, just because they went to an overpriced Ivy League School, and had published papers based on other people’s works.
Mark would have taunted them some other way if they had been male. Mark had a big chip on his shoulder. Even winning the Nobel Prize, the first ever to win that sterling prize without first obtaining a Doctorate, wasn’t enough to knock that chip off of his shoulder. Mark didn’t have any degrees at all, heck, he didn’t even have a GED. What he did have was a brain capable of thinking so far outside the box, the box was forgotten.
He had built a Time Machine. None of the Ivory Tower Wizards had…he did. Of course, once word got out…money did what it always did, and took it over. So he had to work with the likes of Dr. Martilova, Susan, Bryan, Sanji, and Daniel. All Ph.D’s, all “Experts” in some form of Time Matrix Math or Evolutionary Biology.
They would go on this first “Deep Dive” into time. Mark had made the first two trips himself. One of them in front of that august body that awarded the Nobel Prize. When he stepped into his machine, only to step out a second later- they thought he was a fraud. Until he stepped out with a Newspaper from September 28th, 1951, and a donut.
The members of the Committee had examined the Time Machine before it left to go “back”. It was empty. As Mark had explained to them, all you could bring back with you- was you. When you came “forward” back to the present (as always, when talking about time, you run into those self contradictory statements like: “you have to go back to go forward to the present.“).
Mark had nothing with him when he “left” to go back. When he got back, he had the Newspaper and a donut. Everyone (including Mark) was fascinated as the Newspaper yellowed in front of their eyes, and the donut crumbled into compost, then dust, then…nothing. A lot of potential experiments died on that table with the donut.
It seems if you bring an object back from its original era, it will “age” all the years you took it into its future- fast. The Paper yellowed and became fragile as the eighty three years it was displaced from its time caught up to it in less than a minute. The donut was even more dramatic in its demise.
Artifacts from the Past would have to stay there. Mark seemed unharmed. Nobody knew why…not even Mark.
The Second Time Mark went back he only went back to put something from the present back into the past. Nothing big. A wristwatch. One that hadn’t been invented yet, back in 1990. A smart watch. As soon as Mark Stepped out of the Time Machine, the watch was gone. As if it never existed, which of course, it hadn’t - not for another 28 years would it come into being. Now they knew you couldn’t bring things back from the Past, or things from the Future into the Past.
Only people - it seemed- could go back and then forward again. They had to be naked too. Because clothes not made from material of that time and era, would simply disappear once you stepped out of the Time Machine. So they kept clothes in the Machine itself, which hovered just outside the Time you went to- and therefore anything inside the Time Machine stayed “Now.” Let Mark tell you how all that works some day. I can’t. It makes my head hurt.
But I digress…
“Mark. We are not guys. We are Scientists, Human Beings, and we have names.”
Mark uttered a very insincere apology. He had gotten what he wanted- a response from the arrogant Professor Martilova. He was still pissed that her team of Five Super Experts from five divergent fields: Math, Physics, Anthropology, Evolutionary Biology and Marine Biology- were allowed to go for the First Deep Time Dive- while he had to stay in the present.
“Well, whatever you are. Time to go.”
Mark and several other technicians, politicians, and dignitaries, all chuckled at his pun. It was the moment of truth.
“In you go.”
With a little salute to the gallant five (a nickname that stuck) Mark waved them all into the Time Machine. There was room for even more, but five was the number that the committee thought could handle anything that they might come up against. They were wrong.
Mark closed the Door. Smiled his crooked smile- and made yet another bad pun:
“Make good time.”
Even Debbie, his closest friend, and a heck of an Engineer- gave him the stink eye for that comment. He knew he was close to the line of insubordination, maybe even insult. He didn’t care. He should have been the first to go on a Deep Dive. At the time, he didn’t know how lucky he was. Nobody did.
The warning light flickered. Everyone looked up in varying shades of shock. They were back. Time worked like that. The Machine, even when Mark made his two trips back mere decades- seemed to the folks in the Present to have remained just where it was. The door opens…you get in…the door closes. The door opens…you get out. In the room where the Time Machine is- no Time seems to have gone by at all. But for the folks inside, well, it was a different story.
But if the Alarm went off, that meant something happened back in Time, and the Failsafe had kicked in to bring them back to the Present. EMT’s, Firemen, Doctors, and even a heavily armed Seal Team waited for the door to open- for nobody knew what might come out of it. Or with what. The room where the Time Machine sat was as sterile as any major hospital operations room. All of the standby for emergency Teams were wearing bio hazard suits. Nobody wanted a virus from 600 million years ago to catch them off guard in the present time.
The door opened.
Debbie was the first to speak’
“What the F*ck?! What is that?”
On the bottom of the time machine was a puddle of goo. Not a sign of the Gallant Five. Other than the goo, the Time Machine was empty. The teams started working their protocols. It took three days to figure out what the goo was. It was the Gallant Five.
It took Mark three more days to come up with a working hypothesis. The Scientists loved it. Mark hated it. He should have been nicer to Dr. Martilova and Susan. Nobody deserved to be turned into goo. He felt guilty. If he was right…well, Time had a Time limit.
“What happened? Please tell us in terms we can understand- if you can.”
Mark knew that talking to the Chief of the Armed Forces- who had a direct line to the President - was not the time for double talk, or to demonstrate how big the chip on his shoulder was. Losing the Gallant Five had gone a long way towards knocking that chip off of Mark’s shoulder- replaced by guilt, shame, and blame.
Mark treated it like a Scientific or Military Briefing. No adjectives. Just facts.
“General, we sent them back to the beginning of the Archean Age. There were only single cell life forms, and there was little oxygen. Photo synthesis hadn’t given us even algae yet. When the Team stepped out onto the planet- it was a much different place than it is now.
I think…(Mark had to clear his throat. The image in his mind was making him gag) I think once they stepped out of the machine they disintegrated.”
The General was no Scientist, but he had strong feelings about the unknown. You send your people in to action with the best Intel you could get, the best equipment you could buy, and the highest level of training for the mission you had time to plan out.
These Civilians had just wandered out - naked- into a world they knew nothing about. And ended up goo. The General was angry at so many levels, it would take a Team of Shrinks months to work through.
“General, the “goo” we found in the Time Machine was a mixture of all five crew member’s DNA. Along with some basic proteins. What we think happened is that they realized as soon as they stepped out of Time (and this time Mark made no attempt at a pun) and into the Past- they were in trouble. They must have rushed back in clambering over each other.”
Mark and everyone else in the room knew how smart everyone on that team had been- they knew even as they turned to run back to safety, they were too late. They were probably already disintegrating before they took a single step back into the Time Machine.
The room grew still as the import of Mark’s words hit them. Imagine watching your body turn into goo- and those with you…knowing you can’t stop it. It was a horrible way to die. Even imagining it made more than a few people in that room have to swallow their gorge.
“Why? Why did they turn into goo?”
Mark was ready.
“General, remember in my experiments I brought back a watch to a Time when it didn’t exist…it just disappeared. When I brought something from the past to our Now, well it disintegrated. I think…well…uh…DNA, Human DNA didn’t exist in the Archean, or even the late Proterozoic - so just like the donut I brought back…they fell apart. “
It took ten years before they were ready (or willing) to let Mark’s Time Machine be used again. This time they all agreed to go back to a time when Human’s existed. No more melting because DNA wasn’t around. They chose an era just 35,000 years back, when there were at least three kinds of Humans: Homo Sapiens, Cro-Magnons, and Neanderthal’s - all living at the same time. That should be safe enough.
And we know there was enough oxygen to breathe at that time too. It should be safe enough.
Again…they were wrong.
Mark was a gentler, kinder, much more humble man than the one who sent the Gallant five to their deaths. He had both hope and fear warring within him this time. Fear that some unkind fate awaited these young go getters (no one on this five member team was older than 32- mere children in Mark’s eyes). Hope that they would succeed in their mission and Time could start being explored as uncharted but not unknown territory.
He saluted them gravely as they entered the Time Machine. Unlike ten years ago, everyone was deadly serious. Scared even. The door closed.
The alarm went off.
“Jesus, not again.”
That was Debbie, the first to speak just like ten years ago. The Alarm had gone off, meaning that the Automatic Failsafe had brought the Machine back to the present. And that meant none of the Team could operate the return protocols.
The General, the Scientific Team, and the Emergency responders, all looked grim as they waited for the door to open. They thought they were ready for whatever happened when the door opened. Even if it was another puddle of goo.
They were wrong.
The door opened. It stayed open. Nothing and nobody came out. The General nodded. A Seal Team member (on Point) went in first- weapon ready. Everyone heard the despair in his voice when he backed out almost immediately, weapon pointing at the floor:
“Oh, shit. Those poor people.”
Then he sagged to his knees. A big tough combat hardened Navy Seal, broke down and babbled: “F*ck. F*ck. F*ck. Shit. It ain’t right. Oh. God. Oh. God. I am so sorry.”
The other Seal Team members gently pulled him to the side, weapons ready to go in and see what broke him. Two of them went in this time, regulation manner- one high looking left, one low, looking right. A wasted precaution. All they had to do was look straight ahead to the back wall of the Time Machine. They lowered their weapons and stepped back out. Tears already forming in their eyes.
“General. You don’t need us. You need someone good with animals.”
It took a while to get close to the Five Beings in the Time Machine. They remained huddled up against the wall. Clutching each other with terror blanking what little minds they had left. It was food and water (Placed in front of them in bowls), since none of the five could figure out what a glass was - to them it must have looked like water standing up by magic. It took a while to figure out that none of the five could recognize food that wasn’t a plant- or meat still attached to an animal. Those first few days were a nightmare for both the Five who went back, and everyone who was there to greet them.
They were still Human, but Savages. That nickname stuck. The Savages of Time. Articles, papers, and many documentaries were made about them. For the few years they lived that is. The pictures said it all. Five wild eyed terrified creatures, savages really, looking back at the camera as if it was a snake. They all looked so human, until you looked close.
No one could explain how the features of Cro-Magnon, Neanderthal, and early Homo Sapiens blended in different ways on all five members of that team. They were no longer recognizable as those young vibrant folks filled with cheer and excitement that stepped into the Time Machine. Nobody knew which one of these creatures was the counterpart of the Modern Human that went back in Time.
The Autopsies and DNA studies done on them after they died, weren’t clear. They knew that all five died of old age- at 38 years subjective. They went in the Time Machine as 30 year olds. They died outside the machine as old men and women as 38 year olds.
The last one to die, only outlived her small “tribe” by a year. It was pretty apparent that she died of loneliness rather than any disease of aging or illness. None of the five ever learned to speak, or communicate past pointing and grunting.
The Law Suits from Friends, Family, and Lovers, took longer to settle than any of the Five lived. Not that it mattered to any of the Five…the Savages of Time. They didn’t belong in the Modern Time- and they couldn’t go back. Mark argued for that option. To no avail.
It was Debbie who made it clear to Mark that sending them back would just make them isolated in that time, where no one would care for them. They would have died more horribly than we could imagine. They wouldn’t have fit in back then - since they were clearly hybrids of all three “human Species” and a touch of the Modern man too. They would have starved, been beaten or hunted, or eaten by some beast or another.
Mark had to admit, Debbie was right.
The Time Machine was destroyed.
The Savages of Time were eventually forgotten by the general Public. A Century or so later, even the whole project was forgotten. Just an Urban legend that had grown so far from the truth that only wisps of any accuracy remained.
Somewhere in a Cave in France, some 35,000 years ago, five savages huddled together and drew the animals they had seen as they trampled a weary path through the jungle to that cave. They put handprints on the walls with fingers as long and slender as any twentieth century model.
They went back out of that cave. Back to the shiny box that had brought them. None of them knew why. They were savages. They went in the shiny box, the same one they had wandered out of all those years ago. It was untouched, unchanged, but it smelled familiar and safe.
So they went in. Once all five were inside, an alarm went off. They huddled up against the wall. Their clothes, tools, and even the dye on their hands fading away as the door opened. The light was so bright.
A creature came on holding some kind of stick out in front of him…they started wailing. It was so tall. It backed out. Then two more even taller creatures with those funny sticks came inside…the five clung to each other in abject fear. Howling and screeching.