“So how did this bust end up in the Thames?”
Joshua Carter reached for air to counteract the flush which he knew was flooding his face, and he knew that the flush would only deepen as soon as he thought about the flush and how his audience of thirty would perceive the flush. “Frankly,” he began, bringing his hand to his chin as if to contemplate the question. He ended with “I don’t know,” and the hand went to cover the lower half of his face.
“Perhaps it was lost by Vikings on their way back from raiding a Roman colony,” one of Carter’s more chipper, and more American, tour listeners offered, in an apparent attempt to be helpful.
There were gasps among the audience of thirty gathered around a bust of what appeared to be a Roman legionary, a set of distant-looking eyes dominant over a breastplate and twin shoulder plates. Those eyes looked through centuries at a bespectacled and besweatered Carter, who stamped his foot on the marble floor with each successive “No!,” all three of them.
“The Romans were long gone from Britain by the time the Vikings arrived!” Carter had been gesticulating with his hands, and now both came down forcefully with “By centuries!”
The chipper listener had taken two steps back, backing up against her husband. “I didn’t know–“
“Of course you didn’t know!” Carter’s hands were flailing again, pausing only to allow his hand to push his glasses back up along the bridge of his nose. “No one ever knows! No one ever cares! But they should know, and they should care! History is who we are!”
When Carter’s hands stopped once more, they were above his shoulders, and a bored-looking security guard was leaning towards one ear. “Doctor Smith warned you about these outbursts, Doctor Carter,” the guard whispered.
“Doctor Smith,” Carter whispered back to himself, his eyes re-focusing on the present reality. The hands dropped to his sides, and he glanced at his watch without consulting it. The arms crossed themselves below a forced smile. “The museum will be closing shortly; now would be a good time to end the tour. Please be sure to visit the bookshop and–“
By the time Carter had finished his required sales litany, the crowd before he and the dutiful centurion had long since disappeared, with more than one muttered deprecation along the lines of “Mad Englishman.” The museum’s deputy assistant curator poked at his glasses once more, ran a hand through his unkempt hair, and promptly marched off to the stairwell which led to his cubbyhole office on the subterranean floor below.
It was from the corner of stairwell and hall that Joshua Carter stopped to look back at the bust centered against one wall between two enormous floor-to-ceiling windows which let in the gray light of a late London afternoon, the new addition’s prominent position in the gallery belying the museum’s lack of knowledge as to its provenance. Carter saw not only the bust; he also saw a man in a tweed jacket and blue bowtie standing before it. For one moment in time, the curator discerned a remarkable resemblance between the twin sets of features looking at one another across the span of centuries.
It was in the next moment that the man with the blue bowtie and tweed jacket flicked his right wrist. The hand below that wrist was then grasping something, and raising that something to the legionary’s decidedly un-Roman nose …
“Stop him! Stop that man!” Carter shouted down the hallway, for the benefit of the two security guards loitering at the opposite end. They saw Carter, they saw the man Carter was pointing at, and they saw the same man drop his hand from the bust’s face and look quickly down each half-length of the gallery.
The moment after Carter had uttered the word “man,” that “man” was sprinting directly towards him. Carter threw himself bodily at the would-be vandal, and was knocked bodily to the marble floor as a result of his effort.
When Carter looked up again the two guards, themselves having taken up the shout, were scurrying around him and down the flight of stairs, which the curator surmised the stranger had descended. Carter looked for his blood, found none, and gingerly pushed himself up into a standing position. He then walked down the hallway to inspect the bust, found it undamaged, and trotted back towards the stairs to assist in the apprehension of one who would dare to alter history.
It was at the bottom of the stairs, on the floor below, that Carter found the pair of guards congregated with another pair who had been stationed on that lower level, standing and discussing the various exits. “Well, where is he?” the deputy assistant curator demanded, not wanting to accept the fact that the stranger was nowhere to be seen.
Not one of the guards bothered to answer the question, but instead all four ventured forth from the foot of the staircase to guard the four possible venues of escape for the man in question.
Carter found himself alone on the lower floor, near closing time, and he sighed in resignation. He took a right down the hallway, taking the usual forty-three steps to the frosted-glass-and-wood door of his office, and he entered that office to begin that night’s session of research.
It was after he had closed the door behind himself that Carter noticed something amiss about the filing cabinet set against the wall opposite his desk: the top drawer was open. Carter opened his mouth to scream, but the man with the blue bowtie pounced from behind Carter’s desk, forced Carter’s body against the door, switched off the office light, and pressed his steel file beneath Carter’s Adam’s apple, all in a series of motions that took less than two seconds.
“Scream, and you die,” a voice whispered in the darkness.
“No scream,” Carter gasped out.
The pressure of the steel slackened, but only slightly. “Where are the records of that bust?”
“What bust?” Carter croaked.
The file’s pressure was greater than ever, and Carter gasped at the thought of his blood being drawn. “Bottom.” He was back to gasping.
The overhead light switched back on. “Retrieve it.”
The file was removed from Carter’s throat, and he was pulled-pushed to the cabinet and pushed onto his knees before the bottom drawer. The steel point returned to his skin, this time behind one ear.
Carter did as he was told, opening the bottom drawer and rummaging through the files before quickly alighting on a Manila folder in the center.
“Give me the folder.”
“The photo prints are at the bottom.”
Carter made the motion of giving the stranger the folder, while in actuality pulling his hands quickly from the folder’s interior. The pull was quick enough to throw sand from the ancient city of Petra into the stranger’s eyes, and the move gave Carter the opportunity to push the steel away from his ear and to stand erect. He lunged for his furiously squinting captor, and knocked the steel out of his hand by knocking him to the floor.
Carter now lunged for the steel file, and within moments it was he who had its point at an opponent’s throat, from a straddling position which pinned his captor to the floor.
“Kill me,” the stranger hissed from his prostrate position directly in front of the door.
Carter’s two hands on the steel wavered with shock, but then pressed more firmly against the jugular at Carter’s thought of being taunted.
“Kill me,” the man repeated, again without a trace of mockery in either voice or visage.
The steel wavered once more, then fell with a clatter to the floor as Carter pushed himself off the intruder and slumped against the nearest side of his desk. Neither man moved from his respective position, Carter breathing heavily, and the curator simply asked, “Why?”
“Why would you want to deface an ancient Roman bust, especially one that looks like you? Why would you want to steal records of it? Why would you want to die?”
The stranger had pushed his torso up off the floor with an elbow and hand, but did not reach for the weapon lying on that same floor between the two of them. “Many questions, one answer.” He looked not at Carter’s quizzical expression, but at the pack of cigarettes which formed a small bulge in the curator’s breast pocket. “Could you spare a fag?”
The stranger inhaled in silence, but then hissed an exhalation into the air above his seated position along the bottom of the door. “I come from a different time.”
Carter, his back against the near end of his desk, exhaled from his own cigarette. “I don’t follow.”
The stranger, to all appearances a thirty-year-old man who indeed bore an uncanny resemblance to the subject of the ancient bust directly over their heads in the gallery above, smiled and sighed, this time without smoke. “I know more about that bust than you do.”
Now it was Carter’s turn to smile. “Really?”
The stranger spoke around the smoke exhaling once more from his mouth, as if it was not there. “Indeed, I know it was most likely found at the bottom of the Thames.”
Carter’s smile turned into a laugh. “That’s information provided on the display plaque–“
“Most likely just below where the Tower of London now stands, in the river’s center.” Carter’s grin vanished, and the stranger continued. “You most likely found it with a companion bust, that of a woman twenty years of age.” The stranger sighed. “Quite a beauty, she was.” He caught Carter’s look. “Or you didn’t find the other bust.”
Carter looked stunned, and his cigarette smoldered unsmoked in his right hand. “We did, and it had been defaced by a ship’s keel centuries before.”
“Ahhh.” The stranger paused to inhale-exhale once more. “What I would not give to have her back,” the stranger glanced at his audience of one with an amused expression, “in sculpture, or in life.”
Carter’s cigarette smoldered on. “Who is the subject of the bust?”
The stranger smoked, calmly. “I think you already know the answer to that, my good friend.”
Carter broke the latest eye contact, and tapped his lengthy ash out onto the concrete floor. “I beg to differ.”
When Carter looked back, he saw that the stranger’s eyes had not moved. “Do you know where and when those busts were produced?” the stranger asked.
“We have theories, but–“
“One was created in the late second century. The marble for both was quarried at Carrara, Italy.”
Carter absently stubbed the cigarette out on the concrete. “But the Romans only began excavating at Carrara in the third century–“
The stranger quickly, yet calmly, held up a hand. “Yes, you twenty-first century scholars have much to learn about the previous twenty.”
Carter slumped against his desk. “Who are you?”
The stranger’s hands were loosely intertwined above his knees. “One question, many answers.” Still he smiled.
“Who is the subject of the bust?”
“That bust, my good friend, is of me.”
Joshua Carter laughed, and pushed his glasses back up along his nose. “I still don’t believe.”
The stranger sighed a very long sigh, but not one of exasperation. “You need not believe; merely listen.”
Carter stopped laughing, then nodded, slowly, above the second cigarette he had drawn from his pack.
“I am from the year A.D. Twenty Thirty, from America. I was granted a fellowship at your University of Salisbury, an opportunity to work on a project first conceived by Doctor Alan Earhart, an American physicist who had passed away nearly three decades before.”
“What does this have to do with ancient Roman sculpture?” Carter was leaning forward from his desk’s side panel, dragging fiercely on his cigarette every several seconds.
“The project’s aim, my good friend, was time travel.” The stranger, no longer smoking, rested his hands in the side pockets of his unbuttoned tweed jacket and continued on. “I was first puzzled by the offer, by the University’s choice of an American student of European history, my background as a Rhodes Scholar notwithstanding.”
Carter grasped. “And so you are a fellow scholar–“
“Not exactly. Or more accurately, not entirely. I never had the opportunity to go on to complete my dissertation, thanks to a bar bet one night, after a few pints at the local pub.
“It was obvious why that group of Brit scientists would want an expert on the past as part of their team. What was less obvious was why they would want that expert to be an American.”
“Precisely. A number of years after the death of Doctor Earhart, who died under tragic circumstances that I can only guess at and which led to the shutdown of the original project, a woman by the name of Judy Coppola posted a detailed description of that project on the Internet, her prior Pentagon security clearance be damned.”
“She would have been prosecuted–“
“She posted it from Brazil, from a laptop deep in the Amazonian jungle.”
The stranger spoke more and more rapidly, his words gathering momentum. “Not as interesting as what she posted: a detailed description of a time travel device, complete with schematics.”
“Is it still posted?”
“It was posted in the future–“
“It was posted in an entirely different alternity from the one I am currently in, and therefore from the one you are currently in.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Don’t follow; merely listen.”
The stranger continued after Carter answered with silence. “As a fellow American working for the University, I was assigned the task of establishing contact with Miss Coppola, of coaxing whatever additional information out of her that I could, particularly whether Earhart’s team had devised, or attempted to devise, a means of return through time. She was uncooperative after I tracked her down, having been motivated to post those plans not to encourage time travel, but to punish her government for wanting to use the technology for military means.
“But no matter. Once I was involved in the project, I was hooked. They were quite fascinating exercises, determining the exact history, in topographical and architectural as well as historical terms, of each potential site for our little infernal machine, the site where a manned capsule would be dropped through the time elapsed over one patch of ground, the only constant being that patch of ground.
“And that patch of ground – that site – where is it?” Carter’s eyes indicated that he had ceased to disbelieve the stranger’s tale, even if he still could not quite believe.
The stranger sighed, smiled, and proceeded to untie his bowtie. “Exact geography is not important. Rest assured that we settled on a circle of Earth which had remained unforested and uninhabited for at least the last two thousand years. At least that was my knowledge, and that knowledge came in useful the night I was challenged for a wager of a round.”
“You dared to jump back in time.”
The stranger nodded, once. “To A.D. Thirty, to be precise, precisely two thousand years before the night in the pub.”
Carter laughed again, and stubbed out his second cigarette. “You look terrific for a man who’s two thousand years old!” He banged the back of his head against his desk and cackled.
The stranger waited until Carter’s mirth had subsided. “Two thousand five, to be exact,” he replied sternly.