Queasy and needy, George Wales’s knees were shaking. Sharp blades of grass crept between his fingers. Time travel did that to you, so they said. It turned you inside out, upside down, the wrong way round, outside in. The past was the present and the present was the past. Wales stifled the urge to vomit and forced himself to get up.
Water was his next requirement, and fortunately it was close at hand: a wide stream that was so cold that when he cupped his hands to drink, it made him gasp. It was meltwater from the mountains whose shadows shambled along beyond the treeline.
Wales studied his face in the water. The trip had made little difference to his appearance. He still had the same stubbled chin, the crow’s feet round the eyes, the rubbery orange protective suit that made him sweat inside. With a bitter grimace, he rubbed his hand over his forehead and around the sides of his head. Time travel hadn’t allowed his hair to grow back either.
That he was lost in time was obvious. The wrong place, the wrong era, the wrong everything. Wales wondered whether it was all some joke played by his colleagues back at Central. Would they play with time? Sometimes it felt like humanity played with nothing but.
As he made his camp, gasping in the oxygen-rich air, he uncovered a hole in the ground. A shrew-like head popped out, with a long pink nose that quivered towards him, as though sniffing him out. The shrew was about the size of an egg, covered in fine brown hair, and seemed unafraid of this sudden arrival from the future.
Wales chuckled, and then carried on building a shelter out of sticks and leaves. The more he worked, the more of the little creatures appeared. They ran along the branches he was carrying in his arms. They scampered over the toes of his waterproof boots. They sat on their hind legs and watched him in a row, like tiny spectators at a tennis match.
Days passed and nobody came to rescue him. His time was taken up with protecting his shelter from the rain and fishing in the river for food. Fat, greasy carp-like animals made up his diet. The river was so full of them that all he had to do was wade into the shallows, and then reach in to scoop them up in his arms. Once they were roasting on a spit, they were bearable enough, despite the flesh’s gelatinous texture.
Everything was fine with his camp except for the colony of shrews, which grew bolder by the day. They would nibble his food. If he opened his pack, a flurry of tails and whiskers would surge out of every compartment. He would wake in the night and find them flitting through his bedding. Once even he woke to find one sitting on his mouth. Man and rodent stared at each other for a moment locked in time, dark eyes gazing back and forth.
That had been the last straw. Wales’s pitiful store of tolerance was at an end.
“Vermin,” he said, “that’s what they are. Vermin. And what do you do with Vermin? Wipe them out!”
There was a tank of Cleengaz in his pack for just such emergencies. Operated by a hand pump, a tube could be inserted into an an enclosed area where it released a gas which would swiftly and painlessly eradicate life. Wales would wait for the optimum moment, an afternoon in a rainstorm. In such moments, all the shrews would scurry home and cower in their burrow. Ripe for extermination.
The day was not long in coming. Elbow jigging up and down, the time-traveller approached the entrance hole, fine bubbles building in the hand pump’s transparent tank.
“Damn them all!” he spat. “Damn their furry pelts! Damn their dainty toes! Damn their wibbling, wobbling proboscises (or should that be probosci?)! Goddam this plague that just won’t leave me alone.”
After so much silence, the voice shocked him. Spinning around, he saw a young time operative, a woman with long blonde hair, in a skintight costume like his own. Wales had no time to react before a line of curling fire blazed from her blaster, punctured his chest directly through the heart, only to emerge out the other side where it burned a black hole in a tree trunk. Thin smoke rose from the scorched bark. Wales fell face down onto the greensward.
The last thing he saw as his life ebbed away was the face of that woman leaning over him. She was speaking, though the words seemed to come from far away, becoming more distant all the while.
“I am operative Laura Singer, licenced to remove free radicals from the time stream, and you, George Wales, through your stupidity, are one of the greatest threats that we have ever encountered.”
Despite her harsh words, Singer looked at her vanquished target with something akin to pity.
“Have you no idea what you were about to do? You were about to wipe out the first and only known warren of our earliest mammalian ancestor. Those shrews are known as Juramaia sinensis – the Ur-mammal, the first of our kind, and as much a part of the human family tree as your grandmother or mine.” Her blonde hair shook as she tutted. “Honestly, Wales, its vermin like you that gives humanity a bad name.”
(c) Alastair Savage, 2016