The journey had been a rough one. The seldom-used road, full of deep ruts from the spring rains, made his horse-drawn carriage buck and heave, flinging him about like a beach pebble tossed by the waves. He had been three days on the road, stopping at tiny inns for a quick meal, a change of horses, and sleepless nights on cheap, lumpy beds, only to wake again and again, tangled in sweat dampened sheets, finding no comfort in the dark and unfamiliar rooms.
But finally, late the afternoon of the third day, when his coachman had swung off the main route and onto a tree-lined gravel drive, he could lean out the window, look across the meadows, and see his destination in the distance. There it stood, like a great stone pile that had heaved itself up out of the land as though some earthquake had birthed it – gray, massive, an impenetrable castle keep, whose tall tower glared back at him. Upon coming closer he could hear the sound of waves on rock, and closer still, saw that the house was perched high on a chalk cliff overlooking the sea.
The huge oak door was imposing, but the knocker was even more so. Of black iron with a gargoyle face, its rusty red tongue extended inches downward to form a handle, while its dark visage cast an ominous pall over the entrance. Reaching up he hesitated. Then, pulling his sleeve down over his hand so he wouldn’t have to touch it, he grasped the tongue between thumb and forefinger to knock.
Before he could release the disgusting thing, the door burst open with a hearty “John! Where have you been, me lad? Come in – come in.”
A wiry little man with shoulder length hair pulled back in a pony tail, wire rim glasses, and a clean-shaven face, peered out at the retreating carriage. “Did you check to make sure no one was following?” he said as he closed and locked the door behind his visitor.
“Of course. You know I always check.”
The interior of the house was in stark contrast to the outside. Bright, clean, simple, almost Spartan in its furnishings, the long narrow room stretched fifteen feet to a half open door, through which there glowed a strange blue light.
As the little man took his hat, John said, “William. It’s good to see you at last. What a gruesome trip.” Removing his gloves, John strode into the house and down the hall as though he owned it. “Get me out of this god-awful period costume. Lord, the way these people had to travel. Impossible.”
In the next room sat four men and two women at computer consoles. The entire wall behind them was a dynamic map of the region, glowing with activity, much like the radar screens in the command tower of a 21st century airport.
A woman in bright yellow halter top and black slacks looked up as the two men entered. “John, you’re late. We’re only minutes until the next phase shift and you’re obviously not ready.”
“Okay Gloria,” John replied. “Get Judith from wardrobe. Get her now! Timothy from makeup can get me started and I’ll finish the rest while I’m transiting.”
“But you haven’t read the script yet, nor done the accent and language dream time.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll read as I go and wing the rest. I’ve done it before.”
“Yes, but you know how hazardous that is. Our backers were almost scared off the last time, when you nearly got one of our agents killed. We had to go back and wipe the memories of three innocents, and do a time-suck on the rest of that day.”
“Okay, okay,” John said. “But there’s no one else qualified for the Crusades, so I’ve got to go. I’ll be careful. Is the machine prepped?”
“It’s been difficult,” Gloria said. “I’ve been able to hold it in stasis for the last half hour, but you’ve got to hurry.”
Through this entire conversation John had removed his period costume and now stood stark naked in the middle of the room. Turning toward the door he was just in time to see what looked like at 12-year-old boy with bottle-thick glasses and shaved head rush into the room. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. “There were considerable delays with my last client.”
“Timothy,” John said. “I need massive bulking up. This 18th century British intellectual I’ve been will never survive this next trip. I want you re-sculpt my body to a full six feet six with 250 pounds of muscle, thirty years of age, and the reflexes of a eleventh century warrior prince. And Gloria, get me period armor with the added protection of a personal shield. Tune it to a two inch aura – enough to protect but not enough to be obvious. The last thing we need is to leave a dead body behind – too many differences.”
While John spoke, Gloria and Timothy moved to a three-sided console that stood next to a tall box-like cabinet, not much bigger than a shower stall. As she made some final adjustments, Gloria interrupted him. “John, enough. It’s time. Please step inside.”
With these words, John stepped into the box. As the door clicked shut, a loud groan seemed to push upward from some deep subterranean place below them, and for a moment the room became unbearably hot. The box began to hiss and groan. A sickly green haze swelled out from the box until the box disappeared and nothing but a cloud of mist remained. This thickened until it took on the appearance of a dense green Jell-O. As the two continued to work the console, an invisible blade began to sculpt the huge mass. Rapidly a giant warrior appeared, crouched in a fighting stance. In one hand was a huge sword, in the other a short blade and shield. A fierce energy radiated from the phantom shape.
With a clap of thunder the whole image collapsed into a wet green puddle on the floor, and in its place stood the cabinet. It had taken only a minute, but a completely new John was on his way to his next assignment.