There are two ways for historians to do this: You either go there yourself and examine the thing, or you bring someone back who can explain it to you.
When Sherezade opened her eyes she didn’t know what the bright lights were. It wasn’t the sun, and it wasn’t any fire she knew.
The machines that kept her down made no sense to her. The medicine they used to sedate her. Noises she had never heard before. She remembered blue, a shard of blue light blinding her, making her fall. She was strapped to a bed now. Beep, beep. Sounds she had never heard before. The air was different. Colder, like winter, but humid, like somewhere she had never been.
The girl found herself in a foreign world, and yet something about it, a distant echo – it felt like this happened before. Happened to her. Like she had been coming back here.
She’s awake, somebody was saying.
Rena was not a Historian, no way, she was just a Stenographer.
The feel of sand under the feet, that’s what she was sent to record. The scent of long-extinct animals. The particular glint off the highest dome at midday in the Sassanid Empire.
It was a meticulous work, but after the Collapse any evidence of written word from the past had been erased, and it would take decades to recover all that knowledge. It was all very professional, even the adventure of it all. You could not travel to the era of the Collapse, nobody had been able, but you could go anywhere else in the past, take notes and recompose History again.
What survived were indexes, some footnotes, a vague idea of when and where and what was important. Historian, stenographers, quantity surveyors, oral tradition techniques, those were the people used to quench the curiosity of the Now regarding the Then.
It was the most fantastical stories that demanded the most exact minutiae. Rena felt like she was there to record each grain of sand in the desert.
The men dressed in white were staring at her now, taking notes. Surgeons, doctors, they said they were. Here to help her. She couldn’t see their faces. There were lights in her. They hurt. The clothes they dressed her in were strange. She felt naked. Her feet were cold.
Everybody was interested in the past now that it was safe to touch it.
At first time-travel technology had been something frightful, unbearable. The Collapse had enclosed all of the past in a bubble. A snow-ball containing the whole of history. The Collapse was the limit, the frontier. Nothing that came before, if altered, could affect the world Rena lived in. The past became a sandbox. Soon they would be issuing holiday tickets to the Then, Rena thought with derision. Tourists and sniffers all around the past, until it became crowded as the present. What people admired about the past was all that space, so hard to imagine. People would come here for the views, not the stories. Games, it was all games.
Ancient, lost languages were easy to learn. It was a safe bet of a hobby. Rena had been sent here of all places because she knew them; Persian, Hebrew, Turkish.
Tell a story.
That hadn’t changed. That the girl remembered.
The men spoke her language, but it came out of their mouths all wrong. Like birds can learn words but can’t understand them. She didn’t understand what they wanted from her, though they explained themselves over and over.
The doctors showed her a book. She recognized the titles, the names.
“This is my book, but I haven’t written it.”
“It’s a 12th century version, from Cairo. Well after your time.”
She didn’t understand. But she was happy that her hands were touching something familiar: paper and ink, bound by strings. She fought when they took the book away from her.
We thought you were a legend.
They strapped her to the bed again. I am a scholar, I’m not a martyr, she repeats to herself. They run more tests and she watched the colour of her blood change under the green lights. There are so many things we want to ask, they were saying. But the girl was weak. She was tired. She felt like a single moment had been trapped inside a jewel chest and now each second felt like ten hundred years to her.
When the doctors were gone she refused to sleep. Weak and trapped, yes, but she was still herself. She was a philosopher. She had painted cities in shimmering colours. She had discovered stars and used words in ways they had never been used. Wherever she was it was not a place fit for someone like her. She had to leave. Her scattered thoughts converged on this one idea. She had to run.
Take me with you when you go, a voice whispered thunder beside her.
She was not alone in the room. There was a presence that made her feel like she was standing on the highest balcony of her husband’s kingdom, and all the elements were unleashed against her, wind and rain, snow and lightning. It was unpleasant, but it was real. The first real thing in this unreal place. The girl writhed and squirmed trying to see. But the room was in darkness except for the machines and their tiny lights and their noises. If there was someone or something else here the girl could not tell. She was about to tell herself it had been her imagination, the exhaustion, the drugs they were pumping into her body.
“I can help you escape,” the voice repeated. “But you have to take me with you.”
“How can you help me escape?”
“I just can.”
She felt the straps that held her to the bed loosen just enough that she could fight them with some measure of hope.
There was something buried in the sand.
Just as well because Rena was tired of the same landscape, drawing in her sketchbook the shape of a dune that was exactly like the dune before, and the one before that, noting how the skin in her face dried as she stood under the sun. Scribbling about time and unthinkable distances. She had been walking for hours just to record what walking for hours felt like.
She parted the veil of sand with her hand, uncovering something solid underneath – a piece of pottery. She brushed her fingers over the curve; there was a deep crack running through it, but the object was still in one piece despite the damage. It was cracked. It wasn’t broken.
A relic. This was good luck. Everybody loved relics – especially if they could get them as close to the relevant historical period as they could. Which made them not relics, if you asked Rena. But nobody asked, they just paid very well. After the Collapse and with all these workers going back to the Then the antiques market was in boom, but it had become a bizarre oxymoron.
Even with the imperfections Rena could probably get a good price on this. It was a simple, but pretty, not relic.
But something was wrong; as she freed the vase –no, wait, it was a jar– Rena had the feeling she was not safe. With one hand she held the jar, and the other rested on the weapon on her belt. Everybody, even a mere Stenographer like her, was issued a standard paralyzer. The kind proper historians used to carry people back to the Now from their respective periods. Collecting meaningful historical figures was a very lucrative business. There was a reason why low-rank travellers like Rena were sent to uninhabited places like the middle of the desert in the first place; the temptations were too great for the undisciplined.
There were bones inside the jar.
Rena reached and touched the tip of her fingers to one of them, a radius. She choked when the fog spilled out of the jar, like a river overflowing. A sense of suddenly not being alone overcame her. The grip on her weapon tightened. She took the safety off; the blue bubbles of the liquid powering the gun forming and popping in a frenzied dance.
But she didn’t take aim as had been her first instinct. Instead she watched, dog-dumb, as the fog picked the bones up from the jar, and circled around them, solidifying, like muscles building a body from outside in. There were muscles, but not like human muscles. There was skin, but it was more like that of a snake, or a fish. It had eyes, but they were not human eyes. They were charcoal black, and without eyelids. Eyes like a wildcat, like tar, like the worst thought you ever had in your life, the one that kept you awake.
It was looking at her now. It was waiting, silent, like this had happened before.
It was waiting for Rena.
And Rena, well, Rena didn’t really have the security clearance to interact with any living person of the time. Though she doubted this was a person, or that it was even living per se. She knew what was happening. She had read about stuff like this.
In the world after the Collapse legend and history were the same thing.
“I know what you are,” Rena said and the creature nodded. It was a heavy nod, like it was someone carrying a heavy, planet-sized load on its shoulders. Rena was still holding her gun; these things had been known to be dangerous, treacherous, cunning. She didn’t want to be made a fool of.
When the creature spoke its voice was storm-like, it could shake Rena out of this world.
“I can give you whatever your heart desires.”
Okay, Rena thought. I have a list.
She was an expert in running away, stalling, escaping her fate.
When she took out all the tubes and the needles from her body the beeping sound around her turned into a flat, continuous note. She would have gone crazy if she had stayed. She saw a door and she walked out. She didn’t know how, she was just grateful she could.
It didn’t matter where she is now. The strange lights, the sounds. The feel of stone under her feet, all the time. She was barefoot. Her wrists itched from where she pried open the ropes that were holding her. She feels naked under her scarce clothes.
It’s as if she has been walking for hours.
Everything in this strange new world seemed made to dazzle her; she had seen glorious cities, made out of a hundred different delicate threads of gold, like tender tendrils converging on a hundred minarets. But nothing so immense and colourful as the road she walked on now. The people and the clothes they are clad in. The wild animals passing her by, and flying above her head. Buildings made of metal and glass, built next to each other as if fighting for space. Flashes of light coming from every window, windows as large as whole buildings, paintings as high as the sky. The paintings moved, they followed the girl, the girl treaded on. People stopped and stared at her, just like the doctors. Their glances were curious and threatening at the same time. The girl doesn’t look back. She staggers on. She holds it close to her now, the one possession she has now, fingers clenched in fists, clutching it against her chest. The half-broken jar, the sharp contours where the clay cracked, it doesn’t matter even if it cuts into her hands. She must keep it with her. She has the feeling if she lets go, even for a moment, all will be lost.
They must be looking for her already. She might be new to this world but she knows that. She has experience. Maybe this time she has an advantage.
I can help you but you have to take me with you.
Maybe this time.
The girl kept her head down. The noise around her pierced. So loud. So unnatural. A city made of noise. It’s almost enough to stop her in her tracks. Confuse her, paralyze her. Almost enough but not quite enough. She is free. All her existence is composed of being free. Now she is a runaway. And a thief. Yes, let’s not forget that, she is a thief.
She will escape this place.
She always does.
Rena sees the figure coming up the next dune.
Perhaps it’s the next dune, or the next one, she can’t tell them apart. She has been walking for a couple of hours in the direction the creature had pointed. But Rena is quite good with directions and she has the feeling she has been walking in circles, though she doesn’t know how. The jar of clay now hangs from her belt, besides her weapon. She doesn’t think the jar will work when she comes back to the Now but there is no harm in trying.
Rena was beginning to think it had all been a scam when she sees the figure coming up, walking laboriously, dragging her feet across the desert.
There are two ways for historian to do the job: either go there to examine it or bring someone back who can explain.
This was not what she had been looking for when she arrived at this place, but… how could anyone pass up such opportunity? Audentes fortuna iuvat, although Latin was not really her thing. Bubbles forming and bursting. She knew who the girl was, before she said even one word. Rena had done her homework. A young girl, bruises on her arms, a piece of cloth barely held together over her slight frame. There’s no mistaking it.
The girl put her free hand up to the sky, blocking the sun. She smiled when she sees Rena.
“My name is Scheherazade.” she will say.
The next thing is: a flash of blue light.
The bloodied hand of the girl lets go.
The noise of a body falling on sand. The noise of clay cracking but not breaking.
Lara A Corona was born in a small city in the north of Spain. She studied Film and TV at college in Madrid before moving to London. Her fiction has been showcased in ABC Tales and the Glass Woman Prize, and more recently she has been published by The Copperfield Review. Her translation of Heidi James’ experimental novel “Carbon” came out in Spain in 2011. She is now working towards a degree in creative writing.