The Lighter
by Georgepat
forum: The Lighter
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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The Lighter


        Jimmy Norris spun the wheel of his lighter against the small piece of flint, and a flame ignited the tinder he had hastily assembled at his feet and soon burst into flame.

        “About damned time,” he said aloud, as he sat back on his haunches and pulled his kill closer to the fire.

        'Why did I ever let them talk me into this?' he thought, as he started to skin the animal and prepare it to cook.

        He cast a glance over his shoulder and saw that the machine was sitting where he had left it two weeks ago. It gleamed in the light of the fire; its gauges and dials glowed weakly but for all intents and purposes, were totally useless now. Somehow, he had messed up what was supposed to be an easy, everyday entry into the past and he was now, sadly, stuck here.

        “Damnit,” he said again, “I just can’t win.”

* * *

        A young girl out for a walk with her dog discovered the bones. The week before, there had been a terrible rainstorm that had caused the local creeks to swell and for some of them to overflow their banks, exposing the layers below. Time was pushed aside as the rushing waters did what they do so well.

        The call came to the college the next morning after the police had determined that there had been no crime committed and that they would not be involved in this situation.

        Daren Thomas, a third year post graduate student in Anthropology, had been the lucky fellow assigned to the phones that night and he dutifully wrote down the caller's statement, asked a few standard questions and decided that the best thing for him to do was to phone his professor for his input.

        Professor J. Thomas Lowe swung his feet from his bed as he picked up the receiver and spoke quietly, not wanting to awaken his wife.

        “Yes, what is it?”

        “It’s been found, sir, right where you predicted it might be. I thought you might want to know and called you right away.”

        “Yes, thank you. You did well, and I thank you for the call.”

        Professor Lowe slowly ran his hands through his unruly long hair and attempted to sweep it back and put it into his usual ponytail with no success.

        “Two hundred and fifty thousand years ago, he walked here and he died here. Who was he and most importantly, how did he come to be here?” he wondered aloud.

        His doctoral thesis had concerned the fact that there had had early experimentation with time travel as far back as 2025. That wasn’t the issue. What the issue was, and almost no one outside of the scientists that actually worked on the projects knew this, was that three early time machines and their operators had disappeared and were never heard from again.

        The final telemetry received on the computers before the machines shifted through the opening in the time slots had been expected—everything was normal, but no bounce back occurred then, and with the small exception of one machine, ever. Already sworn to silence, nothing was said to the media and it was chalked up as part of the necessary cost of this new and wonderful technology.

* * *

        During my research, I happened on a document that had been tucked into the back of an old, obscure hard drive under its connection ribbon at the university’s library. What made it stand out was that it was handwritten on a piece of real paper. I had only seen three pieces of paper in my life up to that point and I now held in my hands a primitive letter, and that alone excited me.

        When I read the text that was from a Dr. Richardson to a fellow member of academia in reference to a lost machine and its operator in 2028, I knew that I might be on to something important.

        The document concerned a finding at a archeological dig that was totally inconsistent to what should have been found in an area that had once been thought to be inhabited by a race of pre homo sapiens that were well known to have existed at that time.

Dear Lyle,

I know it’s been years since we have touched base with one another and for that I’m truly sorry. My wife and I speak of you and Linda fondly so very often and we both regret that our careers have pulled us apart. We have never forgotten the days when the four of us would spend hours discussing our various views of life and spending time together.

The life of an active and untenured professor of archeology was a constant battle of wills. My will to succeed and the university’s will exerting itself by insisting that I publish or perish in my chosen profession have taken it’s toll on me.

I’m tired of the infighting between the departments and I’m especially tired of the ass kissing that is expected in order to secure you’re esteemed place in this hallowed sphere of life.

It is for those reasons and many more that I could not mention at that time, that I write you now after all these years and I pray that you will understand.

Many years ago, I was assigned as an assistant to Professor Kensington (I’m sure you remember him from our glorious days in college. He was an asshole then and an even larger one now) on a dig that was very near where you now live.

The last thing on Earth I wanted to do was assist him in this endeavor, but being in the position I was in I couldn’t refuse, so bowing my head and taking the last chance offered for my tenure by the university, I accepted the job.

For the first fifteen days there was nothing out of the ordinary on this dig. Mark and set out the grid in five-foot squares, the undergrads scurrying about with their trowels and brushes and I was firmly ensconced by the sieves to observe and study what was brought up from their labors.

It was the daily life of an archeologist from sun up to sun set, day after day. Sometimes finding something of interest but most of the time, as you well know, we didn’t.

Kensington would make a perfunctory examination of the finds or lack thereof once a day and loudly exclaim to all within earshot that our work was being done incorrectly, and that there was no proper supervision.

I bit my tongue so hard that I drew blood on more than one occasion to keep from embarrassing both myself and my students with his daily tirades, but my family and tenure were that important to me at that time, so I kept my mouth shut.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget that day or what I’m going to reveal to you now or what the implications of this find meant. You know me well enough to know that I never had the sense that God gave a mule to keep my mouth shut, but this…this went beyond anything I had ever seen or even imagined.

In an area of the dig that had been electron dated to two hundred and fifty thousand years ago, I made a startling discovery in the form of a titanium metal device that had been used to ignite rolled tubes of shredded toxic plants called tobacco. On the bottom of the device were the engraved words, ‘ZIPPO us pat pending.’ On one side were two letters that looked to have been engraved by hand. They were faint but still legible and were a J and an N.

I had seen such a device in a museum many years after the government banned the use of all tobacco and alcohol products, but to actually hold one in my hands was a thrill beyond belief.

I could only imagine who had owned this device and why was it where we found it. It didn’t make sense. The time frame didn’t fit and after hours of thinking the only logical reason it would have been found is because someone from another time had been there.

I asked my students to remain quiet about the discovery until I had a chance to investigate further and contacted a man that had been indirectly involved with the early experiments in time shifting.

He asked me to come to his home with the artifact and that he would try and authenticate my find. He also stated that he had in his possession certain disks that might help me better understand what I had found.

When I arrived at his house, the old man greeted me warmly and ushered me inside. I felt as if I had stepped into the past; the walls were covered with photographs of him with various famous people, many that I recognized including several of then President Thomas handing him an award.

After a few moments of pleasantries, he asked to see the artifact, which I handed to him to examine. I watched his face to see the reaction to my find but didn’t expect to see tears well in his eyes.

"JN. Jimmy Norris,” he whispered, as he turned the device over in his hand, “one of the first men to time shift and bounce back successfully. I think he did it four or five times before he was lost. Damn shame too. He was a good man.

The strangest thing happened though. Three years later Jimmy’s shift machine had suddenly reappeared in the laboratory with no warning. It was scarred and somewhat battered but otherwise in good shape.

He asked where the lighter, as he said the device was called, had been found and I told him where and that it had been electron dated to a quarter million years ago. He shook his head not believing what I had just said and gripped the lighter tighter in his hand.

I want to tell you something.” He said after a few minutes of arguing with himself. “Something that needs to be told. You need to understand that what we were doing then followed a well laid out plan that the powers that be said we should follow. We knew it was wrong from the beginning but couldn’t argue. They did, after all, write the checks that kept us in groceries and we all had families then. It was truly a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation and we didn’t like it, but what were we to do?”

        The page broke off then, torn from whatever notebook it had been in, and left me wondering. I turned several more pages but couldn’t find a continuation. Faced with the same problem, a thousand possible scenarios ran through my mind and I slapped my hand down on the file in frustration.

* * *

        Jimmy Norris was one of the new crew that had been recruited from an Ivy League university while he was still in graduate school. Young, brash and a head full of new ideas, Jimmy was quick to grasp the important implications of the job being offered to him and didn’t hesitate to take their offer.

        Six months of highly intensive training followed before being introduced to the men that would be responsible for his jaunts back into time. These were seasoned sages. White haired, white coated and looking like each and every one had accepted a Nobel Prize sometime during their lifetime.

        The time shifters were simple enough to operate, though not easily understood by anyone but the builders as to the ways and means by which they did what they did. He didn’t care about that at all. He wanted to be one of the first to flick the switch and then momentarily step back into another time.

        He wasn’t the first to time shift, though. That honor went to a man who had been with the project from its conception and had helped design some of the more complex components of the system.

        When the time came for the first test, Jimmy and his fellow Chosen ones had gathered around the turret set high above the stage and behind the thick, dark glass that enclosed them. Their eyes darted from the countdown timer to the man seated in the sleek machine below.

        The man in the machine never moved, but his lips curled into a smile and his eyes twinkled as the clock continued the countdown. As the time remaining neared zero, a light flashed on the wall in front of them. Each passing second caused the light to flash brighter and brighter. Alarm bells rang in sync to the lights until the time shift trigger tripped and they all were blinded for a brief second as the light became intensely incandescent.

        The man and the machine were gone from the stage below them. A thin tendril of white vapor dissipated slowly into the air above the stage and was the only evidence that something had been there a few moments ago and was now gone.

        Shock, wonder and astonishment were painted on the faces of those present at this first test as the true reality crashed into their brains. Their companion had disappeared from view, in front of their eyes, in a machine that until a few months ago was nothing more than a CAD drawing on an engineer’s computer screen.

        Jimmy Norris held his breath as the events played out before him. This is what he wanted to do with his life. He had been born for this. He wanted to see what had been behind him and not what was in front. He cared little about the future. The past and all that had occurred was his desperate wish and with this new technology, it might now be granted.

        Exactly one minute and forty-seven seconds after the first shifter left, the hair on the back of Jimmy’s neck tingled and a clap of thunder along with another bright light filled the room. The smell of ozone permeated the space briefly and when their eyes were able to adjust, the man was back in the same spot he had left from.

        He still sat astride the machine but gone was the fresh-faced man from a few minutes ago. He now carried the ‘thousand yard stare’ associated with men that have been in battle and seen things that the brain could not or perhaps would not comprehend.

        The techies rushed forward and assisted him off the machine, checked his vital signs and then when his legs refused to cooperate, dragged him to a small room reserved for debriefing.

        He was never seen again.

* * *

        The white-coated scientist stood at the podium in the front or the auditorium and adjusted his notes. Sweat beaded on his forehead and ran down his face. He tapped the microphone in front of him several times, heard the feedback through the speakers and then leaned forward to speak.

        “What happened here last week was a terrible tragedy and it should never have occurred. It was a glitch in the program that I have now been assured that it is fixed and will no longer be a problem. The next man to shift can now rest easy.”

        His eyes carried across the room, stopping on each and every one of the Chosen, a collective sigh rose into the air.

        “Gentlemen, this endeavor is so much greater that we, as individuals, are. The risks are greater and danger abounds, but if we are successful, the world will change for the better through our sacrifice.

        “If a new virus threatens us, or a new plague descends upon mankind, we have but to go back in time and remove the threat. If an enemy of our Nation attempts to destroy us, we simply shift back and stop it before it happens.

        “We will have no more enemies.

        “We will become invincible. Untouchable, and it will be because of your selfless dedication that we arrive at this point in our history.”

        The scientist paused, raised his glasses off his face and wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. He rubbed the bridge of his nose several times and let his glasses fall back into place.

        “I’m asking for a volunteer. I want a brave man that is unafraid to face the past, a man that wants to do his part to make the world right. I want a man that we can all be proud of, a native son, and that is not afraid of the uncertain terrain he might encounter.

        “Is there such a man among us?” The white-coated scientist pumped his arms over his head and looked out expectantly over the audience.

* * *

        Jimmy Norris sat back against the rock and arranged himself away from the sharp edges. He sucked the last morsel of meat from between his teeth and spat it on the ground in front of him.

        He remembered the famous speech that brought all this shit down on him in the first place and laughed deep in his throat.

        I’m an ass to have believed that crap in the first place. He sighed and briefly closed his eyes, shaking his head. That I could have had an impact on the world by my selfless actions. Now look at me. Alone. Stranded somewhere in time with no hope of getting back to where I belong.

        He angrily threw another stick onto the small fire he had in front of him, and as the sparks spilled away from the heat and lifted into the night sky, wondered what tomorrow would bring.

        He lifted the un-cured skin from an animal he had never heard of but had proved to be an easy kill with a thrown rock off his shoulders and lay it fur side up beside him. The stench no longer bothered him. It was part of his existence now, just like not bathing daily had ceased to be a problem, and after all, whom would he offend here? And besides, it was cool at night and any warmth he could garnish was better than none.

* * *

        Morning dawned and as the first rays of light filtered to his makeshift sleeping quarters Jimmy awoke, stretched and sat up. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he looked around.

        Last night's fire was but a smoldering remnant on the ground beside him with a few wisps of white smoke seeping from between the charred ashes. He picked up a piece of leftover meat from last night's meal and took a small bite, chewed it a couple of times and swallowed.

        As was his morning ritual, he walked to the silent, dead machine and sat down on its seat, wiped the hair out of his eyes and took a deep breath. He placed his finger on the trip trigger, checked the date and then pushed the trigger.

        Nothing happened. It was as dead and as useless today as it had been yesterday, but he still held out hope that something would happen to send him back to where he belonged.

        He got off the machine in disgust and, gathering his few possessions, kicked what was left of his campfire apart and set out into the harsh terrain to find food.

* * *

        He had no choice but to depend on his wits in this strange world. He was not an outdoorsman, never had been, but he had read books about other people and their travels while growing up. He felt that he was at least as good as they had been and that he could survive under any circumstances that he found himself in.

        The one thing he feared more than anything else in this strange land was becoming injured or sick. He had no control over that happening and took great pains to see that it didn’t occur. Many nights he went hungry because he thought with his brain instead of his stomach and, many times, passed up a kill if it felt the least bit threatening to him or his survival.

* * *

        This day was beautiful. Bright, white clouds drifted across the deep blue sky over the tall, yellow peaks of majestic rock formations in front of him. Below him was a small stream that over eons had carved an elaborate channel through the stone. Large fish of some unknown species lazily leaped from the waters and reentered without a splash. He was immediately intrigued.

        He stood at the water's edge and shaded his eyes to try to peer below the surface. His tongue unconsciously snaked out and licked across his cracked lips. He changed position with the sun behind him and was able to see the fish clearly.

        He looked down at the water and caught a glimpse of his reflection. The sight startled him and he stumbled backward and took a deep breath.

        Jesus, I look like a bum, he thought.

        His hair had grown down past his shoulders and he had a scraggly looking dark beard that was matted with small bits of unidentifiable debris stuck to the coarse hairs.

        How can this be? he pondered. I haven’t been here long enough for this to have happened. But then again, maybe I have.

        He squatted on his haunches, the fish momentarily forgotten, and wondered just how long he had actually been in this lonely land. He hadn’t seen or heard another human being since the day he had shifted, and it was beginning to grate on his nerves.

        The air temperature rose quickly as the bright sun moved overhead. When he looked at the water again, the fish had moved into deeper, cooler water and except for the sound of water hissing over the smooth rock, it was quiet.

        Discouraged, he stood and walked away from the stream towards the base of the towering rocks where a small area of shade could be seen below an outcrop.

* * *

        Ten miles away and unknown to him, at his camp where the shift machine sat idle, a light began to glow dimly on the control panel. Two more lights blinked on in quick succession and a faint but distinct hum began to fill the air.

        The trip trigger armed itself and the countdown clock reset to one hundred and when the fourth light on the panel came on and glowed brightly, began to turn backwards towards zero.

* * *

        Jimmy happened to be looking in the direction of his camp when the bright, white-hot light blazed into existence followed by a loud clap of thunder and then just as quickly died out.

        “What the hell?” he shouted, leaping to his feet.

        He knew in his heart what the light had been and started a wild run back to his camp. He knew with every heavy step that the machine would be gone and that he was now completely trapped in the past.

        He was so intent on his maniacal run back to his camp that he didn’t notice that his lighter had managed to work its way up to the top of his pocket and fell out on the dusty ground, slid a few inches and came to rest under a small, woody bush.

* * *

        The machine was gone. All that was left was the imprint of the two rails of the machine base and his footprints. He screamed in frustration and fell to the ground, pulling his legs up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. Tears of defeat poured down his face and dripped to the dusty ground.

        He was lost. Abandoned in the past. His greatest fear since arriving here had become a reality because there was no way back. All the great words he had heard and accepted as gospel while in training were now thrust upon him in bone chilling clarity.

        He had been reduced to what amounted to an island in the huge sea of the past and it was up to him to either live or die. It was his choice.

        He lay on the ground and wallowed in self-pity until the growling in his belly reminded him that he hadn’t eaten today and he found himself hungry.

        The fish, he thought.

        He sat up and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, took out the last cigarette from the crumpled pack he had hoarded, and reached into his pocket for the lighter.




copyright 2007 Georgepat.