Betty Knox and Dictionary Jones in The Mystery of the Missing Teenage Anachronisms
written by Jack Campbell and narrated by Adam Verner

 

In faded photographs, fifteen year-old Betty Knox had worn not just the usual modest skirts and blouses, but also the usual barely-concealed teenage uncertainty visible in eyes behind dark-framed glasses that hadn’t really been fashionable even by the questionable standards of the mid-1960’s. She looked like she should be carrying a book even when she didn’t have one.

Now, fifteen year-old Betty had a wariness well-hidden in those same eyes as they glanced from side-to-side at her classmates. Unlike the rambunctious teens around her, she moved surely, carefully, more aware of what she was doing. She also moved, James Jones thought, like someone unaccustomed to her neat blouse, mid-length skirt and sensible shoes.

While the other teens leaving school streamed off in various directions, Jim sidled close to Betty as she briskly strode down the sidewalk. “Uh, hi.”

Her eyes shifted to him. “Hi.”

“I’m Jim.”

“Dictionary Jones. I know.” Betty was really giving herself away now. She should be getting a little shy, a little giggly, nervous at being approached by a boy of the same age whom she knew only because they shared the same school. Instead, Betty seemed amused, the veteran of decades of clumsy come-ons who thought this one not just lame, but also cute.

It annoyed Jim, so he cut to the chase. “And I know that after Johnson, Richard Nixon is elected president. Then Ford. Who comes next?”

Betty’s amusement vanished, the wariness back and intensified. “Carter. Jimmy Carter.”

“Then Reagan. So now we both know who we are.”

“What the hell are you doing here?” Betty demanded, her nicely-permed hair flouncing prettily. “Why are they sending new people down right after we got here? Those stupid bastards should have –“

Jim cleared his throat loudly and Betty shut up with a guilty look around. “Long story short, they sent us as close to your arrival time as they could manage because the first wave disappeared.”

“Us? First wave? There’s –“ Betty’s voice caught. “Disappeared?”

Maybe to any adults watching from a distance they still looked like two kids strolling down the street, encumbered with school books, talking about the latest “music” from that new foreign singing group with the outlandish name The Beatles. But up close Jim could see the Betty in much more recent images, the Betty usually addressed as Doctor Knox. “Within a few months of the aimed arrival dates,” he explained, “every single one of you vanishes, usually with no record of what happened. Removing a few documents before old newspapers and records were digitized and data-based could get rid of whatever happened to you as long as it was low profile. But they found nothing you guys did to alter things, and only a few items saying that two of you were reported as runaways soon after your projected arrival times, and there’s nothing on any of you after this October.”

“What about our bodies? The original ones?”

“The older bodies you left behind? Nobody came back, if that’s what you’re asking. The bodies are still there, but there’s nobody home.”

“Slabs of meat,” Betty murmured.

“You don’t have to get all poetic about it,” Jim said, stung by the image that also might now apply to his own much older self.

“I’m a geneticist, not a poet, Jim,” Betty snapped, sounding very much like Doctor Knox. “When are you from?”

“2040.”

“The year after we were sent?”

“It took a while to find people who might know you, who could find you as teens, and then to evaluate and train us.”

Betty detoured to a vacant bench at a bus stop and sat down, staring outward. “Why exactly are you here? To find out what went wrong? To try something different? To find out if the time patrol bagged the first group of us to keep us from altering history?”

Sitting down next to her, Jim shrugged. “All of the above. This is by far the longest trip into the past that has been attempted. Did it make you unstable? Did you actually arrive? Okay, you’re here, and you don’t seem unstable.”

“No more so than any other fifteen year-old girl.”

“But no one really believes in a time patrol. How could that work?”

“It couldn’t.” Betty looked down at her legs stretched out in front of her. “What happened to the others? To me? I’m still trying to adjust to this. Look at my legs. I’d forgotten how good my legs looked when I was fifteen. At the time, I thought they were too short and too stocky. Which they were, compared to Barbie’s legs.”

Jim felt his own midsection, flat and even. “Yeah. It’s really strange. I keep expecting to be over ninety years old. I think I was in pretty good shape for that age, but compared to fifteen . . . ”

“What does the process do when someone is sent back this many decades? Maybe it does create some kind of instability. Have they even discovered how it works in the time since I left?” Betty asked. “Even though it’s only been two weeks for me.”

“Two weeks? Uh, no, they haven’t figured it out yet. The mechanism causes something to be projected back to an earlier time, to an earlier age in the same body, but what that something is they don’t know.”

Betty sighed. “Why not just call it a soul?”

“Too metaphysical. They’re still vetoing ‘spirit’ for the same reason. The people who trained me usually called it ‘self.’”

“That’s nicely ambiguous. Science finally discovers that something besides the physical body makes us us and then doesn’t want to deal with the implications.” Another sigh as Betty looked across the street without focusing on anything. “But we have to deal with the fact that time travel is only possible within the lifespan of any living human, so we can’t send someone back to when all of this seriously began. If only we could get someone into Germany before they launched their big chemical manufacturing plants in the nineteenth century!”

Jim didn’t see much sense in imagining that outcome, since it couldn’t happen. “How are things going now for you? Have you attempted any progress on the mission yet?”

“Attempted?” Betty spun on him, glaring, her mood shifting with startling suddenness. “I’m a girl, Mr. Dictionary Jones! Guess who listens to girls in 1964?”

He could guess the answer by her tone. “Nobody?”

“Nobody! And they define ‘girl’ as any female of any age!” Betty shot to her feet. “Let’s keep walking. I can’t just sit and talk about this.”

Jim hastened to keep up. “You’re walking like Doctor Knox.”

Betty flinched and shortened her gait. “I hate this. I hate these clothes. I want to put on a t-shirt and a pair of blue jeans and a comfortable pair of sneakers, and I want to be able to move like my fifteen year-old self can move!” She jumped upward in mid-stride, then turned another glare on him. “We played basketball at school the other day. Girl’s basketball. I took the first shot.” She mimicked a clean overhead toss at a basket. “Everybody gasped and the teacher told me I was unladylike, that only boys threw that way and if I wasn’t careful I would damage my uterus.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I’d forgotten that the sort of physical activity we know is normal and healthy for girls was believed in 1964 to lead to athletic fields littered with expired uteruses.” Her anger faded as swiftly as it had come. “Anyway. After I got my bearings here I tried raising a few topics with my father, who is a physician. And a good one. I mentioned a few things about epigenetics, and he got this indulgent look and said when I went to college I’d learn about Lamarck and how wrong he was. Then my mother said maybe I’d want to get married instead of going to college and I said I could do both and everything went downhill from there. Of course, both of my marriages ended in divorces, so maybe mother had a point.”

“They don’t know about epigenetics?”

“They barely know about genetics! I’d get further talking to Mendel, because he wouldn’t have a lot of preconceptions about what he thought he knew.” Betty shook her head. “Except for preconceptions about ‘girls,’ I suppose. It’s complicated. Lamarck was wrong, but he was also right in a far more subtle way than people of his time could grasp. Humanity needed to figure out epigenetics decades earlier than we did if we are to halt the spread of effects on the human genome in time to make a difference. Right now, though, and for decades to come, it’s assumed that either Darwin or Lamarck had to be right, rather than understanding that more than one means of adaptation exist, and that one of those means is directly affected by environmental conditions far less intense than radiation.”

She gave him a rueful look. “That’s why this is going to be a long project, beginning with manually typing letters sent under other names than my own, male names, to nudge people in the right directions.”

“Except,” Jim pointed out, “the last record of Betty Knox the project could find in 2040 was a school paper at the end of September, 1964. As far as we could tell in 2040, you never got a chance to send any of those letters. Even if you became unstable as a result of the long trip into the past, there should be medical records of that, so the project thinks someone deliberately went after you.”

She stopped walking again to stare at him. “Are you a bodyguard? Is that it?”

“If I found you, and you weren’t crazy, yeah.” Jim flexed one slim arm. “Not much there to work with, but I know a few things about unarmed combat. I don’t remember ever crossing paths with you after we left school, but I served in the Marines for a while.”

“I don’t think I ever talked to you when we were in school together. The first time, I mean. Dictionary Jones, a Marine?” Betty asked. “Where’s your dictionary, anyway? You always carried that book around, and had it yesterday, so I guess you must have arrived since then.”

Jim scowled at the sidewalk. “I came in last night. It wasn’t a dictionary. I didn’t want to tell anyone what it really was.” He realized she was waiting for him to say more. “It was game rules. I was working on a role-playing game.”

“A game? You were a game geek before game geeks were cool?”

“I don’t think game geeks have ever been cool,” Jim said. “Some of us made a lot of money and we impacted the culture a whole lot, but cool? Dictionary Jones never had a girlfriend, remember?”

“How many boyfriends do you think I had?”

They had reached a house he recognized as hers, not from ancient memories but from his briefings.

“We need to talk about whatever theories they developed in 2040 about what might have happened,” Betty said. “And I need to figure out how to contact the two other people I can find in this time to see if they’re okay. I’ll be honest with you. I have a lot of trouble believing that something bad has happened to everyone, and that something will happen to me. We do need to find out what caused –“

“Betty!”

Jim turned to see a woman standing in the doorway of Betty’s home.

“Why don’t you and your friend come inside and have some cookies?” the woman called.

Doctor Betty Knox blushed liked any fifteen year old girl. “Damn! Mother must think you’re a potential boyfriend for me. She thinks I need to study less and be more freaking feminine.”

“Do you talk like that in front of her?”

“Hell, no! I can’t even say ‘hell, no’ in front of mother. Not in 1964.” She gave a defeated shrug. “Come on. At least it’ll explain why we’re hanging around each other, Mister Bodyguard. But don’t plan on getting lucky.”

Jim suddenly realized that ever since Betty Knox had mentioned her legs he had been aware of her body under those modest clothes. “Lucky?” he demanded, feeling guilty. “We’re both fifteen!”

“Oh, yeah. Tight and virile young bodies with the hormones of teenagers and the experienced minds of the old and lecherous. They didn’t warn me about how that would complicate things. Have you noticed trouble with focusing on one thing? How your thoughts bounce around?”

“Yes, now that you mention it.”

“Our physical brains, our bodies, are fifteen. Our selves are being affected by that.” She took a long, deep breath. “Maybe too much so. Maybe the danger lies within ourselves.”

#

Betty and he had spent a while strategizing in low voices over cookies and milk. It wasn’t until Jim was leaving and caught the knowing expression on the face of Betty’s mother that he realized how that must have looked, two teenagers with their heads close together for a long time.

One thing Betty had insisted upon was that he had to maintain his original life. “You can’t go rogue from who you were at fifteen, Jim. This society couldn’t handle that. Our parents couldn’t handle it. That was the project’s assessment before I came here and I’ve seen nothing to make me think different. You need to do your job for the project and live the life of Dictionary Jones at the same time.”

Now Jim walked up stairs he only dimly recalled, opening a back door whose image had completely faded from his memory, to see his mother standing in the kitchen making dinner. “Where were you?” she asked.

“I was visiting a friend.”

“That’s nice.”

Times had changed. In 2040, parents would track their child’s whereabouts constantly by GPS chip and freaked out at any deviation from planned, safe, organized and adult-supervised after-school activities. Funny how the restrictive society of 1964 also produced more freedom in other ways. “Is there anything I can help with?” Jim asked.

That earned him a startled look from his mother. “No. Thank you. Just go ahead and watch the TV until dinner.”

He ambled into the living room, trying to move more like a teenager, then spent almost a minute reflexively looking around for the remote before realizing there wouldn’t be one. Jim walked to the hulking TV console, almost as big as the widescreen on one wall of his home in 2040 but with a screen barely twenty inches across, and after studying the knobs turned one until it clicked.

Aside from a humming sound, nothing happened. Jim waited, and waited, finally moving to peer inside the console through air vents in the side. The orange-reddish glow of vacuum tubes met his eyes. How long did it take vacuum tubes to warm up? His memories of that were dimmed by time and affected by what he had once accepted as typical.

Giving up, Jim went back to the couch and flopped down, grinning as he enjoyed the feel of being physically fifteen again. But then the grin vanished as his little sister Mary walked in.

She stopped and glared at him. “Is there something wrong with you?”

“Uh, no. I’m just glad to see you.” Mary had died abruptly in 2006 of an undiagnosed heart ailment.

“This morning at breakfast you looked at me like I was some kind of freak.”

“No! I was very glad to see you.” Already disoriented from his future self arriving in the early morning hours, it had been hard not to break down into tears when he saw Mary again. He had been told to be careful what he did, to avoid any unnecessary changes to the patterns of the past even though no one knew how hard it would be to actually change the past. But he would make sure that heart ailment was found in time.

She gave him a suspicious look, then went to the TV which had finally produced coarse black and white images. Mary flicked the channel changer, rapidly spinning past empty channels to only ones with signals. NBC, ABC, CBS. NBC, ABC, CBS. On the third go round of the same three channels, she stopped on one showing a dancing package of cigarettes.

Cigarette ads on TV. Somehow that seemed to epitomize the prevailing tendency toward self-inflicted poisoning. A line from Jim’s training came back to him. Before leaded gasoline was banned in the United States, an estimated seven million tons of lead had been released into the air, soil and water from that source alone.

“There’s nothing on,” Mary said with disgust.

That hadn’t changed. How many times had Jim said the same thing after scrolling through hundreds of channels? He tried to remember when his family had bought their first color TV. One with transistors rather than vacuum tubes. It had been after he enlisted to avoid being drafted. What kind of idiot joins the Marines so he won’t be drafted into the Army? Mary had said, her hair much longer then and her jacket adorned with a peace symbol.

“What are you looking at?” Mary demanded.

He realized that he had been watching her again, remembering all that had been, that once would be, and wondering what would happen now. There was only one way back from a trip into the past, and that was the old-fashioned way, living one day at a time. The Marines again? He had been lucky in ‘Nam, picking up only a few minor injuries and a lot of memories he had spent a long time trying to deal with. But it would take only a very tiny change in where he stood to put an enemy bullet into his heart rather than grazing his shoulder. He was no longer a kid to whom death was an alien thing that happened to others. He knew how easy it would be to die in ‘Nam if he risked it again.

And how could he stand seeing his old pals again at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, knowing which ones wouldn’t be coming home? Could he even consider replaying that part of his past when a larger responsibility now rested on his shoulders? He had wondered about that before, but it had all been sort of abstract, not real. Now it was as real as the past which had become his only present.

“Somebody’s deep in thought,” Jim’s mother observed. “Dinner’s ready. I made that frankfurter casserole you like.”

Jim sat down at the dinner table, grinning at the once-loved and now almost forgotten meal. But his smile faded as he thought about what was likely in that food. No. Not too much yet. Most of the stuff that leaches into the human food supply, or is deliberately introduced into it because it’s thought harmless or even beneficial, comes later. Betty still has time to change things.

He had been ninety-one years old when the project contacted him. Unlike the newest generations, plagued by a host of ailments, there was nothing physical specifically wrong with Jim, just a very tired body, so that he faced each day knowing that it might be the last, and accepted that reality with weary resignation. He had already felt like a time traveler then, one who had jumped forward in time to a period when no one remembered the things which had been important when he had been young, and were now concerned with things he had never imagined as a young adult. But they had told him this was important, that he could make a difference, because almost eighty years ago he had gone to the same school with a girl who had become a highly respected geneticist and now needed help.

Jim looked at his mother again, fighting down a sense of disbelief. Alive. Healthy. Astounding things that he had taken for granted the first time he had been fifteen. She had died from cancer in 1984. Cancer later discovered to be triggered by some of the chemicals, plastics, and industrial byproducts which by the mid-twenty-first century were overwhelming humanity with its own toxins. Aggravating the assault on mankind were bacteria and viruses which had developed immunity to every countermeasure due to clumsy overuse of those countermeasures. By the time humanity figured out what its own creations and leavings were doing to it, it seemed to be too late to do anything about it.

Except that another discovery offered a way that might provide a head-start on solutions, and maybe a way to limit the damage which would be done. The first attempt had simply vanished in time, and now he had to find out why and help Betty change history in small ways that might over time add up to very big differences.

#

The next day, Jim stood in science class, staring at the silvery globules of mercury which the teacher had doled out to the students. This was one of the classes he shared with Betty, who sat at the other side of the room and was almost cringing away from her sample of mercury. The other kids were laughing and playing with the stuff, dipping pennies into it to see the copper acquire a silvery coating, and breaking it into little globules which would roll around and merge back into big globules. Tom Farand had stuck his finger into his mercury and was waving around a silver-coated digit.

“Make sure you wash your hands before you stick that finger in your mouth, Mr. Farand,” the science teacher instructed in a severe tone.

Betty shook her head like someone emerging from shock and her hand rocketed into the air. “Sir, isn’t mercury an extremely toxic substance?”

“Toxic?” The science teacher nodded judiciously. “It can be poisonous if ingested, yes.”

“What about inhaling fumes? Or absorption through the skin? Couldn’t even a tiny amount of mercury cause serious neurological problems?”

The other students were watching Betty now, some nudging each other and laughing, while she reddened slightly in embarrassment.

Jim raised his hand. “I’ve heard the same thing, sir. Mercury is incredibly neuropathic and ingesting even small quantities leads to sensory impairment.”

“Dictionary Jones and his big words,” someone whispered.

The teacher frowned. “I’m not aware of that, Mr. Jones. Or what you say, Miss Knox. If there are scientific studies which support what you say, and you want some extra credit, why don’t you two produce a paper on the topic?”

By now most of the class had stopped laughing, and were looking down at their globules of mercury with worried expressions.

Betty swung by him as they left class. “Thank you. It was so nice not to be the sole voice of sanity. One small step at a time. We get people thinking about this a few years earlier, and let the results snowball. I hope.”

“Do those studies exist yet?” Jim asked.

“I don’t know. That area wasn’t supposed to be my priority. I did memorize some of the places and people who are working on things like that right now. But a big part of the problem is that existing means can’t detect extremely low levels or the impact they’re having. What’s your specialty, Jim?”

Here it came. “I don’t really have one. No advanced degrees at all. I did a lot of stuff, and have a decent general background in science and technology, but my primary qualification for being chosen for this was because I went to school here at the same time you did and I was still alive.”

“Oh.” But instead of getting arrogant or dismissive, as so many of the highly-degreed had reacted to such news, Betty smiled at him. “Some of the dumbest people I ever met had the most advanced degrees. See you after school.”

He watched her leave, smiling to himself, until a hand hit his shoulder hard enough to make him stumble. “When did you two fall in love, Dictionary?” Tom Farand asked, while several other boys laughed.

“We were talking about working together,” Jim said.

“Working? Nobody works with girls.”

“Why not?”

The question seemed to stagger Farand for a moment. “Because they’re girls!”

The sort of attitude that Betty had blown up about yesterday. Jim had vaguely remembered the ways women had been put down when he was young, but things had changed so much by 2040 that the reality of it had dimmed considerably. Now here it was, full strength, and he could only imagine how hard it been for Betty to suddenly be living with that again. The least he could do was stand up for her, but Jim’s young hormones provided words before his older self could censor them. “Wow,” he said to Farand. “That is so dumb. The mercury must already be affecting your brain.”

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