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

 

Jim had done this before, sneaking cautiously through night-shrouded terrain, from bush to tree, making no noise and alert to every movement and sound. At least this time he didn’t have to worry about the VC or North Vietnamese regulars hunting him. Memories of the area around Khe Sanh flooded back as Jim moved into position and settled down to watch Betty’s house, determined to remain through most of Saturday night.

Who was he watching for? Kids like him and Betty had minds and memories and knowledge from 2040, but they didn’t look any different and none of them should be dumb enough to parade their anachronistic nature. The coincidence of the time travelers being targeted meant it had to be other time travelers at work. He had been told the time travel process was being worked on at multiple locations. It was hard and expensive, but the project wasn’t the only outfit with access to the process. But who would kill kids and why?

The end days people? The ones who think everything happening in the mid-twenty-first century is God culling out the unfit before Armageddon? There’s been some killings by groups who think like that.

But how would they get their hands on time travel equipment? And why would anyone with access to that stuff help some homicidal religious warriors? It’s not just the time travel itself. Whoever this is, they know who was sent back and they know enough about where those people live to go after them.

Betty’s right. We need to get our hands on this guy and get some answers.

Nothing had happened during his previous night shifts except for occasional routine neighborhood activity, but some instinct told him that something would occur tonight. It was almost an hour before anything out of the ordinary did take place, though.

Whoever the other kid was, he wasn’t skilled at concealment. Jim heard him before he spotted the boy scuttling along in a fast, noisy, and obvious way apparently learned from watching bad action movies. The boy seemed to be the same size as the one Jim had seen on Friday. He wasn’t alone this time, though. With him was another boy, one who bulked physically larger. Either he was a few years older, or he had a powerful build.

Jim watched from concealment between two bushes, ready to move if necessary but wanting to size up the opposition. The two other boys reached the back of Betty’s house, less than ten feet from Jim, but seemed totally oblivious to his hidden presence.

Light glinted on something in the hand of the larger boy. It had been a very long time ago when he had seen such things, but those were memories that didn’t fade. It was the play of the moon’s radiance on the dull metal of a knife blade.

Murder? The other cases had left no clues to the fate of the missing kids, and there had been nothing in future data bases. Teenage runaways were one thing, depressingly common, and often resulting in little publicity, especially during this period. But these two didn’t want the kind of fuss that the murders of children in their bedrooms would create. How could they erase that kind of thing from public and private records? If these boys had homicidal intent, they weren’t planning on killing Betty in her room or anywhere nearby. As with Paul and Charlie, they doubtless intended taking her somewhere distant first, and that meant they needed her able to walk.

The two boys didn’t move toward Betty’s window, instead casting constant looks toward one of the neighbor’s houses, where a lighted window spoke of someone still awake.

Jim waited, watching, as the two boys grew more and more nervous, then after perhaps an hour and a half had a quiet, heated argument in whispers that Jim couldn’t quite make out, though their frequent glances at the neighbor’s lighted window made it clear they were worried about being seen by someone in that house. Finally, the two bolted, moving with their clumsy attempts at sneakiness out onto the street and vanished from sight.

He spent another hour on sentry, but the two didn’t return even though the neighbor finally turned off his light.

Jim moved out with extreme caution, just in case the other two were still watching, but he found no trace of them.

He was certain they would be back the next night, though. The vaunted time patrol had arrived, in the form of two kids with a knife.

#

“Hi, Mrs. Knox. Can I see Betty?”

Mrs. Knox gave him the fish eye, shaking her head. “I’m afraid not.”

Jim tried to project the right degree of awkwardness, innocence and politeness. “Is she okay? I’m really worried she might be sick or something.”

Relaxing a bit, Betty’s mother shook her head again. “Betty’s all right. She just needs a little time to reflect.”

“Oh.” Show disappointment. Show teenage heartbreak. “I just came by to make sure she was okay.”

Mrs. Knox’s severity melted into a reluctant smile. “All right, Jimmy. Wait here and you can talk to Betty at the door for a minute.”

A few minutes later, Betty opened the door. “Hi, Jim.” She cast her eyes to one side, indicating that her mother was just out of sight and listening.

What kind of message, what kind of warning, could he pass to her without her mother understanding and asking questions without answers anyone would believe? “Uh, I, uh, wanted to tell you . . . you remember that bird I saw on Friday afternoon? The one I talked about and you wanted to see it, too? It turns out there’s two of them. I looked them up, and they’re . . . seagulls. A type called naz gulls.”

“Naz gulls,” Betty repeated carefully.

“Yeah. Two naz gulls,” Jim said, changing the pronunciation slightly closer to the original word this time. He couldn’t remember if The Lord of the Rings had already been published in the US by 1964, but the odds that Betty’s mother had read it seemed comfortably remote. “They’re here. I knew you’d want to know.”

“Yes.” Betty had paled, but then steadied and looked out on the street warily. “Uh . . . keep an eye on them, okay? But don’t scare them off. Remember, I’d like to study them more, and learn why they’re here and everything. If you scare them off, there’s no telling when they might come back.”

“All right,” Jim agreed reluctantly. “I’ll keep an eye out for them. I hope you’re okay. I, uh, I wouldn’t want anything to ever happen to you. You’re . . . the neatest girl I’ve ever met.” He had meant the last to be a cute teenage sentiment to explain his stated worries about Betty to her mother, but to his own surprise Jim realized the feelings in his voice were sincere.

Betty’s eyes went from the street to him, her own age and experience clear once more, then she smiled with a fifteen year-old girl’s lack of guile. “Thanks. I think you’re pretty neat, too.”

She sounded like she really meant it.

#

Sunday night. Jim had moved into concealment in Betty’s backyard as early as he dared, risking detection since it wasn’t quite dark enough to shield him completely. But he made it, settling down in a position he could hold, barely moving, for hours if necessary.

All around him the sounds of the neighborhood gradually subsided, lights going off, shapes moving behind curtained windows, voices barely heard, cars passing on the street. In some of those very houses might be children who would grow up to design or manufacture the many devices and other advances which would revolutionize medicine, agriculture, research, and transportation among other things, producing countless benefits for mankind. They would also produce leavings which would annihilate the lower end of the food chain, aggravate climate change, and poison humans in a thousand different ways.

He heard people taking out trash to the curb. Clean up your mess. How many mothers are telling how many children that? Keep your work area neat. How many fathers said that today? All the girl scouts and boy scouts are being told ‘safety first.’ But those mothers and fathers, those children, are going to dump unbelievable messes into the water they drink, the food they eat, and the air they breathe. Technology tells us we need to keep our machines clean or they’ll break down. Science tells us that equations have to be balanced, that remainders don’t just go away. It’s like Betty says. Hi-tech produced the problems we faced in 2040, but only because people weren’t paying attention to things they already knew were important. We need to make them think about those things in time to make a difference, and use the tech to find the solutions before they create the problems.

The last noises had faded, the last lights had gone out in the houses around him. Jim had stopped wearing his wristwatch when he realized the glowing numbers on the dial used radium, but he guessed it was a little after midnight.

He heard the sound of footsteps, the rustle of more than one body pushing through shrubbery too fast to really be quiet. The two boys appeared, walking quickly and hunched over to keep low profiles. They went to Betty’s window and peered inside. Once again the larger one carried a knife.

Sitting still then was the hardest thing that Jim had ever done. Whoever these guys were, they had to be caught in the act, unmistakably guilty, after hopefully being led into saying who they were and why they were after people like Betty.

But that meant Jim had to sit, watching as the larger one used his knife to pry open Betty’s window. As the large boy scrambled inside, Jim took advantage of the noise to shift his own position so that he had his feet under him, ready to move in an instant. They won’t kill her in her room. They didn’t and they won’t. He kept repeating that to himself while his heart pounded with growing fear.

Betty appeared at the window, moving slowly as she came over the sill and dropped to the ground, the large boy right behind her with his knife out. The other boy grabbed her arm and led Betty away, but she dug in her heels only a few feet from Jim’s hiding place. “Who are you?” she whispered.

“We’re friends from 2039,” the big one mumbled in an unconvincing way.

“Friends? You had that knife at my throat when I woke up! You threatened to kill me if I didn’t keep quiet and come with you! But I’m not going any farther until you tell me who you are.”

The smaller boy spoke quickly. “It was for your own protection. We are from 2039, just like you are, but we can’t talk now. It’s not safe. Keep moving, don’t make any noise and you won’t be hurt.”

Betty stared at the smaller boy, who was trying to look away. “Professor Oldham,” she said. “Professor Conrad Oldham. It’s you, isn’t it?”

Conrad Oldham straightened his fourteen year old body and tried to look down on her, which didn’t succeed since Betty had a couple of inches of height on him at this age. “For once in your life, Doctor Knox, listen to someone else. If you come along quietly, we’ll explain what’s happening and -”

“You’re not part of the project. You argued against the project.”

Jim saw the white flash of a reassuring smile on Conrad Oldham’s face. “The situation changed. Everything will be fine once I have a chance to tell you about it. Haven’t you missed the opportunity to speak with someone else who understands what it’s like to be here? We can share all that if you come along.” Oldham said the last as if expecting that would dissolve all resistance from Betty.

But she shook her head. “What are you doing here?” Betty asked.

“It’s critical that I give you important new information. Why else would the project have sent me back here?”

“Why would the project send someone I had no reason to trust?”

Her failure to cooperate must have perplexed Oldham, because he just repeated his earlier argument. “I’ll explain when we’re away from here.”

“Like you explained to Paul Davidson and Charlie Bennet?” Betty asked.

Oldham didn’t respond, seeming lost for words, and the larger one brandished his knife, dropping the pretense of comradeship. “Do it now!” he insisted.

“No!” Oldham told the larger boy. “There’ll be too much to remove from the records if they find –“ He stopped speaking.

“My body?” Betty demanded. “Why, Professor? And who is this assassin?”

“Your only chance -” Oldham began in a conciliatory tone.

“Why? We disagreed. We argued. But murder –“

This time Oldham interrupted, his voice growing heated. “You and those like you wouldn’t listen. The answers are in scientific research and technological applications. If you tie the hands of science then the problems will only be worse, and your project sought not just to bind science but to label it the cause of all of our problems! Humanity can’t afford that kind of solution!”

“You never listened!” Betty shot back with the same anger. “That was never true, but all you saw was what you wanted to see. How scientific is that, professor?”

“You can twist my words any way you want, but the facts are that you would doom humanity and I have to save it.”

The large boy made a noise of derision. “Humanity is doomed. The end is upon us all, and those who would deny the will of the Almighty must be stopped.”

Even in the dark Jim could see Betty’s eyes widen. “You allied yourself with them?”

Oldham shrugged. “If Hitler invaded hell, I’d find something good to say about the devil. Churchill said that. I had access to the required equipment and that group had access to the required funding. It’s sometimes necessary to find allies where you can.”

“Allies willing to kill, you mean. To do the dirty work for you.” Betty’s voice broke. “You murdered them? You knew those men. How could you . . . ?”

Oldham looked away once more. “I didn’t kill anyone. Neither did Gordon here. How can you murder someone in 1964 when they lived until 2039? That’s a logical impossibility.”

“Is that how you’re rationalizing it?”

“They lived long, full lives,” Oldham insisted. “How can you tell me that someone who was a great-grandfather in 2039 died in 1964? It’s absurd and obviously violates causality. Therefore, it didn’t happen.”

“You son of a bitch. You cold-blooded –“

“Shut up.” Gordon raised the knife again. “We need to shut her up now, whether you want it or not,” he told Oldham.

Jim launched out of his hiding place, his legs propelling him forward in a leap that brought him to Gordon before either of the other two boys realized what was happening. Gordon had just begun to turn when Jim’s right fist punched hard into his side over the kidneys. As the large boy staggered with pain, Jim caught his knife hand and twisted the weapon free, then swung the hand and arm behind Gordon and slammed him face first into the grass, bringing his own body down on him hard enough to stun the boy and drive the wind from his lungs.

Oldham was staring open-mouthed toward Jim, then one hand dove for his pocket. Before it could reach its destination, the heel of Betty’s palm smashed into Oldham’s nose. As he reeled backwards, both hands to his face, Betty kicked him in the groin. “I’ve wanted to do that to you for years,” she said as Oldham collapsed.

Jim had whipped off Gordon’s belt and was using it to hogtie him, then jumped up and went to Oldham. “Don’t move or I’ll kill you,” he told Oldham, and something in his voice must have made it clear that he wasn’t bluffing because the other laid still. Pulling out his handkerchief, Jim covered his hand with it before reaching into Oldham’s pocket and pulling out a switchblade that he tossed to one side.

“Betty,” Oldham gasped. “Dr. Knox. Listen. I can help. You’re the last, you know. Our sources inside the project gave us all the names, and we got a few more that weren’t on the list but were obviously working with the others. It’ll be too hard for you alone. But with my assistance perhaps you can still have a chance to succeed. Gordon did all the killing. I swear it. I didn’t want that. Let me go and we can work together -“

“You actually think that I’d be dumb enough to trust you?” Betty asked. “You never did think much of women, did you, professor? And since it’s apparently escaped your own keen powers of observation, I’ll point out that I’m not alone.”

“What are we going to do with these guys?” Jim asked. “If we let them go, they’ll just keep trying to get us. But we can’t imprison them.” That left one ugly alternative, one that he shied from.

Betty looked at him, a humorless smile slowly spreading across her face. “You’re right. We can’t imprison them. And I won’t do what these two would have done to us. But these two juvenile delinquents must be runaways. And the justice system in 1964 doesn’t look kindly on criminal juvenile delinquent runaways.” She knelt, pinning the handle of Gordon’s knife to the ground with a knee and then, wincing, drew her arm across the edge of the knife. Standing up, the shallow cut dripping blood that she smeared across one cheek, Betty took a deep breath.

Betty’s scream, long and laden with terror, echoed through the night, bouncing off the walls of the suburban houses as lights began flaring behind windows and doors banging open throughout the neighborhood.

By the time the first men arrived, some bearing handguns or improvised weapons, Betty was clinging to Jim, quivering, with tears streaming down her face. “Those two got into my room!” she yelled, pointing at Oldham and Gordon. “They threatened me with that knife and said they were going to do . . . terrible things to me! They said they’d killed other kids, too! Oh, but Jim was worried about me and he came by to look at my window and saw them pulling me out and he attacked them even though they had knives and he was sooooo brave.”

Betty stopped her semi-hysterical account long enough to gaze at Jim with such feigned but fervent admiration and gratitude that he nearly broke into laughter, which might have caused someone to question her story. But then some of the men were pounding Jim on the back and calling him a real man, while others were grabbing Oldham, who seemed frozen with horror, and Gordon, who was shouting out that they were all damned until someone rocked his head back with a hard blow.

The police officers who showed up were big men who didn’t seem to worry about inflicting bruises as they handcuffed Oldham and Gordon, and then bundled them into the back seat of the police car. “Runaways. Armed assault. Burglary. Kidnapping,” one of the officers said to Betty’s father. “And, uh . . . ” The officer glanced toward Betty and lowered his voice. “Attempted rape and murder. Don’t worry. The judge will take care of these two. They’ll be locked up for a long time.”

“Betty said they mentioned two other boys by name,” Mr. Knox said, “and boasted of having killed them. I had her write down the names and the cities where the boys lived.”

The police officer took the paper, then turned a very hard look on Oldham and Gordon. “Murders. If what they told your daughter is true, they’ll never come out of prison, sir, juveniles or not.”

“The smaller one is yelling something about being from the future,” the other police officer commented. “He’s a little young to be a homicidal maniac, but you know kids these days.”

“It’s that Dr. Spock,” the first officer said.

“And their music. Have you heard that ‘Louie, Louie’ song?” the second officer said as they climbed into their car.

Mr. Knox offered his hand to Jim as the police drove away. “Mrs. Knox and I were a little concerned about Betty getting too serious with you, but from this night forward you’re okay with us, son. I can’t imagine a better man for my daughter.”

#

“How was Christmas?” Jim asked as he sat down beside Betty on her porch steps.

“Better than I expected.” Betty held up a large magazine. “I wrote a story about what happened with Oldham and Gordon, and I just got a letter saying this magazine’s editor bought it. Only, instead of changing the names to protect the innocent, I used all our real names.”

“What magazine –“ Jim stopped when he saw the cover. “Analog Science Fact and Fiction? You sold a story to John W. Campbell?”

“Yeah. That’s good, isn’t it?”

“I . . . I . . . ”

“And,” Betty continued, “I used our names, like I said. There will be thousands of copies printed of that story. It will be in the data bases. Back in 2040, any search of past documents will ping on that story for certain because it has both of our names, and then the project’s researchers will see Oldham’s and Gordon’s names and characters, and know what took place.”

“You used the real events?” Jim asked, thumbing through the magazine quickly. “I mean, the time travel and everything?”

“Of course I did. It’s part of getting our message out, and I had to be certain that in 2040 they’d understand what had occurred, what had actually happened to all those other poor people who came back when I did. And I wanted them to know that James Jones is a hero.”

“Betty, I didn’t –“

“Did I tell you yet that I’m going to marry you someday, Dictionary Jones? And we’ll write more books and stories that contain what we want to say in ways that people today can accept, and publish your game, and I’ll nudge researchers to aim them in the right directions, and some day I’ll officially be Doctor Knox again and we’ll be conducting the research. We’re going to do this thing.”

Jim grinned at her. “Yes, we are. I wonder how many people reading that story will realize it’s true? Science Fact, not Fiction.”

“I had to use what really happened,” Betty said, pointing to the magazine. “You can’t make this stuff up.”

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