January 13th, 18–
It is a world that is both rather like and unlike our own, dear reader. A world where steam power is – currently – king. A world where scientists create marvels that makes one wonder if they are not truly wizards. A world where people live, die, and occasionally live again. Come, let us visit this amazing, wonderful, terrifying world. . . .
Burtonsville. A tiny little village founded by settler Timothy Burton not too far from the sea. Their main source of support is the fishing industry, which employs many of the men who live there. It is a quiet, peaceful little town. A visitor would most likely conclude that nothing interesting ever happened there.
They’d be absolutely correct. When it comes to dull, Burtonsville not only wrote the book, they provided all the illustrations and a full how-to guide in the back. The town is uniformly grey at all times of the year, winter and summer. The citizens are even less colorful. Oh yes, they tend to come in interesting shapes – most are either rather taller or rather shorter than average – but they move through their lives like they were made of clockwork. The same thing happens to everyone day in and day out. The people are a quiet sort, not prone to long conversation or showing emotion. (With the notable exception of the town crier, a man who has long forgotten the meaning of the term “indoor voice.”) Everyone is – not exactly kind to one another, but reasonably tolerant. People may despise each other, but no one ever takes any steps to show it. Most everyone dies either of old age or illness. There’s only been one shocking murder in the town’s history, and even that technically took place in the woods bordering it on one side. And the family it affected moved away long ago. There is nothing now, nothing but dull people leading even duller lives.
So, dear reader, you may ask, why have I taken you to see this awful little place? Well, you can put one fear to rest – our story does not take place in Burtonsville. But every story needs a main character, and ours happens to live here – at the moment. Why, here he comes now. . . .
Goodness, why do these boys have to be so persistent?!
Victor Van Dort tore through the underbrush between the trees, trying not to snag his pants on the twisty, thorny plants rising up from the ground. Behind him, he could hear the jeers of three of his peers – Gordon, Michael, and Bram. “Do you really think you can get away from us, Van Dort?”
I can certainly try, Victor thought, keeping up his pace as best he could. Why oh why did I have to come across them while they were in a playful mood?
Well, there was no time for self-recrimination at the moment. He had to get away before the trio’s favorite activity – namely, “Torment The Son Of The Cannery Owner” – got a chance to start. The last time they’d caught him, he had gone home with a black eye. And Mother had given him a lecture about “getting involved with those ruffians” on top of it, completely ignoring his protests that he never intended to get involved with them, never wanted to get involved with them. Of course, Mother never really listened to anyone –
Something caught his foot, and he stumbled, nearly falling to the ground. He caught his balance at the last second by grabbing a tree branch. Oh dear, why did the ground have to be so littered with little grabby plants? Of course, the plants hindered the other boys too, but Victor was starting to think that little advantage wasn’t worth it. If only he could find a clear place to run for a bit. If he could lose them for just a moment, he could scramble up a tree and hide until the coast was truly clear.
He spotted a place where the brush appeared to be thinning to his left. Nervously hopeful, he darted toward it, risking a quick glance back to assess his situation. He could still hear the boys, but he couldn’t see them. Good – that gave him a little time. He pushed on, deciding on the next part of his plan. The trees were thinning too now – obviously he was heading toward a clearing. He’d go there, stop for just a moment to catch his breath, try and double back on himself a bit, then find a nice solid tree and –
And. . . .
What on earth. . . ?
Victor came to an abrupt halt as he burst into the clearing. He wobbled for a moment as his body got used to the idea of not racing forward, then was still, eyes wide with shock. What was in front of him – how could it be there? There wasn’t a rail line for miles around! Everyone in Burtonsville either walked or traveled by carriage anyplace they needed to go. This was ridiculous! There was absolutely no reason for there to be a large steam locomotive in the woods!
The large steam locomotive in front of him obviously thought otherwise. Victor approached it cautiously, wondering if he was hallucinating. He couldn’t think of any reason why he’d be hallucinating, but it still seemed more probable than just running into a train in the woods.
It was a very nice train, at least, real or imagined. It was painted jet black, with red lines here and there for accent. There was a cowcatcher attached to the front of the locomotive, and – actually, Victor wasn’t sure what exactly it was that was attached to the bar. It certainly wasn’t a passenger car. It was shaped a bit like a large bullet resting on a bed. There were no doors or windows, just a little hatch in the side and what looked like two big vents on the back. As the shock cleared from his brain and he began to take in the locomotive more properly, he realized that it was a most unusual train indeed. He was fairly certain that most trains didn’t have this many fins on them. Or two horseshoe magnets on the side, with a strange wheel covered in fins between them. Or coils of wire looped everywhere. Or some odd light in the rough shape of a Y mounted in front of the smokestack. Victor reached out and lightly pressed his fingertips to the front of the train. Extremely solid (and very cold) iron greeted his touch. He hurriedly pulled his hand away and backed up a step. “Oh my,” he whispered.
There was the sound of feet crashing through the underbrush behind him and slightly to his left. “Hah! We found you, Van – bloody hell!”
The three boys goggled at the train in front of them. “Where in blazes did this come from?” Gordon said, automatically looking down to see if some track had magically appeared under the train’s wheels.
“I don’t know,” Victor whispered, moving around to the other side. There were more gadgets he didn’t understand mounted there, and a wide window showing the inside of the cab. Victor took a peek, unable to contain his curiosity. From what he could see, there were a couple of leather-covered benches on the sides, and a most peculiar instrument panel in the front. Something that looked like a typewriter was situated among all the levers and pulls and things one used to operate your average steam train. Victor frowned – who on earth would be typing at the controls of a locomotive?
“Trains don’t magically drop out of the sky!” Gordon insisted, shaking his head as if he didn’t quite believe what he was seeing.
“This is a Touched’s doing,” Bram said, spitting out the word as if it were poison. “One of those lunatics has found his way into our town!”
“We would have noticed if a Touched had come to Burtonsville,” Michael argued. “You can’t miss them. Wild hair, wild eyes, and always in a smelly, dirty lab coat!”
“Well, wherever he is, he’s too close for my comfort,” Bram declared, folding his arms.
“Hey, Van Dort, think your father would like to buy one of these?” Gordon called, going for the familiar ground of making fun of the boy of the town’s richest citizen.
“I don’t think Father would know what to do with it,” Victor answered absently, still examining the train. He couldn’t quite articulate why it had caught his attention like this. Something about it just – pulled at him. Made him think of adventure, of excitement. It called to that part of him he’d hidden deep inside – the part that had caused him to start sneaking penny dreadfuls to read behind his mother’s back. The part of him that had always craved something just a little more colorful.
“Never stopped him before,” Bram jeered.
“It’s also not ostentatious enough for Mother.” Victor rounded the back, taking in the strange vents. What were they for?
“Hmm. Suppose not.” Gordon’s own curiosity seemed to have been sparked as well. He moved closer to the train, reaching out gingerly to touch the side.
“Be careful!” Michael hissed, his and Bram’s eyes going wide. “That’s a damned Invention, you know that! It might take your hand off!”
“Be quiet, I know what I’m doing.” Gordon walked toward the cab, trailing his fingers along the iron. “Hey – maybe if we can figure out what’s important on this, we can smash it.”
“And get a Touched mad at us? Never,” Bram said, looking at Gordon as if the older boy had lost his mind. “You don’t know if that thing’s booby-trapped!”
“Oh, why would it be--”
There was a click as one of Gordon’s fingers suddenly depressed a little plate on the side of the cab. The boys and Victor jumped backward as the door suddenly split in two and opened outward – the top half raising to the sky, the other half unfolding to the ground and revealing a set of red steps. The group stared at the now-open cab. “What did I tell you?” Bram said, breathing a little quicker. “You’re lucky you didn’t lose a finger.”
“Shut up,” Gordon said, eyeing the interior of the train with a mixture of fear and curiosity. “I wonder what the mad old bastard has inside.”
“You ain’t going in there,” Michael said. “It’s probably really dangerous.” He paused and thought. “Let’s have Van Dort do it.”
Before Victor could get away, the boys had grabbed him and were dragging him bodily up to the train. Victor squirmed ineffectually in their grip. “No! Please!”
“Relax, Van Dort,” Gordon said, flashing him a rather yellow-toothed smile. “There’s only, what, a fifty percent chance something will kill you?”
“And considering who you are, it would probably be a mercy kill,” Bram added nastily. “Damn nouveau riche.”
With that, the trio picked him up and tossed him inside. Victor landed with a loud “bump” on the floor. He immediately froze, face screwed up tight as he waited for something to zap him or slice him or stick him with some sort of needle.
Nothing happened. After a few long moments, Victor dared to relax a little and open his eyes. The inside of the cab greeted him, all bright brass and red leather. He was lying right in front of the mysterious typewriter-like device he’d seen through the window. Very slowly, he got to his feet, rubbing his side. The console was all levers and pipes and gears and other components he couldn’t name if he tried. The typewriter keys were set up in front of this odd panel with dates on it. A bit of further inspection revealed the names of the months and the numbers were all on rotating wheels. Victor guessed the keys controlled them, but he still couldn’t make head or tails out of what it meant. Turning toward the back, he saw the benches, and what looked like a pair of cabinets. For a moment, he was tempted to poke through them, but etiquette prevailed. He certainly couldn’t go looking through someone’s private things. Especially not a Touched’s private things. It was bad enough he was in the cab at all.
“Touch something!” Michael dared him.
“I can’t! We should leave!” Victor said, making for the stairs.
Gordon moved forward threateningly. “Listen, Van Dort, unless you want--”
The sound of nearing footsteps suddenly caught everyone’s attention. “Well, Marty, I think we can declare this a successful field test!” a voice said, far too close for comfort.
“It’s the looney!” Bram said, voice rising to a squeak.
“Let’s go!” Gordon said, dashing for the woods. The other two boys followed close behind.
“Wait!” Victor called, running after them. “They’re going to see – oh!”
He toppled over and down the steps, wincing as he landed. What did I trip on? he thought, glancing backward.
A rope ladder extended out behind him – his left foot had gotten caught in one of the rungs. Victor shook it free and got back to his feet. All his instincts were screaming at him to run, but he knew he couldn’t just leave the train open like this. What if the Touched coming back somehow figured out he had been in the cab? Touched were known for their bad tempers, and Victor did not want one of them coming after him for revenge. He stumbled over to the side of the train and desperately began feeling around for the plate Gordon had touched.
Luck was with him – he found it quickly, and the doors obligingly folded back up. Victor noticed the rope ladder was dangling from the side and hesitated – should he open it back up and stuff it inside? Or just hope the inventor didn’t notice and make a run for it?
Before he could make any sort of decision, though, he spotted two vague shapes making their way into the clearing. Panicking, he darted around and hid on the opposite side of the train. Oh God! Please don’t notice me please don’t notice me
The two people – both Touched? Or was one playing Igor? – entered the clearing. Victor could hear them moving about. “Kind of a dull place you picked to visit, Doc,” a young man’s voice said.
“Well, it was the furthest place away that I could find on the map,” “Doc” replied. “Though you have a point – I’ve never seen a town that looked that grey.”
They had been to Burtonsville? But why had no one recognized them for what they were? Victor would have tried to sneak a glimpse at them if he wasn’t paralyzed with fear. All he really wanted was for them to get in the train so he could try and sneak away before they saw him.
There was a dull tap, then the sound of the doors opening up again. “Still, a fruitful day!” this Doc continued, as their footsteps made their way into the cab. “Now that we have conquered gravity, the space-time continuum can’t be far behind!”
Conquered gravity? The space-time continuum? Victor had no idea what that meant, and didn’t really care. Now was his chance to get out of here. He looked around, trying to determine the best path back to Burtonsville.
Then he realized it was behind him – that is, on the other side of the train. He sighed softly. That would be the case, wouldn’t it? But he didn’t want to risk getting lost in the woods, either. It would be dark sooner rather than later, and he had no desire to spend the night out here. He cautiously peeked around the side of the train.
The doors were shut. Victor could still see the ladder hanging out the side – apparently the scientist hadn’t noticed it. He nodded, then began to tiptoe around the front of the train. He risked a look in through the windows as he rounded the cowcatcher. A rather older man, with wild white hair under a bowler cap, was standing at the controls, apparently readying the train for travel. Victor was surprised to see that the hair was really the only thing unusual about the man – his clothes seemed perfectly normal, at least from this angle. Maybe Touched didn’t wear lab coats all the time. Or this man wasn’t a Touched at all, but a perfectly normal scientist. Victor’s eyes traveled the length of the train. No – definitely Touched.
Fortunately, the man – Doc? – was also completely focused on his work. And there was no sign of his friend – Marty, was it? Well, it didn’t matter. Soon they’d be out of his life, and he’d think back on this incident as perhaps no more than an interesting story to tell his grandchildren. Victor broke into a jog, not noticing his foot landing again among the rungs of the ladder –
There was a sudden loud noise akin to – Victor wasn’t sure. It sounded like something was powering up. Startled – oh, God, had they noticed him? Did he have a ray gun pointed at his back? – he fell over, rolling over once or twice in his typical clumsy way. Something grabbed at his ankle and pulled tight, making him yelp from fear and a little pain. What had him? Was he caught in a trap? Was he about to be brought into the train and dissected?! (Okay, perhaps that last bit was a tad melodramatic, he hadn’t noticed anything that could be used for that unpleasant activity when he’d been inside. But one never knew. . . .)
Fortunately, the truth proved to be more mundane – he’d simply tangled his foot again in the rope ladder. Grumbling to himself, Victor set about trying to get it free. He wanted to be far away from here when they left. How were they going to leave, anyhow? One would think one would notice a large steam locomotive barreling through the woods.
The sound of grinding metal caught his attention. Looking up, he saw – no, he couldn’t be seeing that. He blinked a few times, but the image stayed. The wheels were – were folding under the train! And there was a peculiar red light emanating from the bottom of the locomotive now, along with blue lights flashing along the sides. Victor gaped as the train slowly began to rise into the air, chugging as it did. Oh – so that’s what the man had meant when he had said “conquered gravity.” Victor was impressed, honestly. It was truly amazing to watch the train lift into the air, the headlamps shining brightly, the wheels turning beneath it, the ladder rising as well–
Victor quickly tried to yank his foot free from the rope, but it was already too late. With a yelp, he found himself dangling upside-down as his leg was dragged inexorably upward. He grabbed at the grass below him out of sheer panic, only to feel the blades rip free as the ground receded. “Oh! No! NO! HELP!”
But there was no one on the ground to hear him. And Victor very much doubted if the people in the train’s cab could hear him, given all the noise the locomotive was making. Victor watched helplessly as he rose above the tops of the trees, looking down upon a landscape that was now far too small for his liking.
And far too inverted – he was getting an awful headache like this. Now rather grateful for his long arms, he reached and grabbed his pants leg, using the leverage to haul himself up to a rough sitting position. From there, it was a simple matter to grab one of the rungs and pull himself more firmly onto the ladder. His ankle was starting to hurt, gripped as tightly as it was by the twisted bit of rope, but Victor didn’t dare try and free it. He was too scared he’d fall. Plummeting from the rope ladder of a flying steam train wasn’t the way he wanted to die.
The train continued ascending. Victor took a moment to let the blood drain from his head, then looked around, shivering in the cold air. He could see the woods below him, the barren branches of the black trees making strange tangled patterns. He could also see Burtonsville to his right – goodness, the town looked even tinier from up here. There was the bridge over the little river, the church where Pastor Galswells resided, the town square with its statue of the founder, the Everglots’ mansion, and his own even bigger residence. Victor found himself marveling over the size of his parents’ house. How on earth had it been constructed? How had his father afforded to have it constructed? He thought he had been more or less used to its size, having lived there ever since he was seven, but seeing it from this angle. . . .
Burtonsville suddenly began to travel farther to the right. Victor felt a breeze stir the ladder as the train started to fly horizontally. He stared up at the wheels churning above his head for a moment, then looked back at his town as it was regulated to the horizon. Cold fear gripped his heart. He was trapped good and proper – there was no letting go of the ladder now, not without falling to his doom (and possibly pulling his leg off in the process). Trapped beneath a flying steam train going who knows where. Victor was unaccustomed to travel even under normal circumstances. He’d lived in Burtonsville all his nineteen years. His family had only moved once, and that was simply to transfer their things from their modest house on the outskirts of town to the gigantic mansion on the town square once business had really taken off. He’d been to London a couple of times, yes, but then he’d had his parents with him, and had stayed far away from any Touched. God knew where this fellow lived. He could be on his way to Transylvania. Or perhaps Mechanicsburg – a flying steam train seemed to be appropriate for a town that boasted a living castle. Or even somewhere in America. He’d heard that the untamed towns of the American West were ripe with Touched. Victor imagined traveling for days over the Atlantic Ocean and shivered.
Try and make the best of it, a little voice inside of him said. Yes, the situation looks dismal, but there’s nothing you can do about it presently. Besides, you’ve always wanted to fly, haven’t you?
This was true enough. However, Victor’s thoughts about flight had always been more centered around the flight of butterflies, not steam trains. And it was rapidly becoming apparent that flying under a steam train wasn’t going to be much fun. Especially as it picked up speed. Victor squeezed his eyes shut against the rapidly-building wind as they began to water. The ladder swayed dangerously in the wind, flapping behind the door it was stuck in. (Though, thankfully, it never rose high enough for there to be any threat from the wheels – Victor supposed his body weight was enough to keep it down. Which surprised him, considering how thin he was.) He shivered and tightened his chilled fingers on the rope. Please – wherever he lives, let it not be far!
Victor had no idea how long the trip took. Time paradoxically had little meaning when you were clinging for dear life to a flimsy rope ladder underneath a flying steam train. But, eventually, the train slowed down enough for the wind to diminish back to a breeze. Trying to ignore how cold and achy he was, Victor slowly opened his eyes.
There was a city below him, with cobblestoned streets and buildings stretching up to the sky. Victor blinked a few times as they flew closer. The city looked like London. But there was something about it, something just a bit off –
Something exploded nearby, nearly scaring the young man out of his skin. Jerking his head around, he saw what looked like the remains of some sort of rocket, and a man angrily cursing. “Blast it! And the moon just waiting to be conquered!”
Victor stared for a moment, then noticed something else hanging in the air nearby. It was some sort of machine, with two kite-like wings attached to it, and a cord extending toward the ground. Victor followed it to see what looked like a restaurant below. As they passed, the machine said, in a distinctly deep-toned but still very mechanical voice, “FRIED CHICKEN.” There was the sound of moisture being sucked into somewhere, then a hatch on the bottom opened and pieces of fried chicken fell out, hurtling to the ground.
Electricity crackled from some unseen source, hurtling up into the sky and just missing the train as Victor tried to process that. “Hey, watch it!” Victor heard Marty’s voice yell above him. “Sheesh, you think they’d notice the train. . . .”
Victor looked around again. The buildings were primarily of sturdy-looking brick, but quite a few bore scorch marks or strange stains upon them. Quite a few had lightning rods mounted on their roofs – Victor had to swing his ladder to one side slightly to avoid one. One building had multicolored smoke coming from a window. And as he looked down, Victor could see strange machines zipping along the streets, and – it was hard to tell from this distance, but it looked like a pair of pickle people ambling along. “Oh my God,” he whispered, everything clicking into place. “Secundus. . . .”
How had he not guessed before? Everyone knew about Secundus! It was the Touched Capital of the World! It had been founded by a Touched! (Well, “founded” might be too strong. What Dr. Zemeckis had done was, in fact, create a large duplication device and duplicated London many miles away from the original city, in the hopes of confusing people and eventually taking over England. The plan had failed, mostly because no one had fallen for the deception. Over time, it had evolved into its own distinct city. No one even used the “London” part of its name anymore.) It was full to bursting with Creative scientists of all stripes! Of course someone with a flying steam train would live here!
In fact, they seemed to have come to his home. The train ground to a halt above a simple two-story brownstone, then began to lower. Victor stumbled and fell over as his feet touched the ground again. He crabwalked out of the way of the descending train as the wheels unfolded themselves, dragging the ladder with him. There was the sound of something powering down as the train landed. Then, before Victor could react, the doors opened. “Aah, it’s good to be – Great Scott, was this hanging outside the entire trip?”
The older man Victor had seen at the controls appeared on the steps, tracing the length of the rope ladder with his eyes and frowning. “I could have sworn I’d rolled it up for storage earl--” he started, then stopped as he saw Victor at the other end.
The two men stared at each other a moment. Then Victor managed a weak, half-hearted smile. “H-hello.”
“You hung on all the way back?”
Victor looked over at the young man sitting across from him. His blue eyes were wide, mouth hanging open slightly. Victor nodded. “I d-didn’t have m-much of a choice,” he whispered, pulling the blanket they had given him tighter around himself. “Plus m-my ankle. . . .”
“He wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t held on, Marty,” the older man – who had introduced himself as Dr. Emmett Brown – said as he came back in from the kitchen. He held a tray that contained three cups, a teapot, cream and sugar, and a plate of chocolate biscuits. He set it down on the sitting room’s table. “How do you take your tea, Victor?”
“Cream and sugar, please,” Victor said, watching as the scientist prepared the requested cup. His head was still spinning. After Dr. Brown and his assistant Marty McFly had discovered him entangled in the ladder, they’d helped him get loose and brought him inside to their midsized flat. Dr. Brown had given him the blanket before disappearing into the kitchen to make tea, while Marty had made the introductions and made sure he was comfortable on the couch. It was honestly rather confusing – weren’t Touched supposed to chain you up in their dungeons or something like that? Not that this building seemed to have a dungeon – it appeared to be a perfectly normal flat from what he’d seen so far. Of course, after having spent some time hanging below a flying steam train in the icy wind, he was surely not thinking or seeing clearly. . . .
Dr. Brown pressed the cup into his hands. “Drink this,” he said firmly, looking at Victor with obvious concern. “It’ll do you good to get something hot into you.”
Victor looked down at the teacup. Part of him said that he shouldn’t drink it – who knew what could be in it? The other part said that he was very cold and tired and that tea would do him good. After a moment, Victor decided that being possibly mutated wasn’t any worse than what had already happened to him and allowed himself a sip. It tasted fine.
“How did you get your foot stuck in the ladder anyway?” Marty asked, leaning forward.
“It was a-an accident,” Victor said quickly, teacup rattling in his grip. “I didn’t m-mean – I s-stumbled across your t-train by accident, then some o-other boys c-came along and m-made me go inside. . .I k-knocked the ladder out w-when I heard you c-coming, and then w-when I was t-trying to get back home, I tripped, f-fell on it, and t-twisted my ankle up into i-it.”
“There now, relax,” Dr. Brown said soothingly, picking up a biscuit and offering it to him. “We believe you. I doubt anybody would want to get stuck in that on purpose.”
“Yeah, especially when it means getting dragged cross-country,” Marty agreed. “I told you to lock the door, Doc.”
“How was I supposed to know some random kid would figure out how to open it? That plate’s nearly invisible!”
“Even still, Doc! What if they’d decided to take it out for a joyride?”
“Oh, they n-never would have d-done that,” Victor spoke up, nibbling on his biscuit. “They w-were much too a-afraid. That’s, er, w-why they s-shoved me in t-there.”
Dr. Brown and Marty looked at him. “Nice fellas,” Marty said after a moment, rolling his eyes.
“Oh, t-they’re not so b-bad,” Victor lied, before taking another sip of tea.
“Forcing you to be their guinea pig just in case my train was something truly dangerous? I’d say they are,” Dr. Brown argued. Then he smiled. “Never mind that now, though – you’re safe here, I promise.”
Am I? Victor looked around the sitting room again. It seemed a perfectly normal room – on the small side, but that was only to be expected. What little he’d seen of the rest of the flat had looked normal too. He looked back at Dr. Brown and Marty, who were watching him with faintly puzzled expressions. “Do forgive me,” he said softly, putting down his teacup. “I’m just – I never – I never t-thought Touched could be so – h-hospitable.”
Marty snorted. “What, were you expecting us to drag you down to a dungeon and chain you to the wall?”
Victor blushed and looked at his feet. “A little.”
Dr. Brown shook his head with a sigh. “That’s the problem with society – they judge a group as a whole by a few bad apples. Just one Touched has to try and take over the world, and suddenly we’re all maniacs who want to conquer all we see.” He gave Victor a reassuring smile. “I’ll admit to being a moderate sufferer of Atypical Scientific Neural Disorder--”
“What now?” Victor blurted without meaning to.
“That’s the official name for what makes a Touched a Touched,” Dr. Brown explained, chuckling. “I just meant I’m Somewhat Touched. But I’m not evil, Victor. Most of us aren’t.”
“Yeah, do you think I’d be working for a guy who was evil?” Marty asked.
Victor hesitated. The polite answer was “No,” the honest answer was, “Well, I don’t know you very well yet.” “You don’t seem the type,” he hedged.
“He’s only just met us, Marty,” Dr. Brown said. “He can’t make a judgement like that right away.”
“I dunno – giving him tea and cookies seems to suggest we’re not bad guys.”
“We could have poisoned them. Not that we did,” Dr. Brown hurriedly added.
Victor found himself smiling. “I trust you that far,” he admitted. “I’m s-sure I’d be dead already i-if you had.”
“Exactly,” Marty said with a grin of his own. “And we’ll bring you back to Burtonsville in one piece, promise.” There was a pause. “Your home is Burtonsville, right?”
“Yes,” Victor confirmed, finishing off his biscuit. “My father owns the local cannery. H-have you heard of Van Dort Fish?”
Dr. Brown and Marty frowned thoughtfully. “Think I have,” Marty said. “Saw it at the grocery store one day. We don’t eat a lot of fish around here.” He looked Victor up and down. “Gotta say, that’s an awful nice suit for a guy whose father works in a cannery.”
“Not works, owns,” Victor corrected gently. “He’s a-actually the richest man in t-town. We live in a h-huge house right on the square. Perhaps you s-saw it – it has large statues of f-fish outside of it.”
“That place?” Marty said, sounding awed. “Sheesh, I’ve never seen a bigger house! And you lived there?!” Victor nodded. “Your dad must be rolling in dough. How much do you guys have?”
“Marty, we’re not here to grill him on his financial situation,” Dr. Brown said, sipping his own tea. “We’re here to get him warmed up before taking him back. I’m surprised you didn’t get frostbite from that wind,” he added to Victor.
“I’m g-grateful I didn’t.” Victor picked up another biscuit, wrestling with another question. It seemed intrusive, but he was just so curious. . . . Inquisitiveness won out. “W-where did you get a flying steam train?”
“Oh, the train’s a decommissioned locomotive I acquired from the local railway,” Dr. Brown said, grinning in a less-than-sane manner. The effect wasn’t frightening, though – rather, it was almost comedic. “Took me some time to repurpose it for my needs and get it back into running order. The flight, however, is a new development. You encountered us on our first test run of my hover conversion system!”
“Hover conversion?” Victor repeated, leaning forward.
“Yes! I only discovered it recently. It works on the principles of electromagentism,” Dr. Brown said, a strange note creeping into his voice. “The device I’ve created sets up a specialized flow of magnetic energy that constantly adjusts to the polarity of the earth’s natural magnetic field, thereby forcing the object away from the earth. Like how two similarly charged magnets repel each other. The strength can be adjusted for the size and weight of the object – obviously, it took me a while to calibrate it properly for the train. Then it’s just a matter of finding a proper power source to push your vehicle and keeping an eye on the magnetic fluxes. This is all a gross simplification of course, the proper explanation is far more complicated and gets into things like atom theory and--”
“Doc, I don’t think he even gets the ‘gross simplification,’” Marty pointed out with a little laugh.
“No, no, I sort of do,” Victor said, thinking it over. Something about the new tone of Dr. Brown’s voice seemed to make his thoughts and ideas infectious. “It – it rides on a cushion of this magnetic energy?”
“More or less,” Dr. Brown said with a nod. “With adjustments made for height differentials. Getting it to float a few inches above the ground is far easier than getting it to float thirty feet above the ground, let me tell you.” He clapped his hands. “But! As our trip today shows, we’ve got it working! Now I can return to work on my most ambitious project yet!”
“And what’s that?” Victor asked, interested.
Dr. Brown leaned forward, grinning widely. “Time travel.”
“Yeah, he’s serious,” Marty said, snagging a cookie. “He’s told me all about it. He got the idea back when he was thirty-something, been working on it ever since.”
“Thirty-five,” Dr. Brown clarified. “I was standing on my toilet hanging a clock; the porcelain was wet; I slipped, hit my head on the sink – and when I came to, I had a revelation! A vision! A picture in my head!” He flung his arms wide. “The flux capacitor!”
“That glowing Y-shaped thing on the front of the train,” Marty added for Victor’s benefit. “According to Doc, it opens up holes in the space-time continuum. Or it will, once we get it working.”
“That’s – that’s incredible,” Victor said, utterly awed, tea and biscuit forgotten in his hands. “So – is that typewriter-like device related to that?”
“Oh, you saw that! Yes, that’s the main temporal location display,” Dr. Brown said proudly. “The top readout is the Destination Time, the middle is Present Time, and the bottom is Last Time Departed. You use the keys to set the time you want to go to. It’s a fairly simple arrangement.”
Victor nodded, completely swept away by his host’s enthusiasm. “So, ah, what’s stopping you? One would think if you could travel anywhere in time. . . .”
Here Dr. Brown looked a bit embarrassed. “Well, everything works, more or less,” he said, fiddling with his fingers. “The trouble is the amount of power needed and the speed required. It takes, at minimum, one-point-twenty-one gigawatts of electricity to open a proper portal through space-time. That’s the amount in a good-sized bolt of lightning. The other thing is that you have to be going very fast to take advantage of the portal – it doesn’t stay open very long. The minimum speed on that is eighty-eight miles per hour. You can see how such requirements could be a problem.”
Victor nodded again, boggled by the size of the numbers. “Goodness. Especially with a train. . . .”
“It’s the only vehicle I know of even slightly close to capable of meeting the speed requirement,” Dr. Brown explained. “I did some research on the subject back when Marty and I were living in Hill Valley.”
“Yeah, we asked one of the engineers,” Marty said with a smirk. “Guy thought we were nuts when we asked if you could get one of those things up to ninety.”
“Yes, but he also admitted that he thought it could be done,” Dr. Brown told him, holding up a finger.
“Only if you followed about five million rules,” Marty retorted. “Straight stretch of track, no hills, no cars, have to get the fire hotter than those of Hell. . . .”
“Aha, that’s why I invented the hover conversion system, remember? I thought that by eliminating the need for tracks entirely, and also eliminating the problem of friction, we’d be set! Now we just need to get her up to speed. We’ll have to take a reading on that at the first opportunity, see what the current maximum speed is. Damn, I should have – actually, no, I shouldn’t have done that today,” he corrected himself, shooting an apologetic look at Victor. “I’m sorry, when I get onto this subject, I tend to become – excitable.”
“I noticed,” Victor said, smiling. Oh – so that odd tone to his voice must have been Creativity, he realized. They did say that a Touched’s voice changes when he lets the madness take over. . .but what ideas! “But it sounds wonderful, I have to say.”
“Really? You like it?” Marty looked surprised – and just a little impressed. “The way you were acting before, I thought you would have ducked for cover once Doc started talking like that.”
Victor paused, thinking about that for a moment. Actually, Marty was right – that would have been the natural thing to do for him. He was naturally shy and nervous, had been ever since birth. Being around a Touched should terrify him.
But it didn’t. He’d felt uneasy when he’d first come in, but that had faded away quickly as they’d fed him and talked to him, acting just like normal people. And when Dr. Brown had started detailing his inventions – it was hard not to get swept away by the sheer enthusiasm, the sheer joy in his voice. It had made him feel – more alive, somehow. A bit like he felt when he was reading his secret stash of penny dreadfuls, imagining himself having the fantastic adventures they described. It was actually rather nice. “Well – the things he was d-discussing were so – interesting--”
Dr. Brown grinned. “Aha. Have a bent for this sort of work yourself, perhaps?”
Victor couldn’t help it – he laughed. “Oh, hardly. Though I am a b-bit interested in science – entomology. I – um – I study butterflies,” he said quickly, looking back down as a blush heated his cheeks.
“Oh? Never been one for the biological side of science myself,” Dr. Brown said. “I used to get a little squeamish around blood. My interest has always lay in the mechanical side of things. I mean, I’d like to think that, in a way, I’m a student of all sciences, but my passions have always lain with physics and inventing, with a little chemistry thrown in.”
Victor looked up, astonished. “What – you don’t think it’s unmanly?” he blurted.
Dr. Brown blinked. “Why would I think – your studying butterflies, you mean? What’s unmanly about that?”
“M-Mother always said it was,” Victor said, pulling at his tie. “She told me young men shouldn’t w-waste their time c-chasing insects.”
“Don’t all kids do that?” Marty asked. “I know I did. Well, until I ran into that wasps’ nest one time. . . .”
“She didn’t a-approve of me doing it as a c-child either.” Victor gave his tie a twist. “Then again, she never approves of anything.”
Dr. Brown and Marty looked concerned again. “You don’t sound happy,” Marty noted, leaning forward.
Victor shook his head. “It’s j-just me being silly,” he said, trying to smile and not quite succeeding. “Mother and I just – we h-have different interests. She wants to be noble one day, or at l-least allowed to mingle with them. I – I’d b-be perfectly happy chasing butterflies the r-rest of my life.”
“What about your dad?”
“Father – cares more about what Mother thinks. That and the cannery. He’s always t-telling me how I’m to t-take it over one day, and I really don’t--” Victor stopped himself, feeling embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be telling you all this. . . .”
“No, it’s fine,” Dr. Brown told him, patting him on the shoulder. “This all reminds me a bit of how I met Marty. Somehow, we both found ourselves telling each other all about our lives.”
“Yeah, I guess I’m just a natural Igor,” Marty said with a laugh. “First Touched I meet, and I end up becoming his best friend.”
Victor looked between them. This was so strange. His entire world view had been turned upside-down in a matter of hours. This morning, he’d been living in a perfectly ordinary town, convinced that Touched were evil monsters and that their assistants were little more than slavering minions. Now, he’d been accidentally abducted by a flying steam train, and found that at least one of these “madmen” and his “Igor” were actually quite nice people. And already he liked his new perspective more than the old. “P-perhaps I’m the same,” he joked. “Maybe I should s-stay here with you two.”
Marty laughed. Dr. Brown, however, suddenly looked rather serious. “Would you like to?”
“What?” Marty repeated, looking at his friend in surprise.
“God knows we could use another pair of hands around the lab,” Dr. Brown said, speaking to both Marty and Victor. “And I honestly think he has what it takes. Anyone else who’d had to spend two hours dangling from my train would have been out of here like a shot the first chance they go. You actually stayed and talked. And judging by how much you got into my little rant there. . . .”
Victor was astonished. “But – I barely know you!”
“Doesn’t matter to Doc,” Marty said, looking intrigued himself. “He offered me my job second day we knew each other. And you seem like an okay guy to me.”
“It would be fifteen shillings a week, plus a room here and all your meals,” Doc said, leaning back and underlining his words with a biscuit. “In return, you’d help Marty and me out with my various projects.” He grinned, the Creativity leaking back into his voice. “Just think, Victor – you could be one of the co-inventors of time travel!”
Victor couldn’t do much more than stare. “I – it’s a very generous offer--” he babbled.
“Nobody’s gonna force you to stay,” Marty reassured him. “You say no, Doc’ll take you home right now. We don’t exactly make a habit of kidnapping people.”
“Quite right,” Doc said, returning to normal. “It’s your decision, Victor. But if you’d like to stay. . . .”
Victor looked at them for a moment. Stay here? In the Mad Scientist Capital of the World? Assisting a Touched? It was – it was insane, it was ludicrous, it was –
He’d always quietly craved a bit of excitement. Something to break up the monotony of the days. And what was he going back to in Burtonsville? Almost nobody there paid him much attention. And the ones that did usually wanted to berate and torment him. His parents – Victor loved his parents, but he couldn’t deny they were rather distant. Father was more concerned with his cannery, while Mother was always going on about moving into the upper circles of society. Neither of them paid him any mind unless he’d gotten into trouble, Mother especially. And then she’d yell and tell him to stop being such an embarrassment. He’d gotten used to it over the years, but it still hurt a little.
Oh God – and then there were the Everglots.
Victor felt a bit of a chill crawl up his spine as he remembered the news his mother had dropped on him not two weeks ago – that he was arranged to marry the daughter of Lord and Lady Everglot. It had all been set up before Christmas, apparently, with the wedding itself set for the end of January. Victor had been stunned – how could his parents expect him to get married? He was a mess around young ladies; they had to know that from all the failed balls and parties he’d attended! Not to mention he’d never even met the young woman in question. He still hadn’t – all the parents involved seem to think it best to keep the two betrothed apart. He didn’t know a thing about her. All he could do was look at her parents and guess. And Lord and Lady Everglot were such horridly mean people, that he’d really started to dread the upcoming wedding.
His eyes refocused on Dr. Brown and Marty, waiting for his answer. It occurred to him that, in such a short time, they’d shown him more kindness than he’d known in a long while. And the idea of being known as someone who’d helped with such a fantastic invention did tickle his fancy. And Doc was right about him staying and talking rather than running. Maybe – maybe, in some odd way, he belonged here. Slowly, he smiled. “Yes,” he said. “I’d like that very much.”