The Ottawa morning dawned cold and bright, as all Ottawa winter mornings do. But soon the cloud of foul gases and hot air from the Parliament Buildings filled the sky and the wretched denizens of Canada's Capital began to plod through their dreary day.
One Ottawa dweller, however, was neither wretched nor going to have a dreary day. Ararrat woke as always with a grin on his handsome and amiable countenance. Flinging back the covers, he leapt out of his bed and danced about his bedroom.
"Today's the day, today's the day!" he caroled, and pirouetted into his bath and into the shower. With a flourish he shampooed his flowing hair, soaped his rippling muscles, and jumped out onto the bathmat. He dried himself, humming all the while, then with a Nureyev-style leap, made the bedroom in one move. He dressed with more than his usual care. Instead of his cool Hugo Boss duds, he drew out a pair of forest green leggings and slid them over his powerful legs. Nothing as dull as a custom made silk shirt today. He shrugged into a loose jerkin, again forest green, but made of soft suede leather. And then the boots, worn but well made, and glove tight on his feet. Over all, with peerless grace, he put on a cloak and fastened it at the throat with an odd leaf-shaped pin. He smiled in the mirror as he stood for a moment in his vestibule. The guy in the mirror smiled back, looking somewhat rakish with his moustache and beard. Then Ararrat let himself out and locked the door behind him. He dropped the key back through the mail slot in his door. "Won't be needing that any more," he whispered. He didn't take the elevator down, but flew down the stairs on winged feet to the storage lockers and opening his, took out his bicycle.
Ararrat always biked to work. Since retiring to Ottawa and taking up his second career, he had become a fitness nut. It was a little chilly today, about minus 65 degrees Celsius, but anticipation and excitement kept him warm and he beat his own speed record, whirling into the Canadian Science Institute parking lot a full five minutes quicker than usual. He flashed his ID to the guard and ran upstairs to the Lab he called his own.
Here he met with an annoying check. Instead of the Lab being empty, seeming to await his presence, that darned Vison was there, perched like a spider on the edge of the desk. She looked up and said, "Hi, Ararrat. My stars. Where are you going, dressed like that?"
He thought quickly, his powerful mind sifting through possible answers and delivering: " A costume party at noon, in the cafeteria."
She bit. "Cool, " she said. "Listen. There's something I want to talk to you about, Ararrat."
"Can't it wait?" he asked. "I have a really busy morning planned."
"It won't take up much of your time. Look, I'll just leave it here and you can look at it when you have a minute. I'll check back and see what you think, ‘kay?" She dropped a sheaf of papers on the desk and waddled to the door. "It's my speech to the Nobel Committee."
He ground his sparkly white American teeth. "The Nobel Committee? You won another Nobel prize? What for, this time? You got the Physics prize last year."
"Oh, this is for Literature, of course. My first love, you know." She laughed her false, wicked tricksy laugh, and squeezed her mighty bulk through the door into the hallway.
He could hear her wheezing breath as she negotiated the hall, then he heard the "ping" as the elevator arrived. He hoped it was empty, there was always trouble when Vison had to wedge herself into the elevator with other people. Just last week there had been that awful incident with the bottle of baby oil and the forklift.
He wrenched his mind back to the present and locked the Lab door so he would not be disturbed. He drew some deep, cleansing breaths, and closed his eyes, centering himself in the Now. But something nagged at him, breaking his concentration, and he had to leave the peaceful place he was about to reach and look around the Lab and try to remember what it was he had forgotten. Right! He hadn't eaten yet, and hunger gnawed at his belly behind the rippling six pack of his abs. He opened the refrigerator and looked inside.
If he hadn't seen that dastardly Vison, the sight of the refrigerator's empty interior would have told him she had been there. Gone was his bag of Hershey's kisses, gone the bag of granola bars. No apples, no vegetarian subs. Nothing but an apple core and some crumpled wrappers. He checked the drawers of his desk and found his secret stash of chocolate covered soy beans and a jug of Ripple wine. Good enough. It would have to do, anyway, because he had no intention of going out to buy supplies. He stuck the beans and the bottle in his waist pouch and crossed the Lab to the Time Machine.
There it sat, innocuous enough to look at, a Pod shaped device made of mostly aluminum from recycled pop cans (soda cans, Ararrat called them, being a Yank). No humming sounds, no whirring noises. It just sat there, maybe a little dusty, and smelling slightly of cow dung since that CBC reporter had made her disastrous trip. A plaque was screwed to the side panel and, as always, the sight of it made Ararrat wince.
"To Vison", the plaque read, "from the grateful Citizens of Canada and the World, a lot of thanks and $1 billion dollars (CDN)." Underneath, in very, very little letters, was written, "Oh, yeah, and good going, Ararrat." Hanging on the door handle were Vison's Order of Canada, her honourary Knighthood, and the Congressional Medal for Really Smart People. He tossed them aside. He knew that her citation from the Nobel Committee was framed and nailed to the wall behind him, but he never looked at it if he could help it. He remembered her smirking as she gave him a cheque for $l,000 (US) as his share of all the monies she had won. "I just think I should give you a little something, Ary, and so, here you are. Now, you buy something nice for yourself, ‘kay?"
He had restrained himself from flinging it in her face, but he remembered that the rent was due on his apartment, and since the collapse of Social Security under President George Q. Bush (the son and grandson of Presidents!), he was nearly a pauper, scraping by only because the exchange rate was now at 13 American cents to the Canadian Dollar. He cursed the day he had invested in Enron, all those years ago. Because of Enron and Social Security, he had made the move to Ottawa and become the Operator of the Time Machine.
He was paid a small salary, in Canadian dollars, of course, and most of the time he quite liked his new job. Ottawa was a terrible place, full of politicians and civil servants who were neither civil nor servile, but there was a movie theatre on his street that had played nothing but the LOTR trilogy of films since 2006, and since he had made a move on the Manageress, he never had to pay to attend. He tossed her a bouquet of tulips every spring (there were hectares of tulips planted all over Ottawa), and the odd gift certificate from MacDonald's, and that kept her sweet.
"Enough of this," he thought, consigning the Manageress to the pile of things he was leaving behind. He did a final walk through of the Lab. There, in the corner, the original Dark Matter Density Detector. They were all over the Solar System now, Vison had franchised them, and the income from "Vison's DMDD"s alone made her so wealthy she had bought Microsoft and changed the name to Macrostupid. He tried very hard to put Vison out of his mind but her leering face and sweating enormity kept intruding. "You think she'd spend some of it on a makeover, like I did," he thought. " A new hairdo, for instance, or a course at Weight Watchers (tm). Better yet, a session at charm school." He smiled, thinking that "charm" had a meaning that only a Physicist would know. Little things like that kept him on an even keel.
In another corner, a mockup of "Vison's Martian Spa". Another franchise, another fortune to be made. There was no end to it, and that thought depressed him a little. "Charm" had lost its charm for the moment.
He went to the closet and took out a long, narrow box. Inside was a genuine, authentic imitation Sword in a genuine imitation leather scabbard, hung on a genuine imitation leather belt. He strapped it on, grasped the hilts in his left hand and climbed into the Pod.
"This will be the last time," he thought. "This will be the last time." He pulled the door closed and locked it. He spun the Date dial, slid the Locator stick as far to the left as it would go, then pushed Engage. The Machine whirred and hummed and joggled a bit, and the air became charged with excitement and electricity and he blacked out for a while and dreamed of Nursegul and her rubber hose.
He came to slowly and gradually his senses returned, he knew where he was and why he was there. Not for the first time he wished they had put a Viewing Port in the Pod. The only way to find out was to open the door and step out. He mentally Girded his Loins, then opened the door.
Outside, it was as black as the inside of a cow, and rain pelted down, soaking him to the skin in a matter of moments. He shivered, and had a moment's doubt. "NO!" he shouted inwardly. He searched the rainy darkness and saw, about a hundred metres off, a set of dimly lighted windows in the blacker shadow of a building. He closed the door of the Pod and pushed the Vanish button that was under the door handle. Too late now to change his mind. For a few heartbeats terror gripped him, then exhilaration swept through his veins.
Into the dark and the rain, up a cobbled hill, to a tall wall, and a gate. He pounded on the gate and a bearded dark face poked out, lit by a lantern. "Whatcher want, you?" a voice said.
"Is this Bree, gatekeeper?" Ararrat asked, trying to keep his voice low and calm.
"Are yez thick, or what? Course it is," the voice growled. "Hurry up and get through, I'm gettin' soaked here, yez eejit!"
Ararrat stepped through and the gatekeeper held the lantern up and searched his face. "Go ahead, then," he said. "The Pony is full, though. You might not find a room."
There it was. The Prancing Pony, the sign swinging a little on the chains. Another moment of terror, but he lifted the latch and went in.
The din was phenomenal, and the air was thick with the smoke of Pipeweed, stale ale, and BO from dozens of bodies that recked not of Rightguard. He elbowed his way through the crowd to an alcove where a Man sat nursing a mug of Ale and smoking a pipe. Ararrat leaned over the Man. "A word, Sir? If you please?"
The Man looked up. "Speak, stranger," he said.
"Not here," Ararrat said. "Too many spying eyes and listening ears. Come outside for a moment."
"Oh, all right," the Man said. "But be quick. I'm waiting for someone."
Out into the night. Around the corner to where the empty ale barrels were piled. Anduril in his hand, the thrust long practiced. The body shoved down the ravine and rolling up against a pile of rubbish.
Ararrat stood in the darkness and laughed wildly. "So long, Aragorn," he cried into the wind. "Hello, Aragorn." He wiped the blade clean on the wet grass and went into the Pony and took his place at the table. He picked up the mug, and the pipe. He had quite smoking once, and it was harder than he expected to take a long, full pull on the pipe. He coughed and retched, but waved away the Innkeeper who came and said, "You all right, Strider?"
"Just swallowed the wrong way," Ararrat said. Just then there was the sound of an arrival, and four wet, nervous looking Hobbits came in. Ararrat smiled and took another pull on the pipe. "The adventure begins," he thought.