The Crosstime Engineer
Book 1 of the Adventures of Conrad Starguard
"DAMN IT! I have five doctorates!" she shouted.
He looked up from the pile of Polish government forms on his desk and surveyed the dumpy, middle-aged waitress in front of him. Why me, Lord?
"So?" he said dryly. "It happens that, academically, you are below average at this installation. I have nine. I am also your boss, and you are screaming at me."
"But it isn't fair!"
"Right. But then nobody ever claimed that the Service was fair-or that the universe was either, for that matter. This is your first day here. If you have a problem, you may tell me about it. But if you raise your voice one more time, I will bounce you off three of these walls before you hit the floor. One of my doctorates is in martial arts. Clear?"
"Now, what precisely is your problem?" He leaned back, his fingertips touching to form an arch.
"Everything!" she shouted, and then remembered her situation and started again quietly. "This is all a mistake. I shouldn't be in twentieth-century Poland. My field is ancient Greece. And this fat forty-year-old body! Doctrine is that one should start out a tour of duty as a teenager! And having to tend tables at a bar! And-"
"Hold it and keep your voice down! Now, you say there's been a mistake. Let's check the record." He touched four nondescript spots on his battered wooden desk, and a display appeared in front of him, individual letters glowing white in the air.
"Hmmm… born in North America, 62,218 B.C. … approved for child rearing; eleven children… retired at forty-five, attended Museum University 62,219 B.C. to 62,192 B.C. … doctorates in medicine, Slavic languages, psychology, and Greek literature… accepted into the Historical Corps…"
"First assignment, Periclean Athens! God, what luck! Do you realize that I have twice petitioned to vacation in Periclean Athens and have been turned down both times? More people want to visit than there are natives in the city. And you get it as a first assignment!"
"Well, sir, my usual body isn't this flabby mess. And if you know the right people-"
"Humph. Then I recommend a program of diet and exercise. In any event, your record there was less than outstanding… meddling in local politics, interfering with an assassination."
"But a hetaera was supposed to be interested in politics. "
"Your examiners felt otherwise. Well, let's see… After forty one years in Athens, you returned to the university and obtained a doctorate in ancient Egyptian languages. *. were turned down four times on assignments in the ninth through thirteenth dynasties, respectively… eleven other requests denied… eventually you volunteered for an open assignment and got twentieth-century Poland."
"Faced with this assignment, you requested the shortest possible tour of duty. It happens that your predecessor served twenty-seven years of a fifty-one-year tour, then quit."
"She quit? But that means-"
"Right. She was dismissed from the corps. What she does with the rest of her life is up to her. Most quitters end up drinking themselves to death out of boredom, although I hear the anthropology people are always looking for folks to track the migration patterns of Homo erectus."
"Living off the land in prehistoric Africa?" She shuddered.
"Right. Now, I don't see where you have a legitimate bitch. You volunteered for an open assignment and lucked out to the extent of indoor plumbing. You wanted a short assignment, and this one is only twenty-four years long. It obviously requires that your body match that of your predecessor, and the job fits nicely with your doctorate in Slavic languages."
"I got that when I was trying for a slot in the court of Casimir the Great."
He threw his hands up. "Damn it, young lady! Isn't it about time you grew up? We are out here writing the definitive history of mankind! The glory spots are few and far between. Most of it is plain, dirty grunt work, doing a mundane job well. And right now, your job involves serving drinks to a drunken tourist." He tapped a few places on his desk, and the display changed. "His drink is getting low. You'd better get back out there. I see that you haven't loaded the capsule yet."
"Loaded what capsule?"
"You didn't read your duty sheet? Damn, but you're inefficient! We are scheduled to ship nine tons of barley to the thirteenth century at 0227 tonight. You are to load it into the capsule."
"So now I'm a stevedore as well as a bar wench?"
"You think filling out government forms is a more pleasant occupation? Get out of here and get your ass to work!"
She stomped out, and he returned to his stack of forms. What on Earth do they do with all of these things? They can't possibly have time to read them all. What is the psychology of it? Hmm — "The Psychology of Governmental Forms in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe"… There's a paper in that!..
Chastised, the waitress went about her duties in a black humor. She swore bitterly as she manhandled sacks of grain onto a primitive lift truck, too angry to notice that the slots in the wooden skids under the sacks matched the forks on the truck. "Damn! Not even a bloody antigrav field! As if the primitives could understand it even if they could find this place!"
Working in that ineffective manner, with runs up two flights of steps every fifteen minutes to check on her lone customer, it took her two hours to complete the loading. By then her uniform was torn, her nylons were in shreds, and she'd broken the heel from one of her shoes.
"Ridiculous clothing!" she muttered as she stomped up to the main floor in her stocking feet. In her anger she turned off the lights behind her but forgot to close the doors.
The High Tatras are magnificent in the early fall. I had arranged to spend my yearly vacation backpacking in the mountains south of Cracow, and for the most part my timing had been excellent.
The weather had been perfect, the color change was at its peak, andsince it was just past the usual tourist season-I had whole mountains to myself. The farmers were getting in the harvest, and all the children were back in school, All the teachers were back in school, too, which was unfortunate. I usually scored pretty well with schoolteachers.
Vacationing, I generally ended up with some agreeable female companionship, but such had been sadly lacking this trip. I had been three weeks without, and frankly, my horns were showing.
Well. My allotted two-week holiday from the Katowice Machinery Works was almost up, and there was one small errand I had yet to perform. I lived with my mother, and she had read a magazine article about the Zakopane Agricultural and Horticultural Research Station. I was going to be near Zakopane, so it seemed reasonable to her that I should visit the station and buy her some seeds.
Just why seeds purchased at the ZAHRST should be any different from seeds purchased in Katowice was not explained. Neither was her sudden interest in gardening, although I suspect that she had visions of me in the backyard, hoeing up carrots, instead of being out with my friends. In any event, to keep peace in the family I had promised to buy some seeds.
The station was served by a hiking trail as well as a road. I took the trail because the pleasures of walking are degraded by road dust and noise and because I am not friendly with the fat, motorized tourist who says, "You mean you walked up here?"
The store was empty when I arrived. Empty, except for a few million seeds. It is incredible how many different kinds of plants there are. One rack had seeds for more than eighty different varieties of roses. Another had almost as many kinds of beets, lettuce, and strawberries.
The prices on everything were low-trivial, reallyso the thought hit me: The old girl wants seeds? Well, she's going to get seeds! Thousands of them! Not that I'm going to stick any of them into the ground!