Featured June 3, 2021 Science Fiction small town stranger survival Travel

Bid Time Return

By Stephen Dedman
May 30, 2021 · 3,158 words · 12 minutes

Photo by Claudio Schwarz via Unsplash.

From the editor:

In a lonely post-apocalyptic backwater, residents turn back the calendar every year, hoping to reach happier times—and they don’t take kindly to suspicious outsiders, like Rob.

Author Stephen Dedman has been publishing short stories and novels for more than twenty years. He’s been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award, and many more.


From the author: There are many ways to travel, depending on where you want to go. Or when.


BID TIME RETURN

by Stephen Dedman

 

 

            The Greyhound groaned and shuddered as it pulled up outside the roadhouse, and the driver turned his head to look at Rob. “You sure you want to get out here?”

            Rob looked through the window at the run-down building. There was a little light in the windows, flickering slightly, and a horse tethered to the railing. His night eyes made out an ‘Open’ sign in the door. “Twenty minutes.”

            “Okay. Good luck.”

            “Thanks.” The Greyhound’s wheezing door opened just long enough for him to step outside before immediately shutting the world out, and Rob hurried across the muddy ground which had once been a parking lot towards the building. A bell tinkled as he opened the roadhouse door, and a few of the candles flickered in the draft.

            A woman in a faded gingham dress was peering through the window at the bus, and she turned to stare at Rob. He closed the door before any of the candles were extinguished. There were a few antique kerosene lamps providing steadier lighting, enough for him to recognize the tiny flag stuck on the old-fashioned cash register. The place smelled mostly of smoke and bacon grease and ersatz coffee, pretty much as he’d expected, with traces of other smells he didn’t immediately recognize. “Coffee?” the woman asked.

            “Please.”

            She peered at the window again. “Nobody else getting off?”

            Her accent was strange, but not so thick that he couldn’t understand it. “Everyone else is asleep.”

            “You the driver?”

            “No.”

            “He asleep too?”

            “He brought a thermos.”

            She poured him a cup of ersatz and handed it to him as he sat on one of the much-scuffed stools at the counter. The stuff, probably made from acorns, tasted as bad as he’d expected, and he looked around for a sugar dispenser. He noticed a calendar on the wall, put the cup down on the saucer, and walked over to stare at it. “1960?”

            The woman looked down at the counter, and didn’t reply.

“That has to be at least a century before you were born.”

            “You haven’t been here before, have you?”

            “No.” He looked more closely at the calendar. The numbers on the grid were hand-written, and the picture above it was a daybill from an old movie, Rio Bravo. At least the month was correct. “Not that I remember, anyway. How long have you lived here?”

            “All my life,” she said neutrally.

            He walked back to the counter, sat down, and looked at her more closely. Even allowing for the poor lighting, she looked to be in her twenties. Her hair was dark, her face as pale as his, her eyes dull and her hands rough. “Ever wanted to travel?”

            “We’re okay here. Guess the hills keep the radiation or whatever out, and there haven’t been any raiders come by since I was a little girl. Sheriff and his deputies are good shots, and they make their own ammo.” She looked past him at the bus. “That going to be stopping here regular now?”

            “I don’t know. I think they changed the route because of some trouble somewhere on the road.” He looked around the badly lit diner. “Maybe bring you some business.”

            She shrugged.

            “Can you tell me about the calendar?”

            “It was the preacher’s idea, I think. He was the last sheriff, this one’s father. Thought that if we went back before things went bad…”

            “You went back to 1960?”

            “Been going back a year every year. First January, it’s going to be 1959, ‘til we get back to –“ She looked up as the door opened, and a burly man in khaki walked in, shaking drops of water from one hand, a kerosene lamp in the other.

            “You nearly out of paper,” the man said, then noticed Rob. He glanced over his shoulder at the bus, and blinked. “Who you?”

            “Robert Andrews.”

            The man, who wore a brass star on his pocket and a huge revolver in a steel-lined holster on his hip, nodded, and plonked himself down on a stool six feet from Rob. “You came here on that?”

            “Yeah.”

            “You lost?”

            “I think they had to change the route. Some trouble on the road.”

            “Uh-huh. Where you headed?”

            “North.”

            “Where from?”

            “New Orleans.”

            “What you do there?”

            “Visiting family,” Rob lied, then turned back to the waitress. “Thanks for the coffee. How much I owe you?”

            “Dollar.”

            Rob nodded, and climbed down from the stool so he could reach into his boot. A lot of places the bus had stopped had taken to printing their own scrip, presumably because their old greenbacks had become too tattered and worn from being handed around to be told apart. The sheriff cleared his throat, and Rob looked up into the barrel of his revolver. “Nice and slow there, partner.”

            “Just getting my money.”

            “Out of your boot?”

            “Safest place to carry it.”

            “Huh. You don’t got anything else in there? Gun? Knife?”

            “No.”

            “Drugs?”

            “No.”

            The sheriff jerked his head towards the door. “Not in your luggage?”

            “No.”

            “Mind if I search?”

            “Sheriff in the last town already did. Called it civil forfeiture. We managed to keep the bags and most of our clothes, and any cash we’d managed to hide.”

            “Huh.” The sheriff looked at Rob’s face, decided he was telling the truth. “Bad luck.”

            “Yeah.”

            “How much cash?”

            Rob sighed inaudibly and pulled the thin sheaf out of his well-travelled hiking boot, glad his feet were too small for the sheriff to bother stealing his shoes. He separated one dollar from the sheaf and dropped it on the counter, then handed the rest to the man, who pocketed it without counting. “Anything in the other boot?”

            “No.”

            “Will I find anything if I do a cavity search?”

            “Sure, but it won’t be anything you’d want.”

            The sheriff smiled slightly. “Funny man.” He turned slightly as they heard a rumbling sound from the bus, and Rob asked, “May I go now?”

            “I still got some questions,” said the sheriff. “What you doing in town, anyway?”

            “The bus stopped here, and I thought I’d get a coffee.”

            “Not selling anything?”

            “Nothing to sell.”

            “What’s that in your pocket?”

            “Just a book,” Rob replied. He’d been careful not to carry an e-reader or any sort of computer. He unzipped his much-patched jacket and pulled out the old cover-less paperback. The sheriff raised his greying sandy eyebrows as he tried to read the title page by the flickering lights.  “The Testaments, by Margaret… this a new translation or something?”

            “Fairly new. After 1960, anyway.”

            The sheriff handed the book back. “What’s Mae been telling you?”

            “She hadn’t had time to tell me much. Anyway, my bus –“

            “Siddown. I’ll tell you when you can go, and either the bus’ll wait or it won’t. Why’d you come here?”

            “I told you. I’m just passing through, and I thought I’d get a cup of coffee.”

            The Greyhound blasted its horn, but the sheriff ignored it. “Where’s the bus going?”

            “North.”

            “Hasn’t been a bus stop here in so long I can’t remember. What’s it use for fuel? I heard all the oil was gone.”

            “I don’t know. Ethanol? Biodiesel? I’m not a mechanic.”

            “Is it coming back?”

            “I don’t know that either. This may be the new route, but I don’t think even the driver knows for sure.”

            “You’re from up north?”

            “Detroit.”

            “What’re you doing down here? I don’t just mean in this town.”

            “I was visiting family in New Orleans, hoping for a job. They didn’t have one for me, so I’m going home.”

            “You’re not selling drugs?”

            “I’m not selling anything.”

            The bus began pulling out of the parking lot, slowly. The sheriff shrugged, and kept the pistol pointed at Rob’s chest. “You a spy?”

            “What? No! I was just curious about the calendar –“ He bit his lip. “You get a lot of spies here?”

            “I’ll ask the questions, asshole. We got a good place here, nice and safe, got everything we need, and we’ve had trouble with raiders. You might be scouting for them.”

            “I swear to you, I’m not –“

            The sheriff shrugged. “Maybe not. You want to strip search here in front of Mae, or at the station? Station’s a mite warmer,” he added, almost kindly, as the bus drove out onto the road.

            “Am I under arrest?”

            “That’s for me to decide.”

            “What for? Not carrying a gun?”

            “That’ll do for starters. The station, or here?”

 

            Rob opened his eyes as he smelled the ersatz coffee, and saw a skinny young man walking towards his cell. “Mornin’,” the deputy said cheerfully. “You sleep okay?”

            “Can’t complain.” He looked the man up and down. Similar uniform to the sheriff’s, down to the cowboy boots and the big single-action revolver, but a smaller badge. Dark hair, and looked enough like Mae at the roadhouse to be her brother. “Are you going to let me go?”

            “Not up to me. Sheriff says you were asking Mae if she’d ever wanted to travel. He don’t take kindly to folks trying to steal our women; says he’s seen it before, the women believe your lies about the rest of the world, all the sex machines and stuff, and never come back.”

            “I wasn’t try – I was just curious about this place. Why are you trying to go backwards in time?”

            The deputy handed him the ersatz. “Way the preacher used to tell it,” he said, sitting down on the sheriff’s desk, “God’s giving us a second chance. I mean, sure, none of the wars yet was actually Armageddon, Jesus never came back that we ever heard of, and there’s got to be some reason we’re still here. I mean, we’re good God-fearing people here but there wasn’t any rapture or nothing, so somewhere we went wrong, we don’t know exactly when, but if we keep going back in time, we can maybe find it and try again.”

            “By changing the year on your calendars?”

            The deputy chuckled. “Oh, it’s not just that. People believe it’s a year earlier, maybe they behave like it, sin less, get back in the Lord’s good graces. And we also getting rid of the stuff that must have corrupted us, steered us wrong.”

            Rob sipped at the coffee and grimaced. The hundreds of post-apocalyptic preachers who’d been speaking hellfire to packed tents in this part of the world tended to disagree on when the world had actually ended: most maintained it was 1999 or 2000, but some said 2001, or that the year of Jesus’ birth had been miscalculated and the millennium had happened in 2008, or even later. Some even blamed the robots. “Getting rid of what? Books? Music?”

            “Well, we don’t have many books… I mean, we only need the one, right? But yeah, music, but also things that were invented that might have tempted us. Sure, I was disappointed when we had to throw out the Atari, and then the VCR Joe found in his cellar – though true to tell, most of the tapes we was allowed to watch were wearing out anyway.”

            “The television and radio don’t get a signal?”

            “Preacher fixed them so they wouldn’t get anything new from outside.”

            “Ah.”

            “But he figured that doing it one year at a time would make it easier to find the turning point. The Golden Age.”

            Rob risked another sip of the coffee. “I don’t suppose you have any cream? Or milk?”

            “Cow died in ’67.”

            “Pity. Do you have any honey?”

            “You got any money?”

            “Not any more. Your sheriff went through all of my pockets pretty thoroughly.” He blinked. “I’m glad my clothes are fairly new. Does it matter if the notes were printed after 1960?”

            The deputy stared at him. “I hadn’t thought… I’ll ask him that. Thanks; you might have saved us.”

            “Don’t mention it,” Rob muttered as the young man walked out. “Any time.”

 

            The sheriff returned an hour later and threw the banknotes in the approximate direction of the cell, through few of them made it past the bars. “Smartass,” he grunted. “Zac’s going around telling everyone to check their money. Thanks to you, we’ll probably have to burn all of it.”

            “What do you even need money for, around here?”

            “What are you, some sort of commie?”

            “Just curious.”

            “Yeah, well, you know what curiosity did to the cat.” He took a keychain from his desk drawer and walked over to the cell door. “Okay, smartass, on your feet.”

            “Where are we going?”

            “You’re going north. I’m going to make sure you’re pointed in the right direction.”

            Rob swung his feet off the bunk, knelt down to pick up a twenty dollar bill off the floor, then stood. “Okay, let’s go.”

 

            Rob had walked for nearly four miles since they’d last seen a building (a church which also served as a scout hall and schoolroom), with the sheriff riding behind him. “Okay, that’s far enough,” said the sheriff, drawing his revolver. “Sorry it has to be this way, son, but my duty’s to my town.”

            “Well, I guessed it wasn’t to the truth.”

            “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

            “You do know there wasn’t actually a war, don’t you? Your kids might not, but I’m pretty sure you do.”

            “What?”

            “I mean, okay, there have been wars, but not here, not for more than a century. I don’t know what your preacher was calling the end of the world, whether it was the Reston virus or the mines closing, or tobacco and oxy being banned, or the election in –“

            “Shut up!”

            “Sure, not everything’s gone smoothly in the rest of the world, but people survived and are mostly doing okay, and technology’s advanced, not gone backwards. After the outbreak, we let you keep the quarantine regulations in place long after they’d stopped being necessary because that’s how you voted, and we left you alone with your post-apocalypse fantasies because you wanted to be left alone and no-one needed to come here… until people started wondering how your kids were doing. Especially the women.”

            “You came here to steal them!”

            “We came to offer them a choice.”

            The sheriff spat. “You people always did talk a lot about choice when what you meant was killing millions of unborn –“

            “Dozens.”

            “Huh?”

            “Okay, some years it’s a few hundred, accidents still happen, but the abortion rate’s been dropping fairly steadily for decades. At least, it has in the parts of the country where it’s legal and reliably reported. It didn’t take a miracle, didn’t even take any big technological advances – though they helped a little. Mostly it was just better education, better access to healthcare, better childcare. Look, I know I’m not going to persuade you –“

            “Nah,” said the sheriff. “Your persuading days are over,” and he fired. The bullet hit Rob in the chest, silencing him. Rob blinked once, then began running towards the sheriff, who swore, and fired again, this time hitting Rob in the thigh. Rob continued to stagger forward as best he could, and the sheriff cocked the pistol and aimed at Rob’s head. Rob raised his hand, hoping the sheriff was now in range of the sonic stunner in his forearm, and fired. The horse fell, pinning its rider to the muddy roadway, and the bullet whistled past Rob’s ear. Rob aimed at the sheriff’s head, fired the stunner again, then collapsed by the side of the road and called for the bus.

 

            The sheriff was coming around by the time the bus pulled up, but Rob had taken his revolver and emptied it before throwing it a safe distance down the road. The bus door opened, and the driver hurried out to help Rob inside. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. “Finding a place to turn around –“

            “Yeah.”

            The driver stared at the sheriff, who was trying to pull his leg out from under the still unconscious horse. “You had to stun him?” he asked. “You must be getting rusty.”

            “Very funny. They replaced all the steel in me years ago. Some of these sheriffs still have metal detectors, even if they mostly just use them as billyclubs.” He sat down as the doors wheezed shut, and removed his pants so that he could look at the wound. Despite the synthetic spider silk lining his silicon skin, the impact had cracked the carbon fibre ‘bone’ and the whole leg would have to be replaced, so any more stops were out of the question. He unzipped his jacket and removed the paperback, looking at the huge bullet hole. “Sam?”

            “Yeah?”

            “Remind me to take a thicker book next time,” he said, probing the chest wound to make sure no vital components had been destroyed.

            The driver chuckled. “This is my last trip, remember? I’ll have done my community service and they can take this fucking thing off my ankle.”

            “You won’t miss the thrill of all this?”

            Sam laughed out loud as the Greyhound continued to reverse down the muddy road.  “Y’know,” he said, “I’m not sure you understand as humans as well as you think you do.”

            The robot shrugged, then glanced over his shoulder at the passengers they’d collected since New Orleans; some of them were dozing, some staring out the windows, some watching the old black and white science fiction movie showing on the bus’s television.

            A few minutes later, they reached the wired highway and Sam was able to turn the bus around to head north, then switch the autopilot on. “Mind if I grab a nap?” he said. “I stayed awake all night in case anything happened to you.”

            “Sure,” said Rob. “Thanks. And you can turn off the sound effects, too. We don’t need to fool anyone out here.”

            “Oh. Right.” Sam flicked a switch and closed his eyes, and the electric motor purred softly as they headed north.

This story originally appeared in Aurealis.


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Stephen Dedman

Science fiction and urban fantasy author who unwittingly became a horror writer.

2 Comments
  • Rob Gerrand
    June 1, 8:58am

    Great story!

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  • James Van Pelt
    June 4, 5:47pm

    Fun story, Stephen.

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